It’s easy to forget, while scrolling through our modern age of extreme extra-ness that camp as we know it, made its first major appearance in the Swinging Sixties. Today’s camp, simply defined, is a queer way of seeing the mainstream. Or in most cases, re-seeing it. It can be compared to a cracked lens that distorts homogenic views through embellishment and focuses in on any given subject with hyper parody and extreme irony. Strongly identifying with the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” camp selects pieces of culture, design and art – the widely panned works deemed dreck – and reclaims them as 24-karat gold. It has often been called a system or a sensibility and, depending on the era, camp is either guarded by the underground or exposed to the public through cult followings.
Camp started getting mass recognition when Notes on Camp, an essay penned by the late Susan Sontag, catapulted the writer into literary notoriety. Published in 1964, the piece exposed what Sontag was hearing and seeing while hanging out with artists and leaders in New York’s ever-evolving LGBTQ community in the 1960s. Part chronicle, part report, the essay calls out the essence of camp (“the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”), its strident ambitions (“it attempts to be extraordinary or glamorous”) and its strict rules (“[it] is art that proposes itself seriously but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’”). Although her thesis turns 55 this year, Sontag’s testament to bad-taste-that’s-so-good mirrors today’s culture so succinctly, could be broken up into meme scenes taken from Mariah Carey appearances on the Home Shopping Network.
Now, camp has finally earned its own moment of glamorous vindication. The Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is devoting a massive homage to Sontag’s words via wardrobe in a new exhibition called Camp: Notes on Fashion. The star-studded, invite-only Met Gala, which opens the show on Monday, aspires to be one of the most-watched red carpets of the year, overseen by a motley crew of co-chairs including Lady Gaga, Serena Williams and Harry Styles.
To clear up the purpose of the 200-plus display of campy garments and works of art, the Met’s director, Max Hollein, issued a statement to explain just what the frock the museum was thinking: “By tracing its evolution and highlighting [camp’s] defining elements, the show will embody the ironic sensibilities of this audacious style, challenge conventional understandings of beauty and taste, and establish the critical role that this important genre has played in the history of art and fashion."
Camp scholars, such as Sean Edgecomb, a notable theatre professor at the Department of Performing and Creative Arts at the City University of New York and author of Charles Ludlam Lives!: Charles Busch, Bradford Louryk, Taylor Mac, and the Queer Legacy of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, are quick to point out that the timing for such an event couldn’t have been better. “It’s aligned with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots,” he says, speaking to the demonstrations made at The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village by members of the LGBTQ community in 1969, often known as the most important event leading up to the gay liberation movement. Yet timing, in this case, isn’t everything. Edgecomb says that camp as a subject to display through a litany of aesthetics is as contradictory as a scene out of Grey Gardens. “The whole point of camp is not to be intentional, so creating an exhibit as an ode to camp can be seen as counter-intuitive.”
A few major designer pieces on display in the exhibit include garments from Franco Moschino (a t-shirt with the words “Too much irony”), Gucci (a trompe l’oeil cape) and Marc Jacobs (an opera coat featuring a print of a very agitated Maria Callas getting served a legal summons).
“I hate to be the party pooper but displaying items like a coat featuring that famous Callas photograph just seems so literal, and true camp is really about hidden meanings. It’s about finding a kinship with queer people and artists through a certain mode of communication – it’s not just through colourful objects or outfits,” says Edgecomb. He’s quick to remind us that the history of camp is steeped in activism. “Queer performers such as Charles Ludlow and Taylor Mac have used camp as an expression of political rage to help gay liberation. We should not confuse camp as a system or an aesthetic that is merely kitsch, or dramatic. It’s messy and it’s definitely not premeditated in the way some of these fashion collections are.”
Rewatching Unzipped, a film on the making of designer Isaac Mizrahi’s Fall 1994 collection, supports Edgecomb’s theory. The ahead-of-its-time documentary, which predates an onslaught of reality TV-style programs, is credited with exposing the fashion industry’s campiest characters and customs. Mizrahi says he captured so much of the fashion world’s extra behaviour because none of it was prearranged.
“You can’t plan that sort of thing,” Mizrahi says from his New York home, while taking a break from promoting his new memoir, I.M. “We tried scripting a few parts but used none of the footage – all of the high camp moments are spontaneous and spur of the moment,” he says. Key scenes that are unintentionally funny include supermodel Linda Evangelista swearing and giving severe side eye to the camera; Eartha Kitt clawing at Mizrahi while purring, “Are you going to make me gowns?”; and the designer getting hysterical about potato chips being too close to him. “We peeled back the curtain to show that intensity … A lot of this wasn’t supposed to be funny,” he adds.
For camp to be at its best, there has to be an intent or wantable achievement, where you’re not quite hitting what you set out to do.— Jeffrey McHale, director
Mizrahi’s exquisitely written memoir, which chronicles the behind the scenes of his behind the scenes documentary, further proves that the creation of camp is difficult to define. “We laughed at the pain after we restyled it and gave it our spin, so it was easier to digest. That’s what you did in New York City when you were a gay man dealing with so much against you, things like the threat of HIV/AIDS or getting bashed. You made your own world and you had to exaggerate the boring stuff or agonizing rejection or danger out there to work through it.”
