Camp fashion rose into popularity with the 2019 Met Gala, where the theme was “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” inspired by an essay written by Susan Sontag in 1964 for the Partisan Review. Due to its obscure origins and ever-changing perception, camp fashion is dynamic and difficult to define succinctly.
So, what is camp fashion exactly?
1. The Fashion World
The world of high fashion is, with good reason, controversial. The Devil Wears Prada, a 2006 film starring Miranda Priestly and Anne Hathaway, based on a 2003 book by Lauren Weisberger, aptly showcases the issues with, and even the need for, high fashion.
The main criticism against it is that it’s too extravagant, too expensive, and impractical for most of the world (think haute couture), besides all the issues concerning the mistreatment of models and the perpetuating of harmful ideas of the perfect body.
Camp fashion takes all these ideas and makes them even worse for different reasons. You know that phrase – “so bad it’s good?” Well, that’s a solid starting point for understanding camp fashion.
2. What is Camp Fashion?
To try and understand the concept of camp fashion, camp art, or the camp aesthetic, it makes sense to look at the definition of the word “camp” and then at the origins of camp fashion and its evolution in history.
The word “camp” made its first dictionary appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary in the year 1909, where it was defined as describing something exaggerated and striking but in the context of effeminacy and homosexuality.
2.2 The Origins
What is Camp Fashion? To understand, let’s trace the origins. The term “camp” first appeared in 1671, the era of King Louis XIV, in a book by Scapin titled Moliere. It was used as a verb in a phrase to show someone acting silly, camping about on one leg. In other words, playing the fool. This also led to using the word as implications of masquerade, theatricality, and performativity.
It is also probable that the word was derived from the French “se camper,” which means to posture.
In the Victorian Era, it was connected to the queer culture, and in particular, crossdressing. In the late 1800s, two men were arrested in England for cross-dressing. It was used as an adjective for the first time in the letters exchanged between the two.
In the late nineteenth century, it was used as a noun, depicting the (in)famous Oscar Wilde, and referred to exaggerated actions and conduct of people who did not behave courteously or properly, as they should in polite society.
In 1954, it became a fashion style, explained by Christopher Isherwood, who made a distinction between Low and High Camp.
Low camp fashion was used to refer to queer camp, and high camp referred to exaggerated fashion that was supposedly refined, such as baroque art, the Opera, or Ballet.
2.3 Susan Sontag’s Definition
She pointed to Mannerist paintings, Tiffany lamps, and the beaded dresses from the 1920s as examples of camp. She defined camp as anti-serious, which is far too exaggerated and too focused on posturing or peacocking. Her essay, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” was also a turning point for how camp fashion was viewed and used in the modern world.
2.4 What is Camp Fashion Now?
Camp fashion in the modern world responds to the serious extravagance of high fashion and the rich world. It’s good because it seems like the camp aesthetic comes from bad taste.
As Susan Sontag said, it’s a style that failed seriousness. It’s not meant to be serious; it’s meant to be fun. There is an ironic value in existing camp fashion. It’s now considered high art in itself.
Words and phrases like exaggeration, absurdity, theatricality, tackiness, irony, parody, artifice, extravagance, over-the-top, loud, vibrant, fun, bold, shocking excess, and empty frivolity define camp and the camp style.
3. Examples of Camp Fashion
If you still haven’t grasped the concept of camp fashion, don’t worry; you’ll understand very soon.
Think of the extreme dresses worn by royalty. The excessively wide hoop skirts, large wigs, and powdered faces are all things camp. Think Marie Antoinette or the past Queens of England.
Another great example is drag culture. They use camp styles to exaggerate or inverse ideas of traditional femininity, a huge part of the modern camp style.
Deeply inspired by and based on the gay community and black culture, it can and is used as a powerful political tool by marginalized cultures and communities. Think of Josephine Baker’s feathered outfits and David Bowie’s androgynous style.
