Learn about camp aesthetics and their significance for the LGTBQIA+ community
It's May 6, 2019, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Diverse artists, creatives, and millionaires gather at the Metropolitan Museum to attend the prestigious Met Gala. The event's red carpet is packed with vibrant gowns and eye-catching shapes.
The Met Gala is a fundraising event for the Costume Institute–a branch of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art that is responsible for documenting major achievements in fashion and trends. Organized by Vogue magazine, it is one of the most extravagant balls in the world. It is also one of the most important days of the year for fashion enthusiasts and internet users, who will analyze every outfit.
In May 2019, the theme was "Camp: Notes on Fashion," inspired by American writer and philosopher Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Notes on Camp. In this essay, Sontag, now considered the leading expert on the subject, defined the camp aesthetic and its significance.
What is Camp?
In Susan's words, "the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration". The word camp also comes from the French verb "se camper," which, if loosely translated, means "to strike an exaggerated pose." According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is "a style or mode of personal or creative expression that is absurdly exaggerated and often fuses elements of high and popular culture."
Camp is an aesthetic, almost a philosophy, about being exaggerated and theatrical. Some say it is tacky, cheesy, even bordering on bad taste. However, the revolutionary aspect of this countercultural movement lies in people having the audacity to be extravagant.
In the 1960s, it became a banner representing sexual and political freedom. "Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization," defines Susan Sontag in her essay.
In light of the 2019 Met Gala taking place, writer Benjamin Moser, who was Susan's biographer and the author of the book Sontag. Life and Work wrote an article to shed light on the nature of the movement and its meaning:
"Today, when we read “Notes on ‘Camp,’” it seems fun, funny—and not a little dated. But when it was published, many people responded with outrage. As the birth-control pill threatened male supremacy and the black civil rights movement threatened white supremacy, “Notes on ‘Camp’” was a threat to heterosexual supremacy. “Notes on ‘Camp’” was part of a broader movement to overthrow established hierarchies. Camp was resistance."
In the same article, Moser ends by criticizing the nature of the Vogue event: "In a world where gay people are murdered every day, she would have been alarmed to see a profound critique of mainstream society appropriated for an event that symbolizes the insider realm from which gay people have been excluded. And in a country where people beg for insulin on Craigslist, she, a lifelong activist for social justice, would have been disgusted by an event with a $30,000 per person ticket, and by the obscene sums attendees spend on clothes and jewelry," the biographer says.
Speaking of clothes, it’s important to point out that major fashion brands are often inspired by the camp aesthetic. Gucci embraces aesthetics that break the rules, combining vulgarity with high art and high fashion to build new visions. It is no coincidence that Alessandro Michele co-chaired the 2019 Met Gala and presented a collection for Gucci inspired by camp sentiment and aesthetics.
Camp and Queer Culture
In her essay, Susan Sontag reflected on what it means to be queer (a term meaning "strange" in English, which, when speaking about identity, is used to refer to people who defy gender norms). To be queer is to be different, to not follow the prevailing social norms and standards. "In gay aesthetics, she saw “a criticism of society,” a “protest against bourgeois expectations," Benjamin Moser writes in the article published in Town&Country magazine.
This dialogue between camp and queer culture was first embodied by the poet Oscar Wilde, cited in Susan's work as an example of theatricality and sensibility, two characteristics of the camp aesthetic. These characteristics would later be associated with homosexuals and their political and artistic expressions. "One feels that if homosexuals hadn't more or less invented Camp, someone else would," Susan writes.
In Notes on Camp, Susan also defines the areas which the movement is linked to. "Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content," she writes.
The World of Drag
A good example of the camp aesthetic in LGBTQIA+ culture is the drag scene. The origin of the term "drag" is debated, however, the most accepted theory is the expression "dressed as a girl", which comes from the world of theater. It was used during Shakespeare's time when only men were allowed to act and therefore also played the roles of female characters. Thus, a drag queen is a person who embodies a female character for a performance, be it theatrical, musical, or of any other artistic nature.
