Camp art is related to—and often confused with—kitsch, and things with camp appeal may also be described as “cheesy”. Camp can also be a social practice. For many it is considered a style and performance identity for several types of entertainment including film, cabaret, and pantomime. After a few years of easy-to-interpret themes—China, Catholicism, robots—the Met Gala went for something a bit more slippery in 2019: camp.
A lot of people are still confused about what “camp,” the theme of this year’s Met Gala, actually means. But as soon as you set foot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new costume exhibit, all becomes clear: Camp has nothing to do with tie-dying t-shirts at summer camp. It has everything to do with basking in the fabulousness, irony, and humor of being extra.
It was Made famous by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” the winking, over-the-top sensibility has a strong valence in queer art-making but is notoriously hard to pin down, much less sew into a dress. This week, just about every news outlet that does fashion criticism published some version of a “What Is Camp?” blog post, gunning for that sweet, sweet heterosexual search traffic.
What exactly is camp fashion? We delve into the theme of next week’s Met Gala. Never has the idea of ‘bad taste’ been more à la mode than right now. Style motifs from the early noughties (until recently, considered boorishly over-the-top) have been riding high on the coattails of sartorial nostalgia and creating eye-catching moments on and off the runways.
Unlike the style slaves of the noughties, however (for whom low-slung velour tracksuits were serious ‘fashion’), those buying into the trend today are doing so with far more self-awareness. They’re saying “yes I know I’m wearing a bejeweled vest but that’s the look, silly,” and in doing so, are heralding the renaissance of camp — a movement seemingly tailor-made for the Instagram era, but certainly not one born from it.
As opposed to kitsch, camp reappropriates culture in an ironic fashion, whereas kitsch is indelibly sincere. Additionally, kitsch may be seen as a quality of an object, while camp, “tends to refer to a subjective process”. Those who identify objects as “camp” commemorate the distance mirrored in the process through which, “unexpected value can be located in some obscure or exorbitant object.” The effect of camp’s irony is problematic, insofar as the agents of cultural redefinition are often of upper class standing who could, “afford, literally, to redefine the life of consumerism and material affluence as a life of spiritual poverty”. Songs, movies, buildings, furniture, novels, people and, of course, clothes, all can encompass camp.