Out of Fashion: Notes on Camp

When the Met announced its 2019 fashion show Camp: Notes on Fashion, I was rather excited about the theme. Having caught a few moments of its tail end, Camp promised a reminder and a re-inspiration of what being camp was all about, from the perspective of an adult that, like many of us, wonders where time went.

Oddly enough – and this is one of the reasons it took me so long to finally put my thoughts into this blog – I find myself quite unmoved by what I have seen and read so far on the Met’s website or in the news coverage by my favourite fashionistas, Robin Givhan and Vanessa Friedman.

Granted, I have not seen the show, that will happen one summer day soon in July, and I haven’t even had a look at the catalogue yet, other than its shrink-wrap version, lying on my desk in my office in DC, while I am here on this septic island off the coast of Europe.

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So maybe I shall change my mind on that sunny summer day in NYC. Aren’t birthdays all about pleasant surprises?

Looking at the images of the exhibition, though, I am a bit sceptical. What precisely is ‘camp’, and what effect is it supposed to have on contemporary sartorial inspirations? Last year, the Met’s Heavenly Bodies brilliantly traced the influence of the Catholic Imagination on the most secular and irreverent of art forms, i.e., fashion. To see the references, citations and appropriations by fashion designers from a transcendental symbolic realm into the profane space of fashion was something to behold. Whatever sartorial items are currently displayed in Gallery 999 (a conscious inversion of 666? A final commentary on Catholicism?) are frequently impressive on their own, but do not really add up to a coherent theme. Even watching the Met Gala provided a very similar impression. Whatever ‘camp’ is, Lady Gaga wasn’t it.

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Cindy Crawford: Definitely not camp.

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Janelle Monae: Maybe.

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Billy Porter: Most definitely.

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One of the inspirational sources for the exhibit is Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’ in which she describes it as a ‘sensibility (as distinct from an idea)’. More specifically, it is characterised by ‘a love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration’, a matter not of beauty, but of ‘the degree of artifice, of stylization’. To express such an aesthetic preference, however, also points to what it rejects and contests. We might think of this latter as a cultural background condition against which camp is cast in stark relief. If camp is ‘the off’, the androgynous, the epicene, this background then is one of ‘normality’, of (hetero)normativity, and strict social and gender roles. If camp is about play, irony and the démodé, then it casts its glaring lights on the real, the serious, and the modern. And above all, it undermines and deconstructs the really serious, the normal, the moral and the modern as just another form of theatre, just less fun, less stylish and less self-conscious about its performativity. And the fact that Sontag (re-)discovered camp in the 1960s is no coincidence, given the cultural changes and upheavals of that decade.

Bolan
© BBC

But if camp really needs this background to mobiles its aesthetic and social sensitivity, can it still do this today? I am not sure Sontag’s argument is properly reflected in Bolton’s statement that

Camp tends to come to the fore through moments of social and political instability, when our society is deeply polarized. The 1960s is one such moment, as were the 1980s, so, too, are the times in which we’re living.

Polarised we may be, but at the same time, the current cultural background condition itself is all too close to camp: artificial, fake, theatrical, abnormal and amoral. All this, just not in a fun and inspiring way. What is missing is clearly the irony, the knowing wink of ‘I know it’s fake, that’s why it’s fun’. And no, the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW is not the first camp president (nor, for that matter, the first postmodern president), as some misguided pundit wants us to believe. If anything, his regime has sucked the air out of any creative (sartorial) resistance, leaving only rather literal strategies such as pussy hats and Handmaid dresses available. When anything goes, yet nothing good happens, irony becomes the stuff of  late night stand-up comedy, but no longer styles our lives. Or to quote Bolton one more time, ‘What was subversive and political has lost its edge’ and thus, arguably, becomes mere costume.

But I might be wrong, of course. Venessa Friedman and Roberta Smith share some of my concerns about the exhibit in their great NYT piece, and yet come out of it inspired. And a sunny summer day in NYC might just still remind me of the joy of looking at the world askew.

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