In most eras, those who dared to challenge gender identity were not considered in a category of good taste. Which is why camp became a prompt to members of the LGBTQ community who rarely saw themselves in movies, books or plays. It was a way to translate and transform the notion of “normal” and redefine catastrophe into brilliance. Looking at successful queer online figures such as actor Drew Droege (whose YouTube send-offs of actor Chloe Sevigny gave him an entry into TV and Broadway) and Sebastian Tribbie (his camp-laden memes made him the focus of an forthcoming doc called Public Figure), camp remains one of the greatest content creators and the most influential of influencers when it comes to the LGBTQ community.
The cultural cults that camp creates are explored in a soon-to-be-released documentary called You Don’t Nomi, which praises and obsesses over Showgirls, one of the biggest flops in movie history. Lauded as of the most anticipated documentaries on Tribeca Film Festival’s lineup this year, You Don’t Nomi was a 15-year-plus labour of love by queer director Jeffrey McHale. He feels Showgirls deserves to be a part of what he calls “the sacred trinity of camp cinema – a threesome that includes Valley of The Dolls and Mommy Dearest.”
“For camp to be at its best, there has to be an intent or wantable achievement, where you’re not quite hitting what you set out to do. Showgirls does this in spades,” McHale says. “Paul Verhoeven thought he was making a masterpiece. It ended up getting nominated for 13 Razzies and it won six.” The film was supposed to be an in-depth, poignant look at Nomi Malone, a grifter who begins her career as an exotic dancer in Las Vegas. Verhoeven’s cues, paired with an outlandish script and reams of intense overacting, gives off an All-About-Eve-on-Tide-pods feel in every frame. Every piece of dialogue is delivered with such drag-like, Oscar-thirsty intensity from actor Elizabeth Berkley that the film is often cited as a career killer.
“Elizabeth Berkley performance is straight up camp in its purest form … she’s only operating on extremes, there is nothing subtle about her delivery – every move, kick and room exit is a storm and every emotion is heightened. She makes the film a two-hour GIF,” says McHale.
The choreography, the insipid dialogue (including a scene with the mispronunciation of Versace as “Versayce”), the plot choices (called out by critics for being extremely misogynist, racist and homophobic) are so excessive that drag queens around the world began to screen the film to audiences, giving it new life and a new meaning to new generations. The popularity inspired LGBTQ-skewed musical and has amassed thousands of internet spoofs and homages.
“It’s a bit sad but the next generation of queers and queer allies need stuff like this around to feed off, but risks like Showgirls are just not being taken any more because filmmakers don’t have the opportunity to make mistakes. Studio budgets, censors and the way Hollywood works today doesn’t allow for massive failure on this scale,” says McHale.
Instead, the litany of camp-wannabes can be found everywhere you stream. Remakes of high-voltage eighties glam dramas such as Dynasty, reality TV featuring drag queens and jaunty hairdressers trying to read people and their looks (see RuPaul’s Drag Race and Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye) all fall into a diluted, subdued intentional category of camp. “We need more of that failed seriousness Sontag writes about,” McHale says. “I think that outrageousness gives us a sense of truth of what is really going around us.”
These are the creative risk takers who have defined camp for generations.
The author of Notes on Camp, a famous essay published in literary journal the Partisan Review, Sontag tried to define camp as “esoteric – something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” The sponsor of such a sensibility and system is named in the essay as the LGBTQ community, a.k.a. “an improvised, self-elected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.”
An English writer, actor and former sex worker, Crisp is often called the Grand Dame of camp because of his famous biographical memoir-turned-film, The Naked Civil Servant. He was a makeup- and frock-wearing genderfluid pioneer camping up the middle of suburban England and midtown Manhattan with a cannon of one-liners. Crisp can be credited for the phrases, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style,” “Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level“ and, most famously, “Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.”
No pop star has been able to weave a camp sensibility into his, her or their craft as successfully as George O’Dowd. As the lead singer of Culture Club, an eighties-conquering musical quartet that went on to win Grammys and dominate the billboard charts, Boy George reimagined himself as a litany of icons, including a Rasta Cleopatra, a punk Mary Magdalene and a Joan Collins/Joan Rivers inspired Geisha. In interviews, the singer/songwriter/DJ/author/producer peppers his answers with a sampling of campy self-descriptions on who and what he is (i.e. “Behind this limp wrist is an iron fist”).
Transcending all perceptions of what it was to be a soul singer, Sylvester’s transgressive performances in the seventies encoded dance floors with political and camptastic anthems that commented on rough romances (“Do You Wanna Funk?”), identity politics (“I am what I am”) and the glory of postcoital after glow (“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)"). Also: Sylvester’s wardrobe and wig collection was fuelled with so much high-impact glamour that he’d eclipse any venue’s light system or mirror-ball installation.
Making the garbage gorgeous, Waters’s nickname, “the pope of trash,” was hard won with suburban-mocking, class-attacking, status-quo shaming black comedies such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Mondo Trasho, making an icon out of his drag-queen star, a scandal magnet named Divine.
Surveying Swinton’s career, from playing the gender-blending Orlando in the film adaption to Virginia Woolf’s book, to creating the craziest culinary scene in Hollywood (via her prawn-eating moment in I Am Love), Swinton’s severity on screen makes her camp royalty. Her CV also includes performance-art pieces that had her licking coats and having deep, meaningful conversations with a pompom scarf.
It’s been 119 years since Wilde passed away but his ornate stories and baroque observations continue to fuel the camp fire. With killer charm and wicked wit, his commentary on uptight gentlemen and upper-crust ladies was served with unbridled gayness. Sontag dedicated Notes On Camp to the man.