So what exactly is camp? As someone who flicks through the annual Met Gala pictures with vague interest but no real understanding of fashion history, I was hoping that a visit to the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit at the Met would answer my question. I strode up the sweeping staircase, preparing to steep myself in camp for the next twenty minutes.
Burrowed deep within the museum, the exhibit started by explaining the origins of the word “camp” and its subsequent diffusion into the world of fashion. Here’s a brief description of the evolution of the word before we dive into some of the outfits that were on display.
The word “camp” derives from the French verb se camper, which means “to flaunt” or “to posture,” and was first used in the late 17th century by the playwright Molière to describe the contrapposto pose of one of the characters in his comedy. By the 19th century, the term made its way into the English language and had become stigmatized, acquiring homosexual connotations. When used, it brought to mind the image of an “effeminate aristocrat,” and among others was used to describe cross-dressers and playwright Oscar Wilde.
In 1964, the American writer Susan Sontag published “Notes on Camp,” becoming the first person to treat camp seriously by attempting to analyze and define it. An entire room of the exhibit was dedicated to Sontag’s various definitions of the term, accompanied by supporting outfits. Sontag’s various attempts to define the elusive term were projected across the ceiling of the room, forming a banner for the displayed outfits. According to Sontag, camp is the “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’, of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Camp is the “love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration.” Camp is a “woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Most strikingly, camp which “knows itself to be camp” is usually “less satisfying.”
At this point in the exhibit, I thought that I was starting to get it. Camp was exaggerated and unnatural, but without an awareness of being exaggerated and unnatural. A multi-tiered feathered dress, an upturned tutu, insanely-high platform sandals, and a dress made of a purple ball of feathers and topped with butterflies only corroborated this newfound understanding. But nothing could have prepared me for the final room in the exhibition.
I emerged from the corridor featuring Sontag into a massive room divided into rainbow, windowless boxes. The middle of the room was filled with cubes with extravagant accessories: a feathered headdress, a tap-and-faucets necklace and earring set, a tall wig. The walls, meanwhile, were two tiers of dress exhibits. I didn’t know where to look or where to start. Picking a random point in the room, I decided to stay calm and go around the room clockwise. I knew that with anything other than tunnel vision, I would run around the room gazing at the exhibits, and would inevitably miss something. But almost immediately, this strategy proved unsuccessful. There was too much visual stimuli, and soon I started going wherever my eyes led me. Here are some of my favorite looks; each was based on a different definition of camp.
Camp is outrageous aestheticism (Giambattista Valli): A tulle concoction seemingly designed solely to please the eye, this dress was perfectly constructed. Despite the bold shapes and train, its pure aestheticism made it difficult to look away.
Camp is a mode of seduction: These were really interesting because they highlight the way gender is mapped onto the human body. It also brings out the way that gender is a removable layer instead of something that is ingrained in us. This is also evident in the choice of shoes and the covered-up parts of the body.
Camp is cultural slumming (Moschino): The loud red and yellow immediately drew my attention and differentiated this from some of the subtler (if that word is even applicable here) looks. It also brings out the trashy, vulgar, over-the-top side of camp (low camp) in contrast to the tulle piece by Giambattista Valli, for example (high camp).
After running from gallery to gallery giddily and greedily taking in the colors, sequins, feathers and bling, I exited into the camp-themed gift store. The store was filled with items that would normally have seemed ludicrous – oversized, beaded unicorn earrings, blindingly gold playing cards, and feathery neon laptop cases. But watching people purchase their very own fluffy tutu and octopus earrings, I realized that these items were not truly camp, or at least Susan Sontag probably wouldn’t think they were. Because the gift store immediately followed an induction into camp, there was a clear awareness that the items were camp, which put them in the category of “camp that knows itself to be camp.” That made me think back to my very first exposure to camp: if the celebrities at the Met Gala knew fully well that their outfits were camp – and actually chose their looks with camp as a missive – are they fair representations of camp?
And even more importantly, what is camp? Is it aestheticism? Exaggeration? Artificiality? Is it high- brow? Low-brow? After seeing hundreds of definitions and outfits, I still haven’t found the answer to my question and will remain in pursuit of this elusive term.