I am either rather late or rather early to the Camp wagon: a few months have passed since this years’ Met Gala theme was announced, and there are still a few months to go till we see fashion’s cream of the crop climbing those hallowed stairs as they fiddle and fawn over the elaborate creations they have donned. However, I recently read Susan Sontag’s seminal Notes on Camp and – since Camp aesthetics are really having a moment - I have taken it upon myself to ponder the topic’s resonance and relevance today.
For those of you who have a vague idea of what Camp means but need some clarification, this is where this article and I come in (And yes, Camp must be capitalised, Sontag said so). Many before me have explored the concept, and none better than Sontag’s handy dandy 58 point guide which defined the creative movement and sensibility.
As a concept or movement, Camp is intimately bound up with aesthetics, yet it is more of a sensibility than an articulated theme or prescribed style. The term is derived from the french se camper, meaning to posture or pose in an exaggerated way. The statement which I think gets to the crux of the matter is that “the essence of Camp is the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. This essence can manifest itself as an artistic practice, performance, attitude or style, but most importantly it is a way of viewing the world. A “comic vision” that allows you to make light of the serious, and appreciate outré and guache aspects that might normally be deemed distasteful or “too much”. It articulates a way of viewing the world, or performing for it, to the point where notions of “good taste” go straight out the window. Camp is an indefinite area of playful excess, willful frivolity, naïve pretentiousness and excess. Fluctuating between high gloss vulgarity and playful subversion, Camp can be indefinite yet thrilling, subtle yet eye watering. As a sensibility, it is democratic in its pleasures. It sponsors an effervescent subversion and mixing of so called high and low art, and a destabilization of absolutism in terms aesthetics in areas such as fashion, beauty and artistic production. It is an invitation to a different kind of apprehension or consumption, which ultimately escapes seriousness. Camp is above all a mode of appreciation and enjoyment, not of judgement, though it can operate under the guise of cynicism. Sontag also makes a distinction between “naïve” and “deliberate” Camp. Naïve Camp is unaware that it’s tasteless, whereas deliberate Camp can be seen as intentionally performative and subversive.
Camp acts a humourous antidote to bombastic shows of self importance and melodramatic absurdities executed in absolute seriousness, in the same way that, say, surrealism as an art movement was an escapist antidote to the encroaching malice of reason. As Sontag affectionately asserts, Camp “finds success in certain passionate failures”. This is probably one of the reasons behind why it has gained contemporary cultural currency. Though this can probably be said about any generation or time period, it feels like there’s a lot of serious shit going on at the moment, what with the particularly fraught current political landscape and the environmental crisis that we find ourselves in the midst of, to mention a few. In this way, Camp functions as a destabilisation of oppressive or absolutist power. It’s a useful tool of resistance, which might seem benign due to its deployment of humour, but is vital in providing a pathway for free speech and vocal dissent. That being said, Camp aesthetics have also left a more lighthearted mark in terms of pop-cultural iterations, perhaps transcending the element of subculture which Sontag references in her Notes.
I had originally intended this to be a rather serious reworking of Sontag’s text, but I find I can’t approach the subject with any semblance of seriousness or structure. And here is where I fall into Sontag’s prophecy, in that Camp must be discussed informally, in a series of notes and not in essay form: “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise like about Camp”. I tell myself that I am being particularly witty and intentional as I present you with my own series of “jottings” (some of which I’ve chosen to elaborate on and some of which I think simply speak for themselves), which is as follows:
1. Sontag states that to perceive Camp is “to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role”. Naturally notions of gender performativity or, more directly, pushing against perceivable or essentialist boundaries of gender or sex feed into this, and drag is one of those art-forms that succeeds in playfully pushing these boundaries. There’s probably nothing Campier than RuPaul’s Drag Race.
2. John Waters films. Think Pink Flamingos, Cry-baby and Hairspray.
3. Monty Python
4. You say “artifice”, I say artificial intelligence. I think Camp surfaces in playful dalliances into a technological future we are still unsure of, such as the creation of Kylie Jenner’s makeup for the cover of Dazed Magazine by an AI technology called BeautyGAN. And to this I add:
5. Balenciaga’s virtual models – created by visual artist Yilmaz Sen - who stretch fashion to new lengths and literally bend over backwards to showcase the brand’s Spring 2019 capsule.
6. Seeing the world through yellow tinted glasses: exaggerated sartorial nostalgia. Retrospective fashion is not necessarily Camp in itself, but Instagram is saturated with images that epitomise Camp style’s “extremely sentimental” relation to the past. Look no further than your feed to see elaborate and exaggerated odes to 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s fashion.
