What Is Camp? Reflections On Its Impact On Fashion Today

Have you figured out camp yet? No, I’m not talking about pitching a tent in the wilderness for a few days. I’m referring to camp as it pertains to culture, behavior, and aesthetics. This camp is the theme for 2019’s Costume Institute exhibition (sponsored, appropriately, by Gucci) and Met Gala (co-chaired by Lady Gaga and Harry Styles). And since the show’s title, “Camp: Notes on Fashion”, was revealed back in September, fashion obsessives have been scratching their heads trying to decipher just what the hell camp is.

Reflections on Camp
Reflections on Camp 7

Hundreds of articles and listicles have been written on the topic, many of which will direct you to Susan Sontag’s famed 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” which serves as the basis for the exhibition and marked the first time camp was explored in a serious manner. Here, Sontag defines camp as a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration…the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Effectively, camp is extra. It is outlandishly over-the-top, whether intentionally (defined as “deliberate camp”) or accidentally (defined as “naïve camp”). It is the ultimate high-low clash; it’s so tacky it’s fabulous; it’s so fabulous it’s tacky; it plays tricks on your mind and your eyes and causes all your previous notions of “taste” to explode like a glitter bomb.


At today’s press preview, Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s Curator in Charge, revealed that “Why camp?” and “What is camp?” are the two questions he’s been asked most frequently since the show was announced. “The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward,” he said. “We’re experiencing a resurgence of camp—not just in fashion, but in culture in general. Camp tends to come to the fore during moments of social and political instability, when our society is deeply polarized…camp is by its very nature subversive. It reacts with and against public opinion, confronting and challenging the status quo. The second question…is more difficult to answer,” he admitted. “The cultural historian Andy Medhurst once said that ‘trying to define camp is like attempting to sit in a corner in a circular room.’ Its elusiveness translates into virtually limitless calls and reference, examples springing from any time and place and all aspects of life including art, film, music, sports, and of course, politics.”

Reflections on Camp 1

Featuring over 200 campy artworks, objects, and fashions—as well as camp icon Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” which echoes throughout the galleries—this show is, as Bolton put it, “our attempt to sit in a corner of a circular room.” The exhibit unpacks camp from every era and angle, starting with Versailles and the courts of Louis the XIV  (Marie Antoinette is as camp as they come) and Louis XV; moving on to its associations with queer subcultures in 19th and 20th centuries (think: all things Oscar Wilde); delving deep into Sontag’s essay, displaying items the critic calls out as inherently camp, like Tiffany lamps and flapper dresses; and finally erupting into pure fashion which, as many have noted, is regarded as camp in and of itself given its reliance on performance and theatricality. In one section, naïve camp and deliberate camp are set side-by-side—for instance, a 1951 pink-and-black Balenciaga evening dress is shown next to Mugler’s irreverent Fall 1996 “Venus” black gown, which blossoms with aplomb into pink satin (if you’ll remember, Cardi B wore it to the 2019 Grammy Awards). The final gallery is the ultimate camping trip, boasting tongue-in-cheek Moschino looks, bursts of tulle from newcomer Tomo Koizumi; Bjork’s swan dress by Marjan Djodjov Pejoski; the Stephen Jones-designed pink flamingo hat from Schiaparelli’s Fall 2008 Couture collection; a glittering Cher costume by Bob Mackie; and so many more rudely marvelous wares. “As Sontag observed in her essay, ‘Camp is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgement,’” said Bolton. “In the end, the ultimate purpose of camp is to put a smile on our faces and a warming glow in our hearts.”


If you’re still unclear on the meaning of camp, you should probably head to the Met to get the full, feather-drenched, pink-splashed, sequin-spangled experience. But as you wait for its doors to open, prime yourself with the below reflections on camp from fashion’s foremost experts.

Reflections on Camp 3

Stephen Jones, British Milliner Extraordinaire and Creator of the Exhibition’s Headpieces


On when he became camp:

I think the day I dropped out of my mum’s womb, probably. It’s always slightly been a way of life. But I actually became conscious of it around the age of six. I used to work puppet shows and people asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up, and I said I wanted to be a puppet.


On why camp is so hard to define:

Because it’s just so many different things. It’s not a rock. It’s not the air. It’s an idea, it’s a concept. It’s not an emotion, like sadness—it’s something more nebulous than that, because it’s invented. Camp is twisted and perverted and contrary and difficult.


