“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance”, Susan Sontag’s celebrated 1964 essay, Notes On Camp reads. Fifty-five years on, it served as the force behind New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibit and the Met Gala 2019, making it one of the most iconic red carpet, or in this case, pink carpet.
Camp: Notes On Fashion, the Met’s exceedingly perplexing theme has a rich history involving queerdom, feminism, and politics. Anyone definition of camp doesn’t do it justice. Camp with its 300 years of history cannot be contained by words. The liberation, power, and empowerment it embodies, can be seen, felt, and emulated, but not defined. The inability to define or contain Camp in itself is Camp.
“Ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual” was Oxford Dictionary’s definition of Camp in 1909. Today, Camp is a raw, powerful phenomenon of abandoned oppressive values and cultural limitations, and unabashed, proud self-expression that defies norms and can’t be contained in the clutches of culturally-imposed values and morality.
though a lot of people brought Camp to life, and with it its long history of oppression, politics, and emancipation, Michael Urie definitely won Camp.
Where culture dictates there should be morality, Camp is perverse. Where it dictates there should be simplicity, Camp is loud. Where shame is expected, Camp is unabashed. To be a deviant, a maverick, and unapologetically liberated, and to occupy disallowed spaces is Camp. Reclaiming words, spaces, traditions, expressions is Camp.
The most simplistic, albeit inadequate, definition of it would be, unabashed self-expression through over-the-top, exaggerated, and extravagant fashion, and that’s what we saw on the Met Gala pink carpet.
Camp has a long-standing affiliation with male homosexuality, extending back to 17th century France where the word is said to have taken origin from the French ‘se camper,’ meaning to pose boldly. But it isn’t limited to the tale of reclaiming of spaces by queerfolk. It is, in ways, queer liberation. It allows queerfolk, especially queer men, to reappropriate the stereotypes used in their oppression. The stereotype of gay men being effeminate and woman-like are reappropriated through fashion, another stereotypical tool used in their oppression. It does the same for other queerfolk, as well. Camp can be the safe-space to be themselves, that queerfolks are denied in cultures over-run by heteronormative ideals.
Camp is also a challenge to traditional, heteronormative, toxic masculinity, the myth of which men and boys continue to succumb to, to this day; which continues to shape their lives in violent, aggressive ways. It allows men to shrug aside violently imposed masculine expectations and tread into territories that they have been marked out of. It allows men the expression they aren’t allowed by the patriarchy. It allows them to feel liberated and empowered in their self-expression, however deviant it may be from the norm, it allows men to celebrate who they are, unabashedly, loudly, and forcefully.
Though fashion might be a term traditionally associated with women, Camp redefines the scope of fashion for women. Camp is loud, defying not just expectations of fashion, but also of culture. It pulls women into focus, away from the sidelines they are taught to exist on, away from myths of docility, obedience, dignity. Cardi B’s extravagant, feather dress does just this, which, by cultural standards is shockingly inappropriate and perverse; and is loud and bright, occupying space that women aren’t afforded, especially women of color like her.
Camp makes a political statement about the different. It is a challenge to the oppression that sexist, racist, heteronormative cultures unleash on those it weakens and makes vulnerable. Whose being, stories, experiences, and the very existence of whom it pushes away from spaces that it attempts to maintain for the privileged. Shaming is an effective tool of oppressors, by eliminating shame and challenging norms, Camp strives for liberation.
Perhaps the most simplistic and all-encompassing definition of it comes from Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele – whose designer house partnered with the Costume Institute for the exhibit. “Camp is a beautiful word because it teaches us in just a few letters how important it is to be free.”
As for who won Camp at the Met Gala: though a lot of people brought it to life, and with it its long history of oppression, politics, and emancipation, Michael Urie definitely won Camp. Michael Urie’s look was a phenomenal, gender-defying sensation, a statement like no another.
Michael Urie’s half pinstripe suit-half pink tulle ballgown outfit in itself was a statement-making stunner, but the details make it revolutionary. The non-gendered accessorising is a profound statement upon gender as a social construct. Urie accessorised the side of the gown with heavy black shoes, his half-bearded face, and his tattooed arms. The side of the suit with stilletoes, a shimmery clutch, make-up, and a solitary earring.
Camp can now bring the stories and experiences of those whose voice it has been, into focus, and amplify them for everyone to hear.
Michael Urie’s outfit isn’t just extravagant and iconic, it is relevant and powerful in our times of non-binary unacceptance. It acknowledges the vast expanse of lavender that lies between the socially-sanctioned pink and blue. It proudly displays the kind of gendered non-conformity that is bullied and shamed.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art adopting Camp as the theme for the Met Gala will allow for the emancipatory and radical essence of it to spread into the mainstream and to aid the feminist, LGBTQIA+, anti-racism, and other social movements birthed off countering systemic oppression. A term that can easily be disregarded in a homophobic, racist, and sexist culture, being brought into the mainstream by one of the largest and most glamourous red carpet events, Camp can now bring the stories and experiences of those whose voice it has been, into focus, and amplify them for everyone to hear.
From 17th century Versailles to today’s times, Camp is emancipatory, assertive, loud self-expression that is political and empowering. But it is essential to remember and honour Camp’s black, queer roots. Kareem Khubchandani, a queer studies and performance studies professor at Tufts University, while speaking to The Daily Northwestern said, “Camp makes profane the things that are sacred and is a queer way of knowing.” Remaining true to those origins, Camp today is black, the queer, the feminist, and the political.
Featured Image Source: Footwear News