LGBTQA+, Fashion, Beauty, Lookbook

Camp fashion is about making a beautiful statement; it’s not an excuse to be tacky

Started by Black Drag Queens, here's why the camp trend matters.

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?”

Nicki Minaj, a black woman with long blonde and green hair. She is wearing a multi-colored dress with gold heels and she is smiling while standing on a red carpet. Via Getty Images
Nicki Minaj, a black woman with long blonde and green hair. She is wearing a multi-colored dress with gold heels and she is smiling while standing on a red carpet. Via Getty Images

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!

A mannequin wearing a large layered pink ballgown with a green "Less is More" written across the front of the dress. Via CNN
A mannequin wearing a large layered pink ballgown with a green “Less is More” written across the front of the dress. Via CNN

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.

A black runway model wearing a red polka dot shawl over a pink floral dress with black tennis shoes. Via AnOther Magazine
A black runway model wearing a red polka dot shawl over a pink floral dress with black tennis shoes. Via AnOther Magazine

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.

Billy Porter, a tall black man, is posing on a pink carpet in a black body suit covered with gold fringe. He is wearing gold boots with a gold head piece and gold wings. Via Getty Images
Billy Porter, a tall black man, is posing on a pink carpet in a black bodysuit covered with gold fringe. He is wearing gold boots with a gold headpiece and gold wings. Via Getty Images

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!

Sasha Velour, a white bald drag queen, is wearing a pink fur dress and head piece, staring into the camera. Via Vulture
Sasha Velour, a white bald drag queen, is wearing a pink fur dress and headpiece, staring into the camera. Via Vulture

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.

Lady Gaga, a white woman with long blond hair, is wearing a dress and boots made with raw meat, as well as head piece of raw meet. She is posing on a black carpet. Via Getty Images
Lady Gaga, a white woman with long blond hair, is wearing a dress and boots made with raw meat, as well as headpiece of raw meat. She is posing on a black carpet. Via Getty Images

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.

A nude sculpture of Lady Gaga with platinum hair, with a blue gazing ball in front of her. Via Wikipedia
A nude sculpture of Lady Gaga with platinum hair, with a blue gazing ball in front of her. Via Wikipedia

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.