On what camp is:

Hats! Even the simplest hats because they turn your volume up to 11.

Reflections on Camp 5

On the campiest thing he’s ever done:

This exhibition.


Simon Doonan, Creative Ambassador for Barneys New York, Writer, and Camp Icon


On his first campy experience:

In 1962, I went to a Bultins holiday camp—it’s funny that that’s the case. Bultins holiday camps were these extremely tacky, cheesy places where working-class people went for a vacation, because after the war, no one was traveling. They had plastic parrots and plastic vines and orchids hanging over the swimming pool in this really crummy building. And I thought, this is great. It’s as if you’re swimming in a lagoon. At Bultins, everything was about facades and exaggeration. So Bultins opened the door to camp for me.


On why camp is so hard to define:

Camp is hard to define because it’s a shape-shifting lagoon of fabulousity. The minute you think you’re nailing it, you’re barking up the wrong tree. It’s very mysterious and there’s a reason Susan Sontag, instead of writing a piece, [explored] it in notes, because it’s so hard to make a coherent case for it.


On how to spot a campy person:

Camp people do things as if they’re doing them. So, in other words, you walk into a room as if you’re walking into a room. You smoke a cigarette as if smoking a cigarette. So everything is in quotation marks. It’s all about artifice. And that’s why camp people love old movies, because everything is artifice and exaggeration.


Bob Mackie, Costume Designer to Cher, Elton John, and More Camp Celebrities

Reflections on Camp 4

On how he discovered camp:

When I first started in show business doing costumes, I kept hearing all these people saying, “Oh my god, he’s so campy! He’s a big Camp!” and I didn’t know what it meant. I had no idea. Finally, I just kind of figured it out and I sat down and said, “I think I know how to do that, whatever that is.” So I just did it.


On the campiest thing he’s ever done:

I don’t know! I’ve done so much tongue-in-cheek fashion and costumes for the stage. They’re always a little “more” and they hopefully make you smile. Dressing Elton John in a feather cape that went all the way around the stage was [very campy]. He said, “Would you do some things for me?” And I said, “What do you want me to do?” And he said, “I want things like Cher wears.”


Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute


On camp’s relevance:

What’s important about camp that people sometimes miss is how central it is to our culture. Because it’s become so mainstream, people often don’t realize that they’re performing camp when they are. I think you notice it more with the younger designers in the show because a lot of the younger designers, to me they’re playing with naïve camp because they’re creating camp without realizing it. Whereas the older designers, when they deploy camp, it’s conscious. Like Tomo [Koizumi]—I don’t think he thinks he’s creating camp. He thinks he’s doing something extravagant. Whether he would call it camp, I’m not sure. Mary Katrantzou and Vaquera (one of my favorite designers, by the way) are the same—they’re so camp. That’s been a nice revelation for me—the innocent way the younger designers are employing camp. 

Reflections on Camp 9
Reflections on Camp 8

Zandra Rhodes, Legendary British Designer


On the gilded, Fall 1981 gown she has in the show:

I wasn’t thinking about camp for that. It was from my Elizabethan collection. I designed it with the idea that it could be for [Princess Diana’s and Prince Charles’] royal wedding. Of course, I wasn’t chosen for it, but I thought it looked very royal anyway.


On what camp is:

Camp is looking at things in a slightly different way.


On why not all designers love being called camp:

Possibly because you’re designing things and you want them to be taken seriously—not as a joke. Sometimes, camp gets associated with the joke side of things. I’ve never done things to be intentionally “camp.” I do things to be Zandra Rhodes, and if they take it as “camp,” they take it as “camp.”


Gill Linton, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of vintage platform Byronesque


On what camp is:

Camp puts fear in people who judge, because they are afraid to be themselves. It is having the courage of your convictions, to provoke and polarize. It’s what fashion is meant to do, but has lost its way.


On the red glitter Margiela Tabi shoes featured in the show:

We represent the collector who has proudly lent the Margiela red glitter Tabi shoes for the exhibit. What people don’t see is that in 1995, Martin Margiela hand signed them and donated them to [AIDS coalition] Act Up. It was only today, when Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” played throughout the exhibit, that I realized they were perhaps a nod to Dorothy. There’s no place like being camp.

No more articles