Shelley Long, Angelina Jolie, Carmen Miranda

What Is Camp? Allow These Artists, Performers, and Pop Culture Experts to Explain

Typically, one has no difficulty understanding the over-the-top extravaganza that is the Met Gala, but 2019’s edition, which rolls out its red carpet on Monday, is an exception. This year’s theme, camp, is a nebulous concept, to say the least; it takes some effort to parse Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” which is essentially a walk-through of the aesthetic (or, as Sontag puts it, the “sensibility”) that can be ironic, playful, artificial, or just “too much.” The gala’s planning committee may have turned it into their guidebook, but as even Sontag notes, there are practically infinite definitions and interpretations of camp—ones that have most certainly changed since 1964, and ones that definitely expand beyond those according to Sontag herself. After all, Sontag didn’t invent the concept of camp; she brought it to the forefront of a broader conversation—one that had been going on for decades before her academic intervention.

Camp, it’s important to note, is also completely reliant on context, and its relationship to the past and present; that camp has previously manifested in mediums like film, TV, fashion, and subcultures doesn’t necessarily mean it still does today. So, worthwhile as it is to revisit Sontag’s text, it’s something of an outdated and academic undertaking—one that at times seems to contradict its many reminders that camp, above all, is about having fun. What better way to understand the concept, then, than through contemporary examples provided by some of the artists, performers, stylists, and historians who together have taken on Sontag's role as experts today?

Here, they make their case for modern-day camp, ranging from icons past and present—which is to say from Leigh Bowery to even Cersei Lannister—to moments like Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton's red-carpet appearance in the early aughts.

Susanne Bartsch (@bartschland), event producer and Queen of the Night:

Leigh Bowery wearing his lightbulb head harness at Bentley's Opening in April 1988.

© Patrick McMullan

"Leigh Bowery, the ultimate camp hero of the 20th century, was an Australian who affected an upper-crust British accent while dressed like a cross-dressing Mexican wrestler on LSD. Camp is an intellectual's hanky code to other like-minded individuals, and Bowery’s endless cultural references, reworked in exaggerated proportions in his kaleidoscopic array of looks, all possessed an element of admiration for their source inspirations, but also a commentary on them. Think of the early Cubist disco Krishna looks Leigh did with the artist Trojan, his well-known straitjacket/lightbulb head harness, and his preference for head-to-toe looks, like padded ensembles in floral upholstery brocades that he'd festoon with sequins and paillettes. Outrageous, humorous, but with a flawlessly executed and sophisticated edge, Bowery was the quintessential embodiment of camp in the 1980s and '90s."

Gabriel Held (@gabriel_held_vintage), stylist and fashion archivist/historian:

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Courtesy Everett Collection

"Camp is a sensibility that has shaped my worldview. To me, camp is appreciation of what is otherwise deemed questionable taste; it’s the tendency to highlight frivolity, irony, and the discrepancies between Hollywood fantasy and reality. Some say camp was born when the old Hollywood studio darlings, who had been presented as superhuman deities, were betrayed by their own humanity—when in the '60s you could see Joan Crawford on TV in one of her glamorous classic films, juxtaposed with her current incarnation in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, where the glamour was gone, and the decay of aging was apparent. Fans who had mistakenly elevated her and her peers to the status of goddesses felt betrayed, and rejoiced in knocking them off their pedestals. Drag queens went from portraying Crawford as Mildred Pierce to portraying her as the character from Mommie Dearest (played by Faye Dunaway), with a wire hanger in one hand, and an axe in the other. Camp’s attraction to irony and subversion are where its appeal lies for me, especially in the age of social media, and the realm of fashion."

Debra Messing (@therealdebramessing), actress:

"Camp is unapologetic, it's big, it's bold, it's colorful. It's dimensional! And it's fierce. I hope Billy Porter is [at the Met Gala]. He will be the person to look to."

Brendan Scannell (@bscan), comedian and star of Netflix's Bonding:

Carla Gugino, Jenny Lewis, and Shelley Long in Troop Beverly Hills.

©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

"The only camp icon of the past 100 years worth mentioning is Shelley Long as Phyllis Nefler in Troop Beverly Hills. Phyllis is a wealthy Beverly Hills socialite going through a difficult divorce who volunteers as Den Mother of her daughter's Wilderness Girls troop. There's an iconic montage where Phyllis creates a series of 'custom merit badges,' where the girls learn about pedicures, jewelry appraisal, how to do the Freddie. It's a ridiculous, over-the-top performance with extravagant fashion in a movie with an 8 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is an earnest attempt at a kids' movie that constantly begs the question 'Who is this thing for?' Turns out it was for the gays, and personally, I've seen it about 100 times and TroopBevHills was the name of my first apartment's Wi-Fi. And when I think about my dream Met Camp fashion inspo, there's only one redhead on my vision board. Favorite quote: 'Sorry we're late, your honor, my troop and I were busy explaining the fall fashions to the blind.' "

