Camp is a style or, better put, a sensibility. It is a way of viewing things. As the New York Times's Styles Desk puts it, Camp is "an intentional over-the-top-ness, a slightly (or extremely) 'off' quality, bad taste as a vehicle for good art." Importantly, Camp resists definitions.
Fashion designer Jeremy Scott wearing a sweater featuring Spongebob roasting over a campfire. That's Camp on Camp on Campfire.
Some more artifacts possessing Camp:
Psycho Beach Party, John Waters, Donald Trump, Lil' Kim, the modern lifestyle brand Goop, Coyote Ugly, RuPaul, Pink Narcissus, Lady Gaga, Boyet in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Game of Thrones, John Travolta, Cecil Beaton, Kellyanne Conway, Muriel's Wedding, Lana Del Rey, soap operas, La Toya Jackson, Oscar Wilde, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, Carol Channing, vaporwave, Glenn Close, the Detroit Hair Wars, Italo Disco, Carmelita Tropicana, Molière, the problematic emo anthem "I'm an Emo Kid," Nicole Kidman's lace-front wig, and, according to Andrew Bolton, the curator behind the Met's upcoming exhibit "Camp: Notes on Fashion," even this list itself is Camp. “The endless list is, finally, the definite mark of Camp," he recently told Vogue.
The sensibility, practiced for centuries but popularized by Susan Sontag's essay Notes on Camp, is receiving its fifteen minutes of fame this week. Once relegated to fops, divas, radical faeries, and queer yippies (think of the people in John Waters's Multiple Maniacs), Camp has now reached peak mainstream: Bolton's exhibit, "Camp: Notes on Fashion," is the theme of tonight's Met Gala.
The gala, a yearly benefit held on the first Monday in May for the Met's Costume Institute, is a celebrity-attended fashion Bacchanalia. It is the event where the avant-garde meets the establishment. It isn't, however, usually this enigmatic. Last year's theme, Heavenly Bodies, was a bit more approachable. Sarah Jessica Parker wore a nativity scene as a hat. Rihanna dressed as the Pope. This year, who knows. Will someone wear this Moschino TV dinner dress?
Or whatever Lil Pump and Kanye are wearing in "I Love It"?
Surely everything Jeremy Scott touches is Camp, but couldn't the same be said of fashion designer Michael Kors? There is High Camp and Low Camp. What about Serious Camp? Meta Camp? Met Gala Camp? And, the often-asked question, what if Camp is just plain garbage? (Sontag says it isn't: "Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art [and life] a different—a supplementary—set of standards.”)
"We're in a time of such artifice that it's like Camp is all around us," says fashion designer Zaldy in this excellent NYT video on Camp (now):
Everything today seems to fit under Camp's umbrella. After all, the guy who performed mobster drag on The Apprentice is our fucking president! (Nature, I think, is still free from Camp.) Where do we draw the line when "RuPaul is not only in vogue, but in Vogue," as the clever Matthew Schneier recently pointed out.
RuPaul is a great case study on the limits of Camp. In RuPaul's Drag Race, RuPaul created a Project Runway-esque parody of what drag queens were doing in nightclubs. That turned into a multimillion-dollar international franchise. Now, to stay competitive, those same drag clubs RuPaul parodied are producing live parody competitions of RuPaul's Drag Race. What do we do with parodies of parodies of parodies? Have we reached the black hole stage of Camp? Has this sensibility become far too sensible and encompassing? Will tonight's Met Gala bring clarity?
Definitely not, but at least it'll be a spectacular mess. You can catch its red carpet coverage from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET. Lady Gaga, Harry Syles, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, and Serena Williams are hosting. The exhibit the gala is based on, "Camp: Notes on Fashion," opens May 9 at The Met.