The fashion industry has been highlighting a major trend as of late that has left many of us reeling, in light of the most recent Met Gala theme, Camp: Notes in Fashion. What exactly is “camp”? From what we can see of the recent red carpet looks, there’s no doubt that it’s over the top, but even the celebrities in the iconic looks seem to be at a loss for words when it comes to defining camp in fashion. In the words of the great Celine Dion, “I wasn’t sure what it meant…I thought, like, camping?”
By definition, camp is an aesthetic style that values something as appealing due to its bad taste and ironic value. Its style disrupts much of popular culture’s modern ideas surrounding what can be classified as beautiful, valuable, or as high art. In simpler terminology – more is more, extra is beautiful, so let your freak flag fly, honey!
Over time, many have misunderstood the camp aesthetic. In fact, more often than not, people have named the category ugly. Runway models have worn tacky or tasteless choices in clothing, and this poor representation has been damaging to the overall understanding of what camp fashion is and why its over-the-top aesthetic is beautiful. Because the concept of camp seeks to overturn the typical standards of beauty and fashion, those with a lack of understanding have taken its definition out of context and twisted its form into a trend that the fashion industry has deemed less desirable.
So, while we’re not actually going camping, we are going to take a little trip in history to the birth of the enigmatic concept that is camp in fashion. Susan Sontag established the modern camp aesthetic in her 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’”. In this essay, Sontag sums up the definition of camp in fashion as “shocking excess”. Sontag (Jan. 16, 1933 – Dec. 28, 1994) was an American critic, writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist. She became aware of her bisexuality in her teenage years, and her attraction to the beauty of women and men and all things androgyny played a large role in her writings on camp in art and fashion.
In fact, the LGBTQIA+ community frequently exhibits the camp aesthetic – think glitter and colors, sequins, identifying men embracing the effeminate and identifying women embracing androgyny, etc. It was Black Drag Queens who began to exhibit camp in their costumes, makeup, and theatrical performances. Sasha Velour, Season 9 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, consistently rocks her charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent— with her iconic baldness, serving looks with her equally famous drawn uni-brow. These features combined with her bold clothing style and over the top lip syncs are not necessarily “pretty” or “trendy” by modern culture’s standards. However, because everything about Sasha is flawlessly campy (and because she’s just flawless in general), she’s a stunning queen!
Another example and a personal favorite of mine is Lady Gaga. Most people know Gaga, especially in the early years of her career, for her iconic dance tracks with bold lyrics, and an even bolder style, easily visible from her four different look changes on the Met Gala red carpet. However, ask anyone what they remember about Lady Gaga – even those who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves fans – and chances are, you will hear about the legendary meat dress from the 2009 VMAs.
The dress itself obviously shocked viewers, but Gaga never intended to be trendy with that statement. The message in the statement of the dress was beautiful, and the style itself was a prime example of what camp aims to do in the world of fashion.
Additionally, Lady Gaga’s third studio album, ARTPOP, is another classic example of what camp looks like in fashion, music, and popular culture. The dramatic and even seemingly grotesque lyricism throughout the album seems a bit much on a surface level. However, on a deeper level, songs on the album like Aura, Swine, and G.U.Y. evoke messages of female empowerment—especially in the often misogynistic and shallow pop music industry.
These are just a few of many examples that support the notion that camp in fashion and popular culture is beautiful, not solely based on its external aesthetic, but because of its message of inclusivity. Campy fashion overturns the societal norms that dictate to us what is beautiful and artistic, and it sends the message that our chaos, uniqueness, oddities, and what others may see as messy, is all one massive work of priceless art.