The Met’s Skewed Spotlight

The queer history of camp not featured in the Met


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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 06: Kylie Jenner and Kendall Jenner attend The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

On the first Monday of May, professional makeup artists, hair stylists, fashion designers, A-List celebrities and paparazzi galore gathered for the society fashion event of the year: the Met Gala.

People gawked at Lady Gaga’s performance piece, bordering on strip tease, which featured four separate outfit changes: first a billowing, hot pink gown, followed by a sleek, strapless, black dress, next a barbie-esque, hot pink, form-fitting gown and finally, fishnets and a lace lingerie set complete with racy, black boots.  

Billy Porter’s “Sun God” ensemble captured audiences as he exited Fifth Avenue bolstered by six glittering men.  After departing his majestic throne, Porter debuted a massive set of golden wings.

And Jared Leto had people seeing double, as he walked the carpet carrying a replica of his own head.  His look was reminiscent of Gucci’s Fall 2018 collection, where models walked the runway clutching an odd accessory of choice: their faces.

Celebrity after celebrity climbed the steps to the Met in looks inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” the muse for this year’s Met Gala theme.

Camp is an aesthetic chiefly characterized by paradoxes. As Sontag describes, camp is “a sensibility (as distinct from an idea) . . . [a] love of the unnatural: of artifices and exaggeration.”  Camp promotes style above content. It praises the means rather than the motive.

Camp is “too much” brought to life.  It is flamboyance, extravangence, frivolity, irony and style all in one.

Camp is authentic. Art cannot be considered camp if it does not originate from a place of genuine passion.  Art that is intended to be camp rarely is, simply because it lacks genuine motivation.

“When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish,” states Sontag.

Camp is subjective.  “Camp sees everything in quotation marks.  It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman,’” writes Sontag.  It resists all attempts at definition.

For this reason, camp found its home within queer culture.

The first reference of “camp” traces back to a letter sent in 1869 from Lord Arthur Clinton to his  lover, Frederick Park, who crossdressed under the pseudonym “Fanny.”

“My campish undertakings are not at present meeting with the success they deserve.  Whatever I do seems to get me into hot water,” writes Clinton.

It wasn’t until Great Britain criminalized homosexuality during the early to mid 20th century that the term gained a foothold in modern slang.  “Camp” entered the vernacular of Polari, a secret language comprised of dialects including Italian, Romani, Yiddish, Cockney slang, rhyming slang and backslang (where a word is spelled backwards).  Gay men in Britain cultivated the language in order to find one another by casually slipping a few key words into a conversation. The language offered homosexuals a sense of identity and community.

As the gay liberation movement emerged after the Stonewall riots of 1969 (violent protests led by queer people and drag queens that broke out after an attempted police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village) the prominence of drag culture grew — and with it, camp.

Drag blurred the lines of gender constraints, and camp provided a perspective.  Men — caked in makeup — dressed in regal dresses and strutted in sky high heels to accentuate their femininity.  Drag queens’ over-the-top glamour and captivating stage presence served as a breeding ground for the camp spirit.  By embodying feminine personas, queer people protested the gender constraints emphasized by society’s innate homophobia.  

Drag fashion, both on and off the catwalk, set the stage for camp to bloom in popular culture, and overtime, camp expanded beyond queer culture.  As camp-enthusiasts rose to affluence in popular culture, the sensibility made its mark on American society.

Andy Warhol, a director, producer, artist and pop art aficionado, directed a feature entitled “Camp” in 1965, and his camp-inspired silkscreen paintings depicted quirky subjects ranging from Campbell Soup to Mao Zedong.

And “Pop Queen” Madonna’s iconic baby pink cone bra, worn during her Blonde Ambition Tour, epitomized the eccentricity of camp.

Now, in 2019, camp is being honored for its influence on fashion in this year’s Met Gala exhibit, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” which is set to run from May 9th to September 8th.  Bjork’s 2001 Academy Awards swan dress, made iconic by the minidress’s feathery swan beak, will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume exhibit. Pieces from Virgil Abloh’s “Off-White” collection will be featured, including a pair of sleek black boots stamped with the white, italicized phrase “for walking” housed in quotes.  

However, by viewing camp solely through the lens of fashion, the exhibit ignores one key influence of camp: its queer cultural significance.  The exhibit ignores the rich history hiding behind the flamboyant facade of camp.

The limited perspective the exhibition offers does not correctly portray the depth of camp as a cultural influence.  The exhibit only features high fashion pieces from praised designers. And while these designers’ work captures the extravagant spirit of the aesthetic, the exhibit ignores camp’s undeniable presence in drag fashion. By highlighting only these high fashion manifestations of camp, the sensibility is portrayed in a skewed light.

Although camp was not created by queer culture — and not all aspects of queer culture are camp — drag queens, Polari and popular culture icons sculpted camp into the culturally relevant genre it is today.