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The infamous first Monday in May—formally known as the Met Gala—has come and gone! The pink carpet was rolled out; celebrities gathered on Fifth Avenue in their sartorial interpretations of camp; there were a few memes and a few laughs had; there were some triumphs and some flops; and the reviews are still rolling in.
Inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” this year’s theme and exhibition sought to bring to life visually the elusive sensibility and ubiquitous aesthetic that camp suggests. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibit’s purpose was to “examine how the elements of irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration are expressed in fashion.” Camp is performative, over-the-top, unapologetic, excessive, delightful yet intentional vulgarity, an animated outward expression of identity, and the calling out of a current state of affairs in a way that forces one to pay attention. Being that this year’s Met Gala theme was so broad, the options were limitless as to how the attendees dressed for the occasion. This theme was arguably one of the best the Met has seen.
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In many discussions surrounding camp and its origins, there has been an overwhelming focus on gender and sexuality (especially as camp centers queer culture in how its been identified), but so often it is seen through a white lens. Within this gaze is where figures like Cher, Lady Gaga, and Jeremy Scott are crowned camp icons. In her essay, Sontag only mentioned one personal of color in her random listing of examples that were “part of the canon of camp,” ignoring the multiplicity of camp and the impact to the term that black people had before she wrote this essay. Fashion historian Darnell Lisby shared with Teen Vogue: “One reason black culture is not within the ‘camp’ conversation is because the term itself has a lot of basis in theatrical, outlandish, exaggerated, and extreme fashion. Even though I believe there are so many examples of ‘camp’ in black culture, there is a broad paint stroke over the black experience, which is perceived to be downtrodden instead of vibrant. In essence, it seems like many forget about icons like Prince or Jimi Hendrix, who were the epitome of this term.” Despite being left out of the general discussion, camp is an aesthetic that spans various areas of black culture—from fashion to music to hair to film. Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston highlighted a crucial characteristic of black expression—“the will to adorn” and “desire for beauty” and “decorating a decoration”—that speaks to the amount of swag, flair, and envied creativity we naturally possess and shows up in more ways than one.
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In a time that predated “Notes on Camp,” the term manifested itself in the way Josephine Baker adorned herself ostentatiously in feathers, headpieces, sequins, rhinestones, and, famously, bananas. Baker utilized ornamentation as a means to make a self-referential statement of empowerment, to mimic and parody society, and to craftily reject racial and gender typecasting. Camp also showed itself in zoot suits—popularized by men in black communities and jazz musicians who wore them during performances—with their exaggerated appearance and the way that they were designed, featuring an oversized fit, a long coat, wide legs and wide shoulder padding. Camp showed up in the way that Paris Is Burning immortalized the larger-than-life personalities like Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey, and more. The term exists in ballroom and drag culture, in the vernacular and references that came from within the LGBTQ community long before being adapted (and watered down) by the mainstream. Grace Jones was a good example of the aesthetic and sensibility of camp, as her eccentricity, androgyny, and overall style was always known to turn heads, spark conversations, and challenge gender stereotypes. The same elements of the term also show up in the pimp peacock style of dress. From the hairstyles and hats to gaudy jewelry and flamboyantly patterned suits to the canes and other accessories of choice, the pimp style definitely has a recognizable aesthetic, one that can still be seen on-screen and at events like the Players Ball.
Image Credit: Out Magazine, Post Punk, CMG Worldwide
In fashion, camp showed itself in one of the most referenced menswear examples of the term—Cam’ron’s all-pink outfit in 2002. This look was audacious and extravagant. It was so ironic for Cam’ron to boldly wear such a feminine color and present such a masculine look. This look changed the game for men’s style in hip-hop. Another great example is Dapper Dan and the way that he redefined luxury in the 1980s in response to an industry that consistently shut out hip-hop artists and black people from the hood from experiencing their brands. Taking Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos and putting them on original pieces and other objects sent a strong message that black people could no longer be ostracized by the luxury fashion industry. Lil Kim, a posterchild for over-the-top fashions and sex appeal, is also a prime example. Her overtly sexual lyrical content, animated and theatrical appearances, and her one-of-a-kind, vivacious style present a convincing case for camp. Also blocked by luxury brands that wouldn’t work with her and her stylist Misa Hylton in the 1990s, the dynamic duo created original looks that portrayed themes of sex, dominance, and femininity that were loud, unapologetic, garish, and irreverent in the best possible way. Before Jeremy Scott was crowned fashion’s king of camp, there was Patrick Kelly. In the 1980s, the southern-bred fashion designer rose to industry fame not only for his impeccable designs but his reclamation of controversial and stereotypical black imagery and memorabilia like the golliwog, the pickaninny, watermelon, and the mammy. He claimed ownership of those images, challenging the meanings they once held by showcasing them on elaborate garb with the assistance from gaudy runway shows.