There are many examples of this aesthetic style in pop culture as well. Think of Lady Gaga and her early red carpet looks, or the iconic costumes by Cher during her performance, Bjork’s white swan dress, complete with an egg, on Oscar’s red carpet in 2000, or Janelle Monáe and her many fancy custom outfits. Other popular figures in pop culture include Little Naz X in his music videos and Harry Styles in his collaboration with Gucci with live animals.
3.1 The Met Gala
Although the popularity skyrocketed after the 2019 event, there have been instances of celebrities wearing outfits with the camp style in previous events, too. Think Rihanna in 2018, dressing in a sexy version of the Pope’s outfit, when the theme was “Heavenly Bodies,” and the celebs had to reimagine fashion in the catholic imagination—or Sarah Jessica Parker, when she wore a custom headdress that looked like live fire in 2015.
During the 2019 event, with that year’s theme being “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” some celebs understood the assignment. Consider Billy Porter’s outfit and interpretation of the Sun God or Cardi B dressed up on an actual red carpet. The event was co-chaired by Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, Harry Styles, and creative director Alessandro Michele.
3.2 Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s Exhibit
After the 2019 Met Gala, the Metropolitan Museum held an exhibit to explain the camp and its aesthetic style. The Curator, Andrew Bolton, researched this fashion style extensively and its aesthetic value. You can quickly peek into how it turned out in this video.
4. Elements of Camp Fashion
When it comes to the question of what camp fashion is, there would probably never be one right answer. Anything that follows these elements’ boundaries could be considered a camp.
4.1 Large or Strange Silhouettes
Any dress you may have noticed and made fun of during fashion shows, which is weirdly shaped, too large, or too poofy, is considered camp. Strangely oversized jackets or shirts, stiff clothes that extend far beyond the body of the person wearing them, and clothes that hang or drown the model are all camp.
4.2 Strange Material
Any dress made of unconventional material is camp, which has been done in pop culture repeatedly. Lady Gaga’s meat dress or her feathered dress. Dresses made of money or garbage or tape are all camp. Think Nicki Minaj or Miley Cyrus.
4.3 Destroying Gender Norms
The camp involves any get-up that destroys the traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. Billy Porter, wearing a gown to the Oscars, Harry Styles wearing a dress for vogue, or clothes that mix both the masculine and feminine aspects, making it androgynous or non-binary.
5. Camp in Cultures
To understand “what is camp fashion,” we need to realize that camp exists outside of the framework of Western high fashion too and has its existence in both old and modern cultures. Don’t forget it was inspired by black culture as well.
The traditional dresses worn by black and Asian cultures could also be considered camp, taking all the definitions into account. Think of the outfits worn by Ncuti Gatwa, as Eric Effiong in the Netflix series Sex Education.
6. So Finally, What is Camp Fashion?
While a lot of attention has been given to camp in high fashion, the importance behind it should not be forgotten. The whole point of camp is to start a cultural conversation.
It’s tacky, loud, and on the nose. It’s jarring and forces your attention onto it, even without your permission. It makes a commentary on the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, who, throughout history, made such a show about what is proper and what is not. These people created their ideas of what was polite and proper and shamed other, more vibrant cultures. Then, they created loud and extravagant things and turned them into high fashion.
The camp has also been divided into naive camp and forced camp. Naive is when the person using the style is doing so unintentionally. Consider, for a second, the style of Donald Trump, his wardrobe, and his mannerisms. It’s camp. Hey, I didn’t make the rules. As the name suggests, forced camp is done intentionally, like the gowns designed with memes by Viktor & Rolf.
What is camp fashion? Whatever you want it to be. The camp appeal is that it is subjective and based on interpretation. Now, it exists even in popular culture. False eyelashes, oversized tees, baggy jeans, y2k fashion, 200os tacky fashion, large sunglasses, and streetwear can now all be, technically, considered camp. It begs the question – who decides what good taste is?