What led you to believe that something is considered camp just because it’s ugly?
It was 2019. I was a sixteen-year-old disco-loving John Waters fanatic with a passion for high fashion. When I heard that the theme for the Met Gala of the year would be “camp,” I was over the moon. As you may know, camp, as defined in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes On Camp,” is a mode of aestheticism that emphasizes the exaggerated, esoteric, and the obscure. Camp portrays life as a wonderfully kitsch, sexless, naïve and extravagant form of theatre. By exaggerating the performativity of everyday life, the camp subverts the mundane expectations of the status quo. Until then, the camp had primarily served as a relatively niche element of queer culture. To my naïve young mind, this world-famous fashion event had the power to bring a new appreciation to camp art. I dreamed of Venus Xtravaganza inspired clothes and makeup that would make Amanda Lepore look like a natural beauty.
My excitement quickly turned to disappointment realizing that almost no one was paying homage to the theme — at least heterosexual cisgender people. I can’t even begin to describe my abject horror at seeing gay icon of straight profession, Harry Styles, walk down the runway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in what could easily be mistaken for an outfit I would wear to do the grocery store. High-waisted pants with ruffled collar. Are you kidding me? Where is the campy spirit of extravagance? The status quo will not be overthrown by a white cishet guy in straight pants. Many straight publications praised Harry, stating that his lackluster pedestrian attire disrupted gender roles. Apparently, the very essence of toxic masculinity was destroyed by the singer wearing a pair of clingy two-inch high heels and a singular pearl earring.
In a post-2019 global Met Gala, there has been a steady increase in camp hijacking. Over the past three years, I have observed this deplorable offense being committed in a multitude of different non-camping settings. Until recently, camp was a widely revered aesthetic in the queer community — almost exclusively. But now that members of cishet society have grasped the glorious opulence of the camp, the term is so misused that many have no semblance of its meaning or origin. For example, I once saw a woman proudly proclaim that an impossibly old fashioned, short-lived, pastel pink bodycon dress was campy simply because it was mediocre. Even in the development of this piece, I was told: “Yes! Let things be ugly!
Why did the perception of the camp move away from the subversive aesthetic towards the ugly and the mediocre? Was global publicity and misrepresentation of the camp to blame?
This blatant misuse of the term “camp” may seem subservient. However, the misattribution of camp reflects a larger cycle of appropriation. Privileged individuals attempt to choose terms and iconography from cultures they are not part of, then twist those ideals into something completely different from the original concept. Due to direct misrepresentation, Camp is less identifiable as a countercultural aesthetic movement. Instead, camp is simply seen as cheap and unattractive. I would even argue that Sontag herself appropriated the camp by omitting the contributions that black gay men made to the camp.
That appropriation is addressed by another look from the 2019 Met Gala. Lena Waithe arrived on the pink carpet wearing a tiffany blue pinstripe suit with “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp” embroidered on the back. Upon closer inspection, it is revealed that the stripes are actually the lyrics to a number of songs by black queer icons such as Sylvester, Gloria Gaynor, Rupaul, and Thelma Houston, among others. Regarding this look, Waithe said, “For me, I really wanted to make sure my outfit represented the black drag queens that started this camp thing about being on top and all that jazz.”