Part of what makes the Met Gala so entertaining is seeing how celebrities will interpret the theme. This year, they’ll be tasked with showing off their best takes on “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” For the uninitiated, the theme is inspired by Susan Sontag's seminal 1964 Paris Review essay "Notes On 'Camp,'" in which she aimed to define the intersection of high-brow art with mass culture (think: Andy Warhol, Banksy, but also reality television and meme culture).
“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," Sontag wrote in her essay. "Camp is esoteric… something of a private code, a badge of identity even among small urban cliques… I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.”
“The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,” she explained. “Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”
As Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute explained to Vogue, “camp” can be a major signifier of queerness in the “urban cliques” Sontag mentioned above. But a lot of the conversation around the Met’s theme has left out another community — Black people.
Most of the messaging surrounding the theme has leaned heavily into what camp means in queer communities, but what about in Black culture? In Notes On The Uses Of Black Camp, an open cultural studies scholarly journal, Justyna Wierzchowska points out that academics often fail to include race when looking at gender and sexuality in camp performances. The journal notes author and Notre Dame professor Pamela Robertson Wojcik’s observes that critics do not usually explore race unless it’s to compare camp to black culture or blackface. “Such comparisons,” the journal states, indicate and strengthen the assumption that all camp is white.
"Camp: Notes on Fashion" begins with "Beau Ideal," an early 19th-century concept that describes the "perfect model of male beauty, often exemplified by classical statuary." From there, visitors are taken through a series of narrow corridors and low ceilings which expand into larger galleries. “Effectively, they serve as whispering galleries both physically and metaphorically,” Bolton said during a press preview of the exhibit. “The galleries start to open up with camp's move from the margins of society to the mainstream.”
While designers like Gucci, Moschino, Balenciaga, Giambattista Valli, Versace, and Louis Vuitton were all featured in the exhibition, there were only three Black designers featured in "Camp: Notes on Fashion.” Dapper Dan’s Gucci pieces made the cut but nothing from his ‘80s archive. There is even a section labelled “cultural slumming.”
“It goes back to: Who is the curator? What lens are these exhibitions being funnelled through?” Christie continues. “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."
Indeed, a lot of Black camp culture is still living, breathing, and evolving today. Camp’s presence in Black culture dates back at least to Josephine Baker, who performed her over-the-top performances in banana skirts during the Jazz Age. Morgan Jenkins recounted Baker’s impact in Vogue, writing “When she swung onstage in that fiercely swinging banana skirt in 1926, Baker brilliantly manipulated the white male imagination. Crossing her eyes, waving her arms, swaying her hips, poking out her backside, she clowned and seduced and subverted stereotypes.” Baker used camp to reclaim her image.
Both Beyoncé and Rihanna have worn Baker-inspired looks in recent years. Beyoncé channelled the Black Venus’ performance style in her video for Deja Vu. In 2006, she paid tribute to Baker while wearing a banana skirt at Fashion Rocks, on what would have been Josephine’s 100 birthday. Baker popularized the banana skirt during her cabaret acts in La Revue Nègre in Paris in 1925. At the 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards, Rihanna memorably wore a sheer Baker-inspired dress. The Spring 2011 Prada collection and most recently Marc Jacobs’s Fall 2016 runway notably referenced Baker’s signature gelled hair.
Similar to the way Josephine Baker used camp for political gain (her performances challenged the rules of acceptable sexual behavior in public), the Blaxploitation films in the ‘70s were much more than a genre. By using subverted stereotypes, the films were able to shift the narrative from harmful to progressive. The term Blaxploitation literally means black exploitation. In the mid-70s, following the critical acclaim and box office success of Shaft and Superfly, a whole new crop of black films were mass produced in Hollywood — many capitalizing on and subverting negative stereotypes of black Americans.
“Costume was an essential part of blaxploitation,” Chris Laverty, costume consultant and editor of Clothes on Film, writes. “What these characters wore on-screen had to represent and entice. In a sense it was social progression, the essence of the self-made man; readable entirely by what he wears. Narrative was indirectly powered by the coveting of clothes as visual representation of having ‘made it’. Stories would either begin with the protagonist at a point of success, immediately positioning the young black audience as admiring spectators.”
When B*A*P*S (which stands for Black American Princesses) premiered in 1997, film critic Roger Ebert gave it a rare “no stars” rating, and called the film “jaw-droppingly bad,” referring to its leads as “vulgar and garish homegirls.” John Petrakis, writing for the Chicago Tribune, took issue with the movie’s “grotesque” use of “the normally ravishing Halle Berry,” describing her character’s campy look as “platinum hair, a gold tooth, and a wardrobe that would make Dennis Rodman cover his eyes." Because the film leaned heavily into stereotypes often associated with Black people, much like Blaxploitation films, white critics found the film and its fashion offensive.
Black ‘70s disco icons like Donna Summer in all of her glitter, gold and statement sunglasses embody camp. So does Diana Ross and her over-the-top portrayals of feminine glamour. George Clinton and his band Funkadelic most definitely are camp. The way Clinton describes camp sounds a lot like the way Sontag writes about camp. To him, funk music, the genre he helped to make popular, is loose. “It ain’t that fuckin’ serious,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. He calls funk “party politics.”
While Clinton made his own universe where the dress code called for glitter hot pants and platform boots; more recently, rappers are carrying the camp torch. “Rappers are interesting,” former Essence magazine editor-in-chief Constance White told Refinery29 earlier this month. “I never know when they are deadly serious or going for high camp. I believe it’s part of the Black culture through the ages, sometimes adopted by the gay community.” For rappers, this idea of “making it” has seemingly always equated to a flashy lifestyle. The story of who they are is just as outward facing as it is inward — and you better believe it’s shiny.
For female rappers, Their “get money” outfits no longer consist of hoodies and grills, but are instead comprised of luxurious furs and neon-bright colours first popularized by Kimberly Jones, also known as Lil’ Kim. Misa Hylton and June Ambrose very much had a hand in crafting camp in hip-hop.
While Monday’s red carpet was noticeably absent of rappers — 21 Savage in Dapper Dan and Travis Scott in Dior each quietly slipped by — the "pimp/player fashion" a derivative stemming from Blaxploitation films would have been an easy way to wear camp, yet only Tiffany Haddish fully attempted that trope (complete with a cane and a ziploc bag of chicken in her handbag).
Given the absence of black designers and black cultural references in the Met exhibit, it’s important to enlighten the masses about black culture’s contributions to camp style. And to acknowledge how this oversight happened in the first place. As Christie explains, “cultural nuance requires people from that background to be involved, or someone who is committed to understanding.” In that regard, the Met Gala and the corresponding exhibit fall painfully short.