Sam McKinniss (@wkndpartyupdate), cover artist for Lorde's Melodrama album:

"Batman and Robin, Joel Schumacher’s 1997 flop, is a masterpiece. Nerds hate this film, but gays watch it all the time because gays know everything. It’s an incredibly stylish, astonishing piece of work. The cast is perfect, but the dialogue and art direction make it sublime. George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, and Alicia Silverstone’s pornographic bat costumes are comical, yet chic in a kinky way, inspired by Roman antiquity and made possible through cutting-edge advancements in the field of rubber molding. Schumacher was literally so horny for Batman, but I yearn for him also. I loved it when DC Comics published Batman’s nudes in a comic book released last year. Schumacher’s legacy. Uma Thurman enjoyed one of her most glamorous roles in this movie, costarring as Poison Ivy. She is my favorite living actress. I don’t know if Thurman, or if anything, for that matter, counts as camp in the Trumpian, post-Weinstein era. It’s become difficult to treat anything as lightly in recent days. Camp hasn’t been possible since 9/11, come to think of it. Even so, George W. Bush is kitsch, a substrate of camp. Such a bad president. I hope Anna Wintour invited him and Laura. A Met Gala attended only by gays, Jews, Laura and George W. Bush, the entire cast of Batman and Robin, some women: That seems fair."

Larry Owens (@larryowenslive), host of What Makes U Sing podcast and star of A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons:

"For high camp, one need only look at early 2000s fashion for the perfect blend of storytelling twee and groundbreaking WTF. Show me Von Dutch hats by Margiela. Give me Tilda Swinton arriving with a deep, deep Jersey suntan. It’s all so good and trite and so declining-superpower-at-the-turn-of-the-century. But for even higher camp, I’d love to see an aestheticized Broadway theater. Adult beverages in children’s sippy cups? That hedge fund guy in the front row taking a $300 nap just to say he saw Laurie Metcalfe? Picture Rihanna…dressed as the literal Shubert Theatre. You see, camp accesses largesse but at its core points in one direction. A one-night prom for the superrich to costume themselves as nonmainstream subjugated but expressive 'others'? God, now that’s camp."

Kristen Cochrane, (@ripannanicolesmith), critical theory meme curator and pop culture historian:

Steve.Granitz/INACTIVE

"Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton at the world premiere for Gone in 60 Seconds in 2000. They look like they found each other at a truck stop. She looks like a runaway and he looks like he just got off the interstate.

In Jack Babuscio’s 1977 essay 'Camp and the Gay Sensibility,' he argued that camp has four necessary components: irony, aestheticism, theatricality, and humor. I think these are all obvious, except for aestheticism, which Babuscio claimed was underscored by 'sensuous surfaces, textures, imagery, and the evocation of mood as stylistic devices—not simply because they are appropriate to the plot, but as fascinating as themselves.' The aestheticism here is powerful—Angelina and Billy Bob are on a red carpet (a proverbial stage on which they made this sartorial intervention), in outfits that are 'low brow' or visually working-class Americana.

It’s also interesting to pay attention to the theatricality and how it is juxtaposed with the environment. The emotion they embodied here is supposed to be inappropriate for this kind of event space (tongue kissing, Billy Bob breathing in her hair, holding her breasts as she closes her eyes and bites her lip, seemingly in amorous and lustful ecstasy). It’s an early 2000s camp classic."

Diana Silvers (@dianasilverss), actress and model:

"When I think of camp, I think of kitsch. They're kind of in the same box. Which is just very fun, effervescent, bubbly, lighthearted. That's what I think of when I think of kitsch. It's also ironic. It could be satirical. I'm really excited to see what people wear. Camp icons? Is it lame that I want to say Andy Warhol?"

Piper Perabo (@piperperabo), actress:

"One of my favorite camp moments is when the B-52's did that video for 'Love Shack' and had those giant colored beehives. Do you think anyone is going to wear wigs [to the Met Gala]?"

Matt and Viviana (@thnk1994), co-curators at THNK1994 Museum:

Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone in Showgirls.

©United Artists/Courtesy Everett Collection

"Camp is XXXTRA, it’s eXXXuberant, it’s an eXXXtreme. Showgirls is the definitive camp film. Nomi Malone is the definitive camp vessel. When she dances in the club, we bear witness to a moment of camp so holy, we are cleansed of our sins. She wears a short, tight red fringe dress and oscillates from her core. Exertion is camp! Neon squiggles pulsate in the background, while laser lights illuminate bodies. Neon was camp, y’all ruined it. Her every limb darts into different dimensions, cutting through time and space as if she is about to blow a hole through the ceiling and lift into orbit.

Holes in the ceiling are high camp. By the time her dance is done, a fight has broken out, a man has been punched in the face, and Nomi has been arrested because she danced too goddamn good.

