What Does Camp Mean in Fashion: Explained

What Does Camp Mean in Fashion: Explained

In 1964, Susan Sontag defined “camp” as an “aesthetic sensibility” that is easy to see but hard for most of us to explain: an intentional over-the-topness, a slightly (or very) “off” quality, bad taste as a vehicle for good art.

Her 58-point ur-listicle, “Notes on “Camp,” builds on the feeling that something is “too much” and also contains it. Sontag says that camp is fake, passionate, and serious. Art Nouveau items, Greta Garbo, Warner Brothers musicals, and Mae West are all examples of camp. It is not planned ahead of time unless it is very well planned ahead of time.

Her list of camp dos and don’ts has grown since it was first published. Some, including the filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, have updated and expanded it to include references as categorically specific as “Twilight” (bad straight camp) and Sarah Palin (conservative camp)ic as “Twilight” (bad straight camp) and Sarah Palin (conservative camp). Still, Sontag’s treatise is still the most-referenced attempt to define a vague idea.

The essay is also the basis for this year’s Met Costume Institute show and the gala that goes with it. On Monday, when Anna Wintour’s campers ascend the Met’s steps for a first look at “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” few of us will be among them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t camp the way we want. What, among a random sampling of our exciting and tacky enthusiasms and passions, is camp—and what is not?

What do dogs do?

Dog shows began alongside county fair-type events like a cow and poultry shows and the like. Today, they don’t show any sign of the bad things animals do. Perfect doggy specimens are pampered and fawned over like models, but tragically, the dogs themselves never know exactly what’s going on or realize how hot they are. Furry celebrities are given bizarre personalities and desires by their owners, announcers, and fans.

For every Purina Puppy Chow-sponsored Westminster Dog Show, there are thousands (more than 22,000, according to the American Kennel Club) of smaller events happening all over the country where handlers trot around bright green synthetic show rings wearing pastel suit jackets and A-line skirts in every color you can think of. It’s a world full of stereotypes and fans who feel as strongly about their breed as they do about their religion. The only place you can win the coveted title of “Select Bitch” is in the dog show ring. EDEN WEINGART


Before she got plastic surgery, Cher was the picture of cool. In the 1970s, her partner in kitsch, Bob Mackie, helped her become a big deal by giving her rhinestones, bugle beads, and feathered headdresses. Cher became known for her sense of humor and almost self-consciously bad taste.

Cher has made a lot of bad movies, but she has also made a lot of bad songs. She is known as the sultan of schlock. “Believe,” a little bit of pop music that sounds like “Missing” by Everything but the Girl remade by Nancy Meyers, is the one she’s most proud of. But Cher can’t even be taken seriously by her. In 2018, she told The New York Times, “I’ve made a million albums, and most of them are terrible.” That was, of course, what made them good. It wasn’t by chance that she was the first real A-list diva to wow audiences for years at a time with Las Vegas residencies. Or that a show based on her life eventually made it to Broadway. Sontag asks, “When do travesty, impersonation, and theatricality become camp?” The answer is every time Cher shows up. JACOB BERNSTEIN

Donatella Versace

She has blonde hair, tan, gold jewelry, gloss on her face, and heels, heels, heels. She is both literally and figuratively Versace, but no one ever calls her that. She is so much Versace that it would be impossible to call her anything else. She is known as Donatella, or DV by her staff. The Versace stands out like a bright halo.

If Donald Trump is what a poor person thinks a rich person looks like, then Donatella is what a fashion victim thinks a fashion idol looks like: everything tight and beautiful, the jets, the parties, the famous friends, the Milan mansion, the smoking hand (she quit, but a cigarette, like a phantom limb, will always trail DV). This idea, which in the wrong hands could be gaudy or just glitzy, is woven into each of her clothes. Once, at a private appointment in a Versace showroom in Milan, a designer told me in all seriousness that a jacket’s “important shoulder” was what made it stand out.

Surprisingly, everything works. Even the ones who complain about fashion love who complain about fashion love it. People like her a lot. Versace is one area where they both agree. She has the operatic grandeur of a public tragedy (her brother Gianni was killed, and she took over Versace) and the personal struggles of an opera singer (the drugs, the rehab). As a result, drag queens and YouTubers Penélope Cruz (who didn’t do her justice) and Maya Rudolph (who did) have taken on the challenge.DV proved that she was in on the joke when she joined fake Donatella onstage, shoulder to shoulder. Bellissima. MATTHEW SCHNEIER

Kathie Lee Gifford

Morning show anchors are inherently campy, having dedicated their lives to sprucing up news—information that is by nature alarming or, on a good day, banal. Kathie Lee Gifford works with campers like these. Her sentences flow as smoothly as if she had memorized them years ago for a play about herself in which she was the star. She keeps playing this role for one night only, as a treat for her fans. Take a look at her last (ever) few seconds on “Today.” “Should I say something?” she asked herself. “Why not?” asked Hoda Kotb. In an instant, Ms. Gifford was holding a glass of champagne and speaking directly into the camera, quoting Jeremiah 29. Below her, a cartoon Kathie Lee was toasting a credit that said, “PROMOTIONAL CONSIDERATIONS PROVIDED BY CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE.” At the end of the show, she sang a song that she had written. Cheers. CAITY WEAVER


As soon as Villanelle, the self-mocking assassin played by Jodie Comer in “Killing Eve,” kills a Mafia boss by sticking a hairpin in his eye, it’s clear that she likes to go to extremes for the sake of drama. In fact, it’s pretty hard to miss. After all, Villanelle sees murder as nothing more than a fancy form of pretend play.

