“To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it,” Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” in which she does exactly that. Now, 55 years after she both defined the concept and brought it to the mainstream, the betrayal has come full circle. Thanks to the 2019 Met Gala planning committee’s move to turn her treatise into their party theme, perhaps more than ever people aren’t just talking about camp—they’re talking about Sontag talking about camp. And if they aren’t, well, there’s a good chance they’re wondering the same thing that you’re likely wondering: “But what is camp?”
For starters, it is not an idea but a “sensibility”—which is to say that, yes, it’s much more complex and less material than the Met Gala themes of years past (i.e., Catholicism, Rei Kawakubo, technology). And it also might be the best theme yet. Without diving fully into the specifics, here are some points in its favor: Camp is all about theatricality, mixed with irony, extravagance, pastiche, and parody (and, of course, much more than that). Camp is the antithesis of boredom, and of tragedy. Camp is the belief that “style is everything.” Camp is Oscar Wilde’s quip that “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”—and the fact that he quipped it in the first place. Camp is “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Camp is playful, but also esoteric. Camp is “good because it’s awful” (though only, according to Sontag, if it falls under the category of one of her 58 meticulously listed bullet points).
As if that weren’t enough to absorb, camp is another thing entirely when it comes to fashion and the red carpet. As Andrew Bolton, the lead curator of the Costume Institute, put it: “Chanel was camp as a person, but her clothes weren’t camp”—an important distinction. To better answer the question “What is camp in fashion?” let’s revisit the annals of fashion’s Camp Hall of Fame.
“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
First things first: Nothing that’s from nature can be campy, according to Sontag. Nature doesn’t exist in camp—or if it does, it “contradicts it outright.” (Even pastoral camp, for example, is man-made.) That’s not to say, however, that camp is all futurism and cold metallics; it can be found, for example, in the wooden inlay turned into swatches of wood-grain-printed fabric in Rodarte’s spring 2011 collection, or in the dozens of butterflies that “carried” Gigi Hadid’s giant wedding veil down the runway of Moschino’s spring 2019 show (which were actually men outfitted in all black, tiptoeing down the runway to make nature a theatrical reality).
You may have noticed that the wolves that joined models on the runway of Alexander McQueen’s fall/winter 2002 show, on the other hand, were very much real. In a different context, wolves alone would not be camp. But restrained by a woman outfitted in a lilac purple cape, beneath the roof of the Conciergerie, a 14th-century former prison in the middle of the Seine? Definitely camp.
“Camp sees everything in quotation marks.”
In case there was ever any doubt: Virgil Abloh, artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton and designer (“designer”?) of Off-White, his own label (showcased above), loves a reference. Karl Lagerfeld and Raf Simons, on the other hand, managed to riff on the concept of “the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not” without actually using air quotes: Both designers suggested handbags, a consumer favorite, in the examples above, not with actual handbags but by playing with the very idea of them. Lagerfeld didn’t even bother having his model carry anything in his see-through, PVC, logo-embossed Chanel satchel, and Simons showed what looked like a brown paper bag stamped with a brand name (in actuality, made of leather).
“The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious.”
As high-brow as Sontag gets with her references—see: “the rococo churches of Munich,” “the way Fellini got Anita Ekberg to parody herself in La Dolce Vita”—she spends almost as much time dropping reminders that, above all, camp is playful. It’s a “mode of enjoyment,” not judgment. And it offers a new way of thinking about “the serious”—that one can be both serious about the frivolous, and frivolous about the serious. For example: Rihanna taking over for the pope for a night, and Björk as a swan “laying an egg” on the Academy Awards red carpet. Or the many forms that dresses can take at a Vaquera show, from a Tiffany & Co. bag to a bathrobe.
Of course, the things that are taken seriously now may not have been taken so seriously once upon an un-woke time. For example, the references that many designers once considered “inspiration” would now fall under, in many cases, cultural appropriation.
“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.”
If camp is all about extravagance, then camp is manifest in ’90s and early aughts John Galliano, during his illustrious tenure at Christian Dior (which, yup, came to an end in 2011, when Galliano went from being known as a genius to being known for his history of anti-Semitic remarks).
To see Galliano’s camp at its most extreme, look no further than his fall 1998 couture show for Dior, which saw a functioning steam train roll into a set that came complete with a souk and a room full of “lost luggage” tagged with names like Cleopatra and Brad Pitt. The New York Times, for one, found it “fun,” but was still flummoxed by its maximalism. The review’s summary of the show—“Pocahontas, clad in a chiffon dress with inset Navajo patterns, leading a band of musketeer models, Renaissance princesses, 17th-century prigs and Henry VIII cross-dressers”—could only end thus: “Don’t even ask.”
“By its nature,” Sontag argued, taste in camp is “possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.” Still, plenty of other extravagant designers, including Galliano himself, were capable of prompting the reaction “It’s too much” without causing so much offense. That’s true of not only the looks they sent out on the runway—in the case of Alexander McQueen, that includes ones worn by a Kate Moss hologram—but also the runway itself. Look no further than the late Karl Lagerfeld, whose ever over-the-top Chanel show settings once included a life-size supermarket, stocked with 100,000 products that the house had individually branded.
In the world of camp, you’ve failed if you can be described as “chic.” Chic, in comparison to camp, is outright boring—and camp means a refusal of boredom at all costs. Take Sontag’s example: “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” It’s not just the dress that’s completely outlandish, but the act of casually walking around in it—and, of course, the commitment to make that dress in the first place. To use an example outside of fashion, Gaudí’s buildings in Barcelona aren’t just camp because of their architectural style; they’re camp because they’re a testament to Gaudí’s city-size ego and ambition.
Let’s say you can take cultural appropriation (hopefully!) out of the picture—then all that’s left is the fun. This year’s list of Met Gala co-chairs includes Harry Styles, Serena Williams, and Lady Gaga. And speaking of Gaga…
“The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity.”
Camp, says Sontag, is the “the answer to the problem [of] how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.” Yet where the dandies of yore may have swooned, clutching a handkerchief to their noses, the “new-style” dandies, brought to their camp senses, react to vulgarity with amusement and delight. Vivienne Westwood’s merkins might not be as shocking as they were in the ’90s, but Lady Gaga’s infamous 2010 meat dress still feels rather timeless in its indigestibility.
“Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious.”
This is maybe one of Sontag’s most difficult camp tenets. Deliberate, self-aware camp only exists thanks to its precedent: pure, or naive, camp, which is unintentional. Pure camp is “dead serious,” or at least thinks that it is. Because it comes from a place of naivete, it “always intends to be serious, but fails.” For example: “It seems unlikely that much of the traditional opera repertoire could be such satisfying Camp if the melodramatic absurdities of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers.”
Tellingly, one of the best examples of modern-day pure camp in fashion is barely even considered fashion at all: The spectacle that is the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The annual tradition of revealing a “fantasy bra” valued at up to $10 million certainly feels anecdotally campy, but what’s even more camp is the gushy, grateful seriousness with which the Victoria’s Secret models, often already famous in their own right, receive their “angel wings” as a career milestone.
There’s no mistaking the intention, on the other hand, in Viktor & Rolf’s spring 2019 couture gowns, which the designers opted to emblazon with memes. Still, Jeremy Scott’s reign as the self-proclaimed “king of camp” continues unchallenged—a title he proved worthy of again this past season. His Moschino show returned to a theme he first took up at his namesake label in 2000: The Price Is Right. The show’s crowning jewel, a massive cape depicting a TV dinner, reduced the audience to laughter—the rarest of Fashion Week phenomena. Watch out for him on the Met Gala red carpet.