The Performative History of Camp


Camp is the manifestation of an irreverent aesthetic that reacts to past or current pop culture. It is something that is felt or witnessed, and appears in a variety of situations, in a myriad of styles. If that sounds vague, just know that you’ll recognize it when you see it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will attempt to unpack the sensibility in this year’s upcoming exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion. When embracing camp, there will always be an audience.

The most defining feature of camp is its overt artifice. In Susan Sontag’s formative 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” she wrote, “The essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Camp is visible in over-the-top aesthetics that are often at the expense of of what is considered “good” taste. It is ironic in an avant-garde sense and requires a performative nature to pull off. Camp is not a passive quality, it requires action –which is what distinguishes camp from kitsch. The latter can be applied to a specific object or being, but camp is carried out through a performance or effort. Sontag’s also states, „[Camp] is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.“ Camp becomes a way of shaping identity in a nostalgic, highly stylized way.

Even though the modern definition of camp wasn’t established until the 20th century, the camp sensibility was present long before. The term camp derives from the French se camper, meaning „to posture,“ so it makes sense that one of the early examples of Camp comes from 18th century France. Looking back on Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV’s reign as French monarchs in the late 1700s, their lavish lifestyle could be ascribed to camp sensibility. The powered, poufed hair, the generous ball gowns, and the gold-adorned palace all exhibit the level of ostentatiousness expected of camp. It was all for show, letting the excess of riches of the French court distract from the economic hardship that the rest of the country faced. Their legacy of conspicuous consumption and eventual dramatic decline is ripe with material to appeal to camp, as in Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette.

As a pop culture phenomenon, camp permeates film, TV, music, and fashion. Through these various media, camp appears in highly stylized, performative ways. Avant-garde movies, including Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which was banned in 22 U.S. states and four countries due to its graphic images, and John Waters’ so-called “Trash Trilogy” of films including the exploitative comedy Pink Flamingos set the tone for those that followed. Camp movies rely on the on the construction of absurdity and outrageousness, through plot, characters, and costuming. The tagline for Pink Flamingos sums up the result: “An exercise in poor taste.”

In some movies, the performances are the main camp quality. The main characters in the 1972 film Valley of the Dolls are so melodramatic that their serious struggles with their careers, drug addiction, and romance become comedic. In other films, it’s all about the artifice put on display. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was largely overlooked and written off as „campy“ by critics at the time of its release, became a cult-classic because of its glam-rock aesthetic, catchy music, and outlandish production. Its enduring success is a reflection of camp’s ability age well, with the sense of artifice, and appreciation for it, only increasing over time. Today, fans of the film avidly subscribe to its brand of camp, dressing up like the characters for viewings and celebrating its performative appeal.

On television, aspects of camp became more mainstream through primetime programming. The 1960s Batman series took a humorous approach to the superhero comic book character, attempting to teach its young audience about real-world choices like wearing a seatbelt, eating healthy food, and doing homework through its tongue-in-cheek sitcom format. The outlandish situations of the show were magnified by the characters’ seriousness, which laid the framework for camp in other shows like the over-the-top excess and drama of Dynasty.

The artifice indicative of camp also manifests in music. Cher is undoubtedly the most prominent camp figure in the industry, with her daring fashion choices and extravagant performances. The Queen of Pop not only developed camp in her style, but also in her sound. Pioneering the use of autotune in her hit single “Believe,” she popularized an overtly engineered type of pop that continues to prevail today, with names including Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj employing it in their respective brands of camp-infused music. The connection between these pop stars and camp also points to how an artist’s celebrity identity relies on their performative, exaggerated image, shaped by camp aesthetics.

Camp is also tied to identity and history for members of the queer community. In addition to the French origins of camp, the term also came to describe the stereotypical exaggerated, effeminate, theatrical nature of gay men in the early 20th century. The posturing, exhibitionist aspect of camp was able to evolve in the 1960s and ‘70s club scenes, where queer people had more freedom to experiment with their fashion and behavior. Because it was correlated with femininity, camp naturally evolved to encompass drag culture, with men going above and beyond in their transformations into queens. While drag can generally fall under camp aesthetics, camp has also emerged as a specific sub-genre in which queens have a comedic, satirical take on a specific theme or figure.

Fashion plays a large role in creating camp as a visual sensibility. In recent years, designers have leaned into exploring humor and irony through fashion. Jeremy Scott, Demna Gvasalia, and Alessandro Michele have all embraced a tongue-in-cheek approach to their collections, facing the artifice and excess of fashion head-on. Michele did so quite literally with the Gucci Fall/Winter 2018 runway where several models held to-scale replicas of their own heads.

The fashion show has also always been a site for putting camp on full display for Jeremy Scott who, for his namesake label and his Moschino collections, goes for the jugular with runways modeled off of game shows, designs that turn models into life-size paper dolls, or consist uses of tromp l’oiel illusions. The maximalism of this fashion shows how what is considered “bad” can also be construed as “good” with the right amount of simultaneous self-awareness and suspension of belief. It’s the same idea that’s led to the meme-able fashion moment, as on Viktor & Rolf’s Spring/Summer Haute Couture 2019 collection that placed snippy phrases on tulle ballgowns. Accepting these outrageous clothes means accepting the sense of performance and drama that accompanies them, and therefore embracing camp.


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