Image Credit: Teen Vogue, The Source, Billboard, Vogue, Icon Mann, Fast Company
In the music industry is where a lot of camp aesthetics and sensibilities are found. Artists are able to communicate their personal brand of messaging to the world through the vehicles of song, visuals, and fashion. Artists like Labelle and musicians like Bootsy Collins used their fashion choices as an animated expression of their identity. The louder and more eclectic their style was, the better. Little Richard, Prince, and the Isley Brothers used their style as a means to challenge the stereotypes surrounding men’s fashion, redefining the image of masculinity. Missy Elliot utilized her music videos and songs to showcase her vast range of creativity. Artists like Busta Rhymes, Ludacris, and Outkast did the same, using animated and outlandish tactics to show their range as artists and portray various messages to enhance the overall musical experience. Even if a visual was weird or the viewer wasn’t immediately hip to what was happening, the art could be appreciated either way. Very camp.
Image Credit: Rolling Stones, Harper's Bazaar, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Vice, The Source, Grailed, Billboard, Vevo
Blackness and camp also join forces onscreen. Generational fav The Wiz is a great example of camp sensibilities in the way that the black experience featured is so elaborate. The film represents a fantasy for the viewer to fall into. Blaxploitation films from the seventies and the way that they show an exaggerated and animated view of black life but with a distinct message are also a notable example. My favorite example of black camp onscreen is B.A.P.S., the 1997 comedy that told the story of two southern women played by Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle that travel to California to chase their dreams and every hilarious moment in between. From the storyline to the main characters’ infamous elaborate hairstyles to their bright and vibrant clothing designed by Ruth E. Carter, B.A.P.S. proves to be camp all around. “In B.A.P.S., the idea of having fun with a Southern girl’s version of ‘making it big in Hollywood’ was for me a kind of commedia dell’arte. B.A.P.S. created a ‘campy’ look by using unconventional fabrics with recognizable yet exaggerated shapes and fabrics that were fashioned to make a bold statement. With this, the characters become the ‘camp’ version of themselves in high society. There is a close relationship between ‘camp’ and farce. The idea or the story is the farce. The farce influences the design. But it’s the idea of ‘failed seriousness’ that brings to life a clear story and a bold statement that is truly camp,” the award-winning costume designer shared with Teen Vogue.
Image Credit: Essence
As surely as art imitates life, the infamous hairstyles in B.A.P.S reflected what was going on within the black hair community at the time. Hairstyles were getting more intricate, styled in ways that valued artistry and creativity over practicality. Hairstylists were taking average, everyday hairstyles and revamping them into fun, over-the-top, sculptural masterpieces. Enter hair shows like the Bronner Brothers International Beauty Show and the Detroit Hair Wars. These shows were introduced to showcase the stylists’ talent and creativity, as well as a celebration of the limitless styling possibilities of black hair. Pop culture scholar and retired cosmetologist Clitha Mason couldn’t deny the camp sensibilities that shows like the Detroit Hair Wars evoked. “Not only did the shows possess the queer sensibilities that is a camp essential, they were subversive in ways that critiqued the opulence portrayed by the wealthy white population through hyperbolic renditions of opulent lifestyles.” These shows were a way to put black creative vision and inventiveness on display, showcasing a fantasy that was free of any outside limitations.
Image Credit: CNN, NPR, BET, Essence, Wonderland Magazine, Dazed, New York Times/ T Magazine, i-D
Blackness is camp—in an entertaining, empowering, and political sense. The term has always existed in our culture; it’s broader than Susan Sontag’s essay could define. In the way that we exist freely and without apology, loudly and joyfully in the face of adversities, iniquities and the systems built against us is truly a significant testament to our impact and strength. There is a beautiful irony in that. Our continuity in pushing forward and pushing against social norms, our resilience is powerful. Host and fashion critic Bevy Smith matched this sentiment in a statement with NYLON: We do this with no fear of what ‘they’ will think. We do this for the culture!”
Who do you feel embodies the aesthetic and sensibility of camp? Who would you add to the list? Leave a comment and let us know!
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