From Cher’s feathered “naked dress” in 1974 to Rihanna’s gilded pope outfit in 2018, the Met Gala is no stranger to camp. But this year will be different. Because this year, the Met Gala’s theme is camp. Titled “Camp: Notes On Fashion,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute exhibition and the gala that accompanies it have promised to “explore the origins of camp's exuberant aesthetic.” The exhibit will be framed around Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes On 'Camp,'" which describes what "camp" means in 58 bullet points.
Camp may be easier to identify than to define. Sontag's definition begins, "Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon." Her numerous examples — Oscar Wilde, Tiffany lamps, Flash Gordon comics — emphasize what she calls “the essence of camp”: an embrace of all things exaggerated, artificial, and over-the-top. Today, Merriam-Webster’s definition is “something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.”
Sontag writes that the concept of camp goes back to the late 1600s, "because of that period's extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry." However, the word camp wasn't used in that sense until the early 1900s. The earliest known use of the word "camp" (outside of the tents-and-sleeping-bags meaning, that is) was in 1909, when it appeared in "homosexual slang," notes Merriam-Webster. Some linguists believe that the word comes from the "secret language" of Polari, which was created and used by queer people in Britain in the 19th and 20th century. The language began to fall out of use after homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain in 1967. Polari blended many linguistic influences, and etymologists believe that the word camp was derived either from the French word camper, meaning "to portray or pose," or the Italian word campare, meaning "to make something stand out."
This means that there's one big thing missing from Sontag's definition of camp: queerness. In 1994’s The Politics and Poetics of Camp, critic Moe Meyer accused Sontag’s essay of “removing, or at least minimizing, the connotations of homosexuality” from camp, and defined camp as “strategies and tactics of queer parody.” Sontag does mention the influence of queer culture on camp, but not until near the end of her essay, when she notes, "one feels that if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would." In a 2018 essay on camp, linguist Chi Luu responds to Sontag with, "Would they have? I wonder. What other subculture would have the drive and the expressive urgency to develop something as frivolously influential as camp?" Sontag's essay doesn't discuss race, either, though some believe that camp's origins are in the Black community. "I believe it’s part of the Black culture through the ages, sometimes adopted by the gay community," former Essence editor-in-chief Constance White told Refinery29 earlier this month.
Erique Zhang, a PhD student in the Media, Technology, and Society program at Northwestern University whose research focuses on the fashion and beauty cultures of queer and trans people of colour, says that you can't discuss camp without discussing queer culture. They tell Refinery29, “I would call camp a very queer aesthetic in that it’s something that is so over-the-top that it challenges the norms of what’s considered appropriate.”
To better understand, let’s look at drag. “If there’s one thing about queer culture that is the definition of camp, it would be drag,” Zhang says. “Even in drag, it’s still a spectrum. There are camp queens — that’s a subcategory of drag — but even glamour queens are still camp, because it’s still an aesthetic that’s embracing this over-the-top version of femininity that isn’t truly grounded in what actual women are like.”
If it doesn't take queer history into account, the Met’s camp theme may end up being part of what Zhang describes as "the mainstreaming of queer culture." They explain, "I think there’s a broader cultural trend that’s been happening of mainstream pop culture referencing very queer cultural forms of production in ways that obscure the origins." Think of "yas queen!" rising in popularity due to its use in Broad City, straight teen girls making up a substantial part of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s fanbase, or, as Zhang has seen, the phrase "executive realness" used in an advertisement.
"['Executive realness'] became a slogan for some random ad that had no connection to the fact that this was originally a category in balls for lower-income, often homeless, working-class people of colour who were using corporate dress as a way of resistance," they explain. "There’s something going on when these cultural references are used. We're losing that memory, because people think it’s just a fun thing to say, but it’s actually rooted in a history of resistance forms of cultural production."
"Cultural nuance requires people from that background to be involved, or someone who is committed to understanding that," says Shelby Ivey Christie, fashion professional and host of the podcast Girl with the Bamboo Earring. "I think it’s really important for [The Met] to capture drag culture and drag costume as it relates to people of colour’s experience," she continues.
Christie says that she expects Black camp — like Black '70s funk, Caribbean Carnival costumes, Blaxploitation movies, and "pimp/player fashion" — to be left out of the Met’s exhibit. “It’s niche and specific to Blackness. It goes back to: Who is the curator? What lens are these exhibitions being funnelled through?” she asks. “If there isn’t a very diverse group of curators, or group of hands working on the project, then it’s not going to include that culture.” Any institution attempting to celebrate camp, she says, should "include gay men of colour and gay women of colour and people who currently participate in drag and Carnival. Bootsy Collins and Chaka Khan are well and alive, and I’m sure they have their costumes archived somewhere. Those legends are still here, they’re still breathing."
There’s also the danger of "camp" being flattened so that the mainstream portrays everything queer as camp — which is not the case. "Queer style is really broad and diverse, and whenever it challenges what the mainstream thinks of as androgyny devoid of any femininity, people are very freaked out by that," says Anita Dolce Vita, creative director of queer style publications dapperQ and Hi, Femme! "It really pushes normative expectations a lot. They’re like, ‘that’s drag’ or ‘that’s camp.’ They don’t look at it as real art, real fashion, a real aesthetic." While some types of queer fashion and culture, like drag, are camp — and camp can be real art — not everything queer is camp. “I don’t think all queer style aesthetics belong in the bucket of camp,” Dolce Vita says.
As Zhang puts it, “I wouldn’t say camp is synonymous with queer, but I would say that you can’t have camp without queer.” Will the “Camp: Notes On Fashion” exhibit and gala honor camp’s roots? Or will it minimize, flatten, or erase them? We’ll have to wait and see. But no matter what happens on the first Monday in May, at least we’ll have Rihanna.