7. Nothing extemporises Camp’s tendency towards self irony better than Virgil Abloh’s quotation marked creations, such as the dress emblazoned with the phrase “Little Black Dress” and the boots marked “For Walking”.
8. Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist creations. Think the Lobster Dress.
9. Jeremy Scott’s Moschino
10. In an age where the cultivation of image or performance is becoming ever more “serious”, Camp serves to illustrate the humour in our now continuously exaggerated self-projection. The performative drive towards self marketing – i.e. the projection of our “better self” through social media – saturates our lives in an innocuous way, leading to an instinctive stratification of being into various marketable categories and identities: archetypes if you will. To me this connects especially to Instagram culture and “identities” such as the Insta-Baddie. While I don’t think there is usually any intention or thought towards Camp behind the choice of such aesthetics, I tend to view them as somewhat humourous at their core. This I suppose is an instance of Camp being in the eye beholder.
11. Giallo films. A peculiar Italian sub genre of thriller that had its heyday in the 70s. Hyper-Stylised crimes, gore and lurid violence with erotic undertones, lush, colourful, and trashy.
12. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film recounts/is an allegory of the death of rock and roll and the birth of glam rock in a positively phantasmagorical/orgasmic fanfare, sequence of events, songs and logic. It only follows that categories music such as glam rock, new romanticism etc. also fall under the metaphorical umbrella of Camp
13. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert
14. Pulp Fiction
15. Showgirls. A film that’s “so bad its good”, a cult catastrophe that has over time morphed into a cult classic.
16. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
17. Lady Gaga
18. Cher, literally the Queen of Camp.
19. Dusty Springfield
20. Scream Queens
21. Pink Narcissus
22. Sex and the City has definitely become more Camp with passing of the years.
23. Chanel’s Egyptian inspired runway for SS19.
24. Bette Middler
26. The Valley of the Dolls. This is a movie which has been described as “It’s so bad, it’s good”. The overacting, the endless repetition of that same song, heroines’ throwing themselves into the sea in moments of distress, the glorious 60s regalia… the list continues, but I belabour my point.
27. “Camp is the triumph of the epicene style” and so is David Bowie.
28. New Wave
29. ‘Marcia Baila’ by Les Rita Mitsouko
30. A lot of musical theatre.
31. Doctor Who
32. Marc Jacobs SS16
33. Oscar Wilde
35. The Margiela Tabi shoe, a split toed boot designed to look like a camel’s toe.
36. Marlene Dietrich
37. The Eurovision Song Contest. Need I say more?! And since we’re on the topic of Eurovision:
39. The Scissor Sisters
40. Thierry Mugler’s sensuous theatricality, in both his clothes and shows.
41. Kate Bush, especially ‘Wuthering Heights’.
42. Comme des Garçons A/W18. The collenction was in fact inspired by Sontag’s Notes.
43. Dolly Parton
44. The Dior Bucket Hat, apparently inspired by Teddy Girls of the 50s. There’s something ludicrous about it, yet suddenly I find myself desperately needing a grossly large, patent leather, tulle covered bucket hat, for no other reason than to make MP’s hair stand on end (she really dislikes bucket hats).
45. The Producers
46. Molly Goddard’s dreamy tulle creations truly evoke Camp’s spirit of extravagance: “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”. Seen on none other than the glorious Villanelle in Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Killing Eve (if you haven’t already watch immediately). And in that vein:
47. Tomo Koizumi's Fall Show. Gloriously frothy rainbow hued ruffles.
48. The Moncler x Pierpaolo Piccioli collaboration: perfectly tongue-in-cheek and perfectly executed by Ezra Miller.
49. Alien makeup by Sad Salvia at Rick Owens AW19.
50. Sontag mentions that Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake is Camp. I second that and give you Mathew Bourne’s ballet production of Swan Lake.
52. Parodying yourself or a version of yourself. Think Kate Moss in the Absolutely Fabulous movie.
54. Moonstruck, the movie Cher won an Oscar for. I adore Cher, but the film is truly another one of those instances of “It’s good because it’s awful.”
55. Gucci, especially the SS18 show which sent out models carrying severed replicas of their own heads and baby dragons.
56. Death Becomes Her
57. David LaChapelle’s photography
I conclude here for the sake of brevity, but this list could obviously go on. I think perception about what is and is not Camp is quite nuanced and personal. You might agree or disagree about any of these points. If you do, I'd love to hear about it! And if you have anything to add, please feel free to do so! Discussions are wonderful things.