Elusive ‘Camp’ Sensibility
Essentially, Camp is a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” This is probably the most cited definition of Camp from Susan Sontag’s seminal essay Notes On Camp published in 1964. Camp was Characteristic of Caravaggio and the ornamental style of the Art Nouveau movement, Oscar Wilde, Tiffany lamps, Busby Berkeley movies, Mae West, chinoiserie aesthetics and the Swan Lake in Sontag’s times. Nowadays we can find Camp in John Galliano, Jeremy Scott, recent Balenciaga and Gucci, mumble rap that prioritises style over content birthing a “so-bad-it’s-good” camp, certain politicians, and the garishly ugly sneaker trends, all of which seem blatantly subversive.
Inspired largely by Sontag’s literary sensation, Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute explained in an interview with Vogue that he found Sontag’s writings — of ‘love of the unnatural’, ostentatious tastes and style at the expense of content, the triumph of the epicene — very relevant to what we are experiencing culturally and politically today, saying “I felt it would have a lot of cultural resonance”. Bolton went onto note that Camp “has become increasingly more mainstream in its pluralities — political camp, queer camp, Pop camp, the conflation of high and low, the idea that there is no such thing as originality”.
One can say that Camp is a kind of conscious kitsch, laced with pastiche irony and extravaganza. The French verb se camper translates to ‘strike an exaggerated pose’, epitomising Camp’s panache. The Italian Aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries also endorsed the idea of sprezzatura, a studied nonchalance, which ignited the bumptious attitudes and ethos of early 19th century England.
Sontag runs through 58 “jottings” in her essay encapsulating the sensibility of everything Camp, among the most notable include “41. The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious”. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”, “27. What is extravagant in an inconsistent or unpassionate way is not Camp. Neither can anything be Camp that does not seem to spring from an irrepressible, a virtually uncontrolled sensibility. Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp — what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.” and “58. The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful, Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions”.
Stylist Riccardo Slavik commented on Galliano’s Spring 2004 collection calling it “a perfect example of Fashion Camp, a show that fused Ancient Egypt, extreme volumes, Cleopatra-in-space drag queen makeup and total impracticality in an iconic way, totally disregarding any though of sales or wearability.. it is camp because it both succeeds and fails so spectacularly”.
The irony and parody elements of Camp are embodied in Virgil Abloh’s Off-White when it comes to his use of quotation marks, allowing him “to operate in a mode of ironic detachment”, as the designer himself explained in a 2017 interview with 032 magazine.
So what will our fave celebs be wearing to the Met Gala this 2019? As Vogue contributor Osman Ahmed asserts in his exploration The Culture of Camp: Dissecting The Theme of The Met’s 2019 Exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion” couldn’t be more fitting for the annual Met Gala “which itself is usually a stage for camp costumes.”
“54. The discovery of bad taste can be very liberating..Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism.”