I can’t have been the only one who opened up Instagram on Tuesday morning and thought, “What in God’s name is everyone wearing?!” If you’re confused about this year’s Met Gala theme, then you’re certainly not alone! What exactly is camp?
Wikipedia defines it as “an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value.” However, the concept of camp actually covers a huge range of ideas, getting inspiration not just from fashion, but also from furniture, novels, films, TV shows, music, and theatre.
This year’s Met Gala theme stems from the essay, “Notes on Camp” by Susan Sontag. The points listed in the essay are regarded as the best definition of camp, encompassing every facet of this aesthetic. In this article I’ll try to give an overview of the essay, using notable camp icons and designers to illustrate some of the main concepts.
Viktor & Rolf; Susan Sontag; Schiaparelli
The idea of camp perhaps began during the reign of French King Louis XIV. When the palace of Versailles was established as the residence of the French royal court, the residents developed their own distinct aesthetic. Marie Antoinette epitomised this style. The clothes were extravagant – characterised by large, unnatural silhouettes, big powdered wigs, and makeup for both men and women. Their lifestyles were equally excessive – time was spent eating lavish rich banquets, playing with lapdogs, and watching opera. Yet underneath the makeup powder were symptoms of STIs, and outside the palace were the beginnings of the French Revolution. Life at Versailles – with its ugly underbelly – was where camp really began.
Modern campy fashion often takes inspiration from 18th century French royalty, satirising its glamorous greed and self-righteousness. Models for designers like Gaultier, Dior and Mugler often walk the runway with an air of arrogance. Common motifs include corsets, exposed breasts, crowns, capes, ballgowns, frills and lace, and heavy jewels.
Christian Lacroix; Marie Antoinette; Thierry Mugler
Moreover, the camp sensibility is fixated on artificiality. Susan Sontag describes camp as a way of being; it treats every person as an object playing a role. For this reason, camp fashion often resembles costumes rather than normal clothing. In addition, camp fashion typically includes references to operas, ballets, and other performance arts that bring fantasy to life. This can be seen in collections from the likes of Christian Lacroix, or Mugler. The extravagance of campy fashion shows reached their peak in the early 90s, where the sets were elaborate and theatrical, the shows resembling performances rather than simply showcasing clothing. Typical motifs in this aspect of camp include tulle, wings, head dresses, dance shoes, and props.
Clockwise: Jean Paul Gaultier; Dior by John Galliano; Gaultier; Mugler; Mugler
During the 20th century, camp began to grow and evolve – especially in the USA. From the 20s to the 90s, American pop culture spread across the world. Thus, today, Americana could be considered an important part of camp, due to its blend of consumerism and nostalgia. Jeremy Scott’s Moschino really exemplifies these ideas, with its collections based on McDonald’s, My Little Pony, and Barbie. Christian Siriano also takes inspiration from American pop icons like Andy Warhol, while Viktor & Rolf once designed a piece based on a Coke bottle.
Clockwise: Viktor & Rol;, Moschino by Jeremy Scott; Moschino; Moschino; Vivienne Westwood
Right from the beginning, artificiality has been a key aspect of camp. Thus, motifs that can be seen frequently in modern camp fashion are toys, fast food, sweets, Disney, and logos. Cowboy hats and business suits with huge shoulder pads are also quintessentially camp, because they represent American stereotypes. Camp designers also like to reference specific icons, including Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Cher, and Prince. References to these camp performers helped to blur the line between costume and couture in the late 20th century.
Prince; Cher, Elton John, and Diana Ross
Furthermore, camp and the LGBT community go hand-in-hand. To be ‘campy’ is to embrace your sexuality, yet also your childish side. This is something that drag embodies. With its makeup, costumes, and performance, drag contributes greatly to the fun, silly side of the camp aesthetic. But despite the fun image drag has, it is also rooted in revolution. Drag began as a way for people to explore their sexuality and make a political statement, while still performing and earning money. Influences from LGBT culture can be seen in camp fashion through motifs like big wigs, plastic jewellery, platform heels, and form-fitting outfits. For this reason, camp evolved to become an exaggerated performance of gender roles. However, in recent decades androgyny has also become associated with camp fashion. Modern camp designers like Marc Jacobs, McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood tend to be less gender-conforming with their clothing. Overall, the LGBT community has influenced camp to represent freedom of expression.
RuPaul; Freddie Mercury
In the 50 years since Susan Sontag wrote her essay, culture and society has changed drastically. Technology has enabled designers to bring fantasy to reality, whether it be through LED or 3D printing. We saw this on this year’s pink carpet with pieces by Iris van Herpen, Tommy Hilfiger, and Zac Posen. The internet, in particular, has changed how culture is spread. We now have faster access to information from across the world, and this is likely to play a crucial part in how camp evolves in the future.
Jordan Dunn in Zac Posen; Zendaya in Tommy Hilfiger; Jordan Roth in Iris van Herpen
Campness has some interesting connotations. Is it a good thing? …Or is being called ‘campy’ an insult? This conflict in itself is a vital aspect of camp; campy things are things that give us joy, but the mainstream sometimes consider to be ‘shameful’. Camp resists rigid social expectations. It parodies everything from the celebrated – wealth, youth, and colours – to the shunned – sexuality, greed, and excess. Sontag argued that despite its grotesque, shameful moments, pop culture should still be enjoyed. In conclusion, don’t be afraid to wear your ugliest Christmas jumpers until next year’s theme is announced!
You can read Susan Sontag’s full 1964 essay here: https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf
All images from Getty Images