Writing About Camp is Not Camp

Camp: An Introduction by E

Each year on the first Monday of May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City presents an annual fundraising gala for its exhibitions. Hosted by the editor-in-chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour, and exclusively attended by celebrities and pop culture tastemakers, the Met Gala serves as the opening celebrations of the Costume Institute’s annual exhibition. Uniquely themed each year, this year’s exhibition, Camp: Notes on Fashion, is this first that is entirely derived from one text as source material. Inspired by Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”, this year’s exhibition explores the esoteric, controversial, and fabulous artifice of the elusive Camp aesthetic.

No doubt by now you have scrolled through the outrageous (and at times shockingly disappointing) looks from celebrities on the pink carpet of the 2019 Met Gala. Told to dress in their best Camp, the likes of Cardi B and Cole Sprouse and the rest of 2019’s favorite celebrities presented their takes on Camp. Obviously, the interpretation of Camp is broad and varied, but there were many who missed the mark so dreadfully. (CC: the straights, Rami Malek, et al). Among Boshemia favorites this year were the costumes of Billy Porter, Janelle Monáe, Lady Gaga, Florence Welch, Ezra Miller, Gemma Chan, and Darren Chris.

Billy Porter in his “Sun God” outfit designed by The Blonds. Photographed by John Schearer.

Billy Porter in his “Sun God” outfit designed by The Blonds. Photographed by John Schearer.

Thus these are the celebrity interpretations of Camp fashion. But beyond these public displays of theatrical dress, how can we interpret Camp? What is Camp, anyway? Let us preface this in saying that writing about Camp — acknowledging it academically and publicly — is the least Camp thing we can do. But for your edification, we’ll dip our toes into the controversial.

According to the curators of “Camp: Notes on Fashion”:

“Through more than 250 objects dating from the seventeenth century to the present, The Costume Institute's spring 2019 exhibition will explore the origins of camp's exuberant aesthetic. Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" provides the framework for the exhibition, which examines how the elements of irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration are expressed in fashion.”

These notes from the curators became a sort of guide for the guests of the Met Gala. A few key images from the exhibition catalog have been made available online as well, such as the now ubiquitous Camp symbol, the flamingo ensemble by Bertrand Guyon. But beyond the exhibit catalog, let’s look to the source text from Sontag.

American novelist, filmmaker, and culture critic Susan Sontag wrote an iconic essay in 1964, “Notes on ‘Camp’”, and it soon became a definitive, revealing, if not scandalous account of Camp culture. According to Sontag, the essence of Camp “is its love of the unnatural; of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even.”

By no means a exhaustive guide, here is a primer on Camp, according to Sontag. She defines Camp in brief as “a certain mode of aestheticism...one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.” In her essay, she goes on to include a list of what she calls random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp:

   Zuleika Dobson

   Tiffany lamps

   Scopitone films

   The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA

   The Enquirer, headlines and stories

   Aubrey Beardsley drawings

   Swan Lake

   Bellini's operas

   Visconti's direction of Salome and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

   certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards

   Schoedsack's King Kong

    the Cuban pop singer La Lupe

   Lynn Ward's novel in woodcuts, God's Man

   the old Flash Gordon comics

   women's clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.)

   the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett

   stag movies seen without lust

At the heart of Camp is subversion, queerness, and performance. While these above references from Sontag belong to a certain corner of 1960’s cultural history, we cofounders of Boshemia — E, Q, L — have updated the aesthetic sensibility of Camp to include a contemporary relevance.

From “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” Bertrand Guyon (French, born 1965) for House of Schiaparelli (French, founded 1927). Ensemble, fall/winter 2018–19 haute couture. Courtesy of Schiaparelli. Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019.

From “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” Bertrand Guyon (French, born 1965) for House of Schiaparelli (French, founded 1927). Ensemble, fall/winter 2018–19 haute couture. Courtesy of Schiaparelli. Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019.

Camp Today, According to L

Camp is an earnest, sincere flamboyance. It is a full commitment to a bit, it is counterculture, it exists at the very peripheries, at the exact intersection of the very furthest boundaries of taste, art, theatre, culture. It is irreverent and reverent concurrently.

A Revised List of Camp Cultural Things:

John Waters (literally the godfather of camp in the mainstream — the pink flamingo décor of the Met Gala is almost definitely an homage to his 1972 movie Pink Flamingos) (he also did Hairspray which is camp 101)

Dolly Parton (& tbh a lot of nu country)

Rhinestones (see above)

Carry On films

Most musical theatre tbh (esp Cats sorry Q, and Hairspray as above)

B movies (Rocky Horror being the camp satire on them)

Gothic literature (don't try to tell me Dracula and Frankenstein and Ann Radcliffe novels aren't camp)

80’s romcoms / cult classics (The Witches, Grease, Back to the Future, Molly Ringwold, Clueless)

Manila Luzon's period dress (honestly Manila Luzon, period)

Sasha Velour = high camp

Manila Luzon period dress for  Ru Paul’s Drag Race , January 2018.

Manila Luzon period dress for Ru Paul’s Drag Race, January 2018.

Hilariously, if you take any of these super camp items too far and too heavy handed they can easily end up super str8. I guess the magic is in the deftly-applied craftsmanship.

Camp Isn’t Always Complicated, According to Q

Camp is also bright yellow trousers in a hospital.

Illustration of Q by Boshemia designer Becky J, as seen in   Boshemia Magazine: Power  .

Illustration of Q by Boshemia designer Becky J, as seen in Boshemia Magazine: Power.

This above treatise on Camp by we Boshemia cofounders is no complete guide, but at least provides a glimpse into the world of Camp. If attempting to dress Camp, or embody the aesthetic in any fashion, lean into your most theatrical, subversive, and queer instincts, and then go the extra mile. After all, as Sontag wrote, Camp is “good because it’s awful.” Remember that, if nothing else.

You can see Camp: Notes on Fashion on display at the Met Fifth Avenue until September 8, 2019.