Drag, which used to only be performed in LGBTQIA+ nightclubs, has been made hugely popular thanks to Rupaul's Drag Race, an American reality TV show in which drag queens compete against each other. Not only has this program put queer and camp culture under the spotlight, but it has also added a layer of meaning to this universe.
Featuring challenges requiring contestants to create dresses using certain materials or sticking to certain themes, exaggerated music performances, celebrity impersonations, and lots of extravagant humor, Rupaul's Drag Race invites the masses to experience and celebrate camp culture.
Camp in Film, Music, Art, and Fashion
What was once a marginalized aesthetic, now represents an important branch of artistic expression in theater, film, music, visual art, and fashion, sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so.
"It is a shorthand of arcane and coded, almost kabbalistic references and practices developed to operate safely apart and without fear of detection from a conservative and conventional world that could be aggressively hostile towards homosexuals, particularly effeminate males and masculine females."
The Broadway musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which became a cult film in 1975, remains an iconic example of camp aesthetics to this day, thanks to its outlandish costumes and narrative.
In the story, an alien transvestite creates a muscular Frankenstein to fulfill their needs, while holding a couple who got lost on a nearby highway hostage in their castle.
The opening scene featuring a red mouth on a black background is a stand-out moment in the film.
The story is a parody of and pays homage to many of the science fiction and horror films created between the 1930s and 1970s, in which monsters and creatures were created in a crude and hyperbolic manner.
John Waters is another key reference from the film world. He is the creator of the hit musical Hairspray, and widely recognized for his trilogy of camp cult films: Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Thing (1974).
The latter two, starring drag queen Divine, feature exaggerated characters who find themselves in outrageous situations with lots of absurd dialogue.
Divine is not only an icon in the drag world but also in the cult film world. Waters' films dared to defy Hollywood censorship and show scandalous and shocking realities.
We also cannot forget to mention the television adaptation of Batman, created by Adam West, famous for its theatrical, exaggerated, and bizarre aspects.
In music, singer Dusty Springfield is considered one of the most important camp icons. She became known for her look: voluminous bright blonde hair, heavy makeup, and her "panda eye" mascara.
Dusty's aesthetic is similar to the drag aesthetic: after all, she majorly influenced the gay community with her songs and emotional performances. The artist considers the divas of the 1950s, such as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, to have inspired her a lot.
Speaking of great divas, singer and actress Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, better known as Carmen Miranda, has had a huge impact on Brazilian culture and Carnival. She even made it to Hollywood in the 1940s thanks to her famous fruit hat and baiana costume.
In 1972 and 2008, the Império Serrano samba school held parades paying tribute to Carmen and her contribution to Brazilian Carnival, not only through fashion but also by recording marchinhas de sucesso at a time when European creations inspired all fantasy.
Today, Lady Gaga's work embraces an aesthetic that seeks to shock and turn heads, especially in the LGBTQIA+ universe that the singer belongs to. Gaga not only brought the movement to mainstream pop but created her own interpretations of what it meant to be "a weirdo," an outsider.
At the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, she wore a dress made entirely of raw meat. Every public appearance has been a performance. Her music videos are theatrical works of art, and she is considered to have majorly influenced the ever-increasing camp aesthetics that we’ve seen at the Eurovision Song Contest over recent years.
The European event is famous for its inclusive atmosphere and, albeit with some controversy, few participating artists do not fully adopt the camp aesthetic.
Andy Warhol's pop art is also considered camp. In 1965, the artist went on to direct a film titled Camp, placing eccentrics at the heart of his art.
For his Death and Disaster series, Warhol created prints using images of brutal car crashes that had appeared on the front pages of newspapers. The project was a critique of society’s obsession with spectacle and gruesome images.
The American artist’s camp vision can be seen in the exaggerated repetition of these images.
Being camp, like being queer, is about expressing oneself free from fear or barriers, about embracing differences and building new interpretations. Camp is about being yourself, about being proud.
"Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style - but a particular style. It is the love of the exaggerated."
- Susan Sontag, in Notes on Camp
This is why the camp aesthetic is a pillar of LGBTQIA+ culture. After all, just like the 1960s, the 2020s continue to be driven by rule-breaking and identity struggles, and camp remains synonymous with resistance.