Since the Met Gala earlier this year, titled “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the question of what, exactly, is camp has resulted in a slew of opinion pieces, all in search of a clear definition.
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The event segued into an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, highlighting its supposed origins to current fashion designers who master in camp.
In the fashion world, though, “camp” tends to be ambiguous. On one hand, we think collars – the double-notch variety currently in style, to be specific – or we view it as inspiration – look at all of the outdoor-inspired puffers, anoraks, and other gorpcore fare from the past three years.
Beyond its on-the-nose definition, when does fashion – and pop culture, for that matter – veer into camp territory?
A Barebones Definition of “Camp”
At its core, free of context, camp stands in for an exaggerated, kitschy amalgamation that’s simultaneously ironic, over the top, and intentionally tacky. From here, though, a creator may opt to make something campy.
In a fashion context, think the meme-adorned gowns from Viktor & Rolf or, what was initially conceived with straight-faced seriousness, cult favorites like Showgirls and The Room. All of which have earned a reputation with time.
The 2019 Met Gala’s execution, on the other hand, turned out spotty. It was co-chaired by Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Serena Williams, and Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele.
Clearly the creative team behind it was selected strictly for their pop culture output. Gaga for her music videos and early-career red carpet looks, and after Star is Born have turned somewhat tame. Michele for overtaking Gucci with exaggerated retro silhouettes, a blurring of gender lines, and candy-hued colors. Finally, Styles – not the most direct choice – for his farm animal and severed head-themed campaigns for Gucci.
Yet, based on red carpet photos, some got it. See Billy Porter’s Sun God-inspired getup or Cardi B’s literal red carpet dress. Others turned the extravagance down or relied strictly on wink-and-you’ll-catch-it irony. Neither is truly camp on its own, which brings us to…
The Origins of “Camp”
“Camp” in this definition first appeared in a 1909 version of the Oxford English Dictionary – where, in a form that would be considered offensive today, the term was not only associated with all things flamboyant and theatrical but also the effeminate and homosexual.
The term officially entered the pop culture lexicon in the 1960s, through Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” that lists all things camp in its playfulness and frivolousness directly in the face of seriousness.
Sontag further defines it as something outlandishly aspirational – if it doesn’t go far enough, regardless of execution, the result is simply bad or mediocre.
Looking back through history “camp” is said to have started in the 17th century – specifically to Louis XIV and the ornately decorated palace at Versailles. As one example of the period’s excess, look to the high-heeled shoe. The shoe while it increased a man’s stature and thus his authoritative presence, offered little in the way of walkability.
In fact, “camp” linguistically may date back to the older French phrase “se camper” or to posture. In today’s speak you’d call it “peacocking.”
Camp in the Modern Sense
Modern camp sensibilities are fairly removed from Versailles and even Sontag’s work. Instead they are from the 20th century’s underground cultures – specifically queer and black culture from Josephine Baker’s outlandish getups to ‘70s and ‘80s gender-bending performers like David Bowie and Grace Jones to multi-decade spanning drag culture.
To sum it up, nothing is subdued, and everything has to be referential – to the present or something iconic – all while being pulled to extremes. Through this definition President Donald Trump, a former reality TV persona who is unaware of his tacky appearance and repetitive, hyperbolic way of speaking, falls within the boundaries of “camp” – although likely unintentionally so.
Then, there’s forced camp. For instance, the much-maligned Netflix series Insatiable attempts to but doesn’t go far enough in parodying diet and “revenge body” culture. The series tries to be relevant but plays it safe to appease and avoid offending large swaths of people, only to settle slightly away from the center and into, per Sontag’s definition, mediocrity.
Forced camp, though, can work, if the extremes are broad enough. As with the Real Housewives series everyone’s in on the joke and understands the formula. So much so that being unwilling to brawl, throw champagne, or make a B-grade novelty single disqualifies you from the cast. And, in this case, all the gossip and fighting turn it into “so bad, it’s good” TV.
Camp in Fashion
Within this framework, much of what we’ve seen on runways and in lookbooks – both streetwear and menswear – qualifies as “camp” to some degree.
The Exaggerated Silhouette
Big picture, everything’s larger and visually more drawn out. Two years ago, we started spotting longer, boxier, and wider-cut pants. As of this season, this aesthetic has migrated to blazers, with shape-enveloping fits, angular shoulders, and double-breast details that fold across the body.
The Ironic Trend
It’s one thing to find some 20-year-old high-waist, tapered jeans at a thrift store, and it’s another to cop that silhouette and view it through a distorted, funhouse-esque lens.
Balenciaga, Vetements, and to a lesser extent, Gucci and Off-White borrowed these mundanely ‘90s fits. They fused them with the exaggerated silhouette and created normcore. This eventually evolved into the chunky-sneaker, anorak-sporting, washed-jeans wearing “dad fashion.”
Yet, while they started as a strictly performative concept, these fits have taken over. Now, most camp shirts and blazers have oversized cuts, skinny jeans are fading out, and suits themselves have a bit more room to move.
Appropriating Base Concepts
For decades, there was high art, and there were plebian, pedestrian concepts: It’s the Great American Novel, versus the drugstore romance paperback. Fashion – and menswear particularly – has blurred the boundary between the supposed “high” styles and every day, to the point that no one blinks an eye spotting streetwear in runway presentations.
Less direct, there’s appropriating “low” consumer culture for inspiration. Take for instance the graffiti, fast food, and carwash imagery that makes its way into Jeremy Scott’s presentations for Moschino, or Vetements deliberately using fast food uniform cuts for its Fall/Winter 2019 presentation.
Less obviously, the cowboy suit – think Lil Nas X in “Old Town Road” – is no longer restricted to country music culture. In 2018 both the western shirt and cowboy boot made returns in luxurious, heavily patterned forms.