Also, unrelated, but 'Sweet But Psycho' by Ava Max is camp."

Gogo Graham (@gogograham), designer:

"I want to preface this by clarifying that I am not an intellectual laborer and I haven't really done the homework necessary to give a response that might actually interest one. Some will argue that the first words used to crystallize 'camp' as it exists in our contempo vocabulary have origins that can be drawn back to some old Victorian dandy in an anachronistic velvet breeches look with a conventionally attractive, thin smirk drawn across his face. Or maybe it was some silky, impossibly wealthy, unfaithful 17th-century French monarch who was famous for, among other things, his taste for sensual beauty and fear of bathing.

Prior to reading Sontag's 'Notes on "Camp," ' I had a loose but rigid idea of what camp meant, but didn't think I could relate to it and definitely didn't see any threads connecting these three folks together. For me, this quote from Sontag says it all: 'Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, of irony over tragedy.' With that, I can easily imagine both costumed men engaged in ornately wrought gilded art nouveau doorknob polish play in the smelly olde wooden foyer of MiN NYC while Sontag takes a few whiffs and twirls a pen in her hand with a smile on her face, enjoying the thought of the two men earnestly enjoying themselves."

Chris Horan (@chrishoran20), stylist:

Leigh Bowery, 1986.

UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

"Leigh Bowery, without question, is my favorite camp icon. His looks are continually referenced, whether in an Alexander McQueen collection or something we saw two weeks ago on Drag Race, yet each time they still feel equally shocking and compelling. I'm always here for feeling simultaneously disturbed and in love with something—especially when beyond the visual interest there lies a message. Some of his most iconic looks were commentaries on body image or the HIV epidemic. In 2019, I think his work and insistence on not being categorized is more relevant than ever."

Queef Latina (@Queef.Latina), Miami Drag Queen and Founder of WigWood:

"My favorite camp icon is the always fabulous Carmen Miranda! Her costumes and fruity headpieces are cultural icons on their own, but what has always fascinated me is her over-the-top facial expressions. The ways her animated eyes dart back and forth in her movies are as mesmerizing as her colorful gathered tulle sleeves and beaded turbans!"

Jacolby Satterwhite (@jacolbysatt), artist:

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones.

HBO

"Game of Thrones's Cersei Lannister is my favorite camp icon of all time. Her narrative arc throughout the series portrays rage, adversary, revenge, and perseverance as if it came straight from a theatrical McQueen runway presentation. Everything about her is melodramatic yet extreme. She’s so obsessed with family legacy and remaining loyal to her own tribe that she only fucks her brother and cousin throughout the show. Creating three beautiful children who all die in peak camp fashion. Two from poison, and the other from a suicide stimulated by his own mother's genocidal bombing of her own land. Yet she perseveres as the queen of Westeros, commissioning high-couture costumes tailor made to protect her from her inevitable karma. She’s custom-made for gay nihilist audiences like me. She's a politically astute icon that is tough enough to eclipse magic and be the last opponent in the 2010s' most camp fantasy show that pretty much defines the decade."

Ruby McCollister (@aspiring323actress), performer, actress, and host of So Fashionating podcast:

"Camp is a psychological disposition that is chronically reacting to that huge existential void we’re constantly bandaging up with culture. This illness of camp begets a 'Camp Person,' and I believe a true Camp Person is as rare as a corpse-flower bloom. I believe they're so, so rare, these Camp People. Maybe only eight (I'm approximating here) true Camp People have ever existed. (Hot take.)

Their psychology; their way of morphing the world, making everyone see how stupidly playful, and movable, while immovable, everything is; their way of “play” birthed our understanding of camp. But I believe camp doesn’t exist without a Camp Person. Whatever culture 'loves' the Camp Person is its contrarian, heady, petulant sibling daydreaming out the car window. And yes, of course, I identify with this mental je ne sais quois, but I’m not brave enough to be purely camp. I’d sacrifice too much. I’m basking, as we all are, in the afterglow of people like Beau Brummell, Quentin Crisp, and the Cockettes.

A dress can be campy but only fully animates itself on a person that embodies its psychological illness of 'being' camp. As the terms of human nature, 'nature,' and society change and evolve, so does camp. It's a fucking neurosis!! You have to keep prodding; you have to be nihilistic while being borderline barefoot hippie, intellectually free and physically frigid, open and recoiled, forthcoming yet opaque. This Met Gala is gonna be so fabulously bizarre because all these blandos are going to be wearing these clothes, vestiges, shorn skins of someone’s outrageous, compulsive psychology. Crazy. That dichotomy: the pedestrian wearing the deranged…hell…that's camp.

Amber Heard (@amberheard), actress:

"I love Sontag. Love her!"

Related: Camp in Fashion: What We Talk About When We Talk About the Met Gala 2019 Theme