Watch as this clever killer, dressed in a pervy version of a milkmaid costume, guts her victim in the window of a brothel. You’ll be scared and laughing at the same time. Could you be blamed for thinking that what she did was a bold joke? Even Villanelle doesn’t seem to be taking it too seriously since her plan to kill is so funny and well-thought-out that it’s almost a parody of itself.

Even her clothes show how sarcastic she is. Villanelle wears clothes that are too much, like pink tulle or satin, a high-collared Edwardian shirt, or a regal negligee with gilded chandelier earrings that she wears during the day. She is the very definition of extravagance. Susan Sontag said that her style is like “a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” RUTH LA FERLA

John Waters

John Waters was the only director who really knew how to make bad taste fun. Divine, a 6-foot-2 drag queen, was his inspiration. In the director’s self-described “trash trilogy,” “Pink Flamingos,” “Mondo Trasho,” and “Female Trouble,” Divine made the sexual assault, foot fetishism, coprophilia, incest, baby kidnappings, and murder into big jokes. Divine’s hair was so big that it reached the sky, but her clothes barely covered her crotch. She didn’t act so much as sing karaoke on screen. Almost as big as her appetite was how she moved and how she looked. Divine only occasionally played characters who were easy to like. But Mr. Waters’ main goal was not to make people feel empathy. At the beginning of his autobiography, he wrote, “If someone throws up while watching one of my movies, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” JACOB BERNSTEIN

Russ Meyers

Russ Meyer was a director before John Waters. The “grindhouse king” of the 1960s made low-budget sexploitation movies with names like “Vixen!” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” that had more campy costumes than a Pride Parade float and campy dialogue from campy female characters who were so over-the-top vampy that they could have been played by Divine. Don’t worry about the fact that Mr. Meyer’s soft-core sex movies were made for straight men who wanted any chance to look at big, bare breasts before pornography was widely available. Eventually, the dirty-raincoat crowd gave up on this director, known as King Leer, in favor of films with Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers that were more explicit and boringly literal. Mr. Meyer’s legacy went to the people who could best understand him. John Waters said that “Pussycat!” might be better than any movie that will ever be made. If he was joking, then it’s even more ridiculous. ALEX WILLIAMS

Internet Astrology

If disasters are what define this time, then internet astrology is a powerful cure. It’s a fake science that memes exaggerate with a wink. Memes are a way to look at culture through an “everything in quotation marks” lens. Photos of Rihanna with a wine glass, Lady Gaga posing with her Golden Globe in a periwinkle Valentino dress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi with the cast of “Queer Eye” have become a way to understand, with questionable accuracy, the habits of the signs. Do Leos “despise taking orders”? Are Geminis people who “don’t get upset by jokes easily”? Are Sagittarians just people who like to work out and relax? It makes no difference. In a world with no future (e.g., threats of authoritarianism, climate change, and the coming takeover by AI), astrology’s sure predictions calm everyone’s fears and give us a shared identity, no matter how silly it may be. LOVIA GYARKYE

Mae West

“She Done Him Wrong,” a vaudeville-style movie from 1933, cemented Mae West’s place as Hollywood’s first queen of camp. The story takes place in a drunken saloon where Lady Lou, played by West, is the boss. She chews up and spits out every bad guy who’s “warm” for her. Back then, a woman’s sexuality on screen was often linked to her being weak. West made a difference. She comes into the movie in a carriage, wearing a big hat with feathers and holding a parasol. With her hands on her hips and her eyebrows raised, the word “woman” doesn’t even come close to describing her. Her clothes almost shine as much as her jewelry. Seriousness is the thing she dislikes the most. Even going to see a boyfriend in jail doesn’t bother her. Lou says, “You’re going to protect me?” when one of her many suitors tells her that her life is in danger. From where? Then she says, “I’ll write you a letter when I need protection.” JACOB BERNSTEIN

Strangers With Candy

In “Strangers With Candy,” Amy Sedaris wears half a fat suit to play Jerri Blank, a high school dropout in her 40s who goes back to school after spending years as a drug addict, prostitute, and then prisoner. In a style based (loosely) on the “ABC Afterschool Special,” our main character faces problems that are both universal and unique. For example, she has trouble making friends with the popular kids, resisting drugs, finding out she’s Native American, and getting sucked into a cult. At the end of each episode, Jerri breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience what she has learned, which is usually nothing. But there are some things to remember. Having someone to make out with is more important than having self-respect. Violence doesn’t solve problems, but it does win them. It’s easiest to be a single mother when you’re neither single nor a mother. It is a very polished piece of absurdist comedy. Jerri has a lot of makeup on. Her overbite stands out. Her hygiene is questioned. So, if you don’t understand these stories, do what Jerri says: “Think about it. I haven’t.” THOMAS LOTITO


When Supreme put an ad on the front page of The New York Post, which was for a long time the hippest of the city’s daily papers, fans of the brand rushed to pay $20 for a paper that usually costs $1.50. This kind of excess comes from the fact that there are far more people who want to buy Supreme than there are who can afford it. Every time the brand has a “drop,” hundreds of people line up outside its stores to spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of boxer shorts. Sontag says that a Supreme follower can be “serious about the frivolous and frivolous about the serious,” to the point where even the group’s founder, James Jebbia, is confused. In a phone interview with GQ, when asked if he ever thought Supreme would become as well-known around the world as it is now, he said it was about as likely as Donald J. Trump getting elected. ASTHA RAJVANSHI

President Trump

What Does Camp Mean in Fashion Explained
                      President Trump


The curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, told The New York Times when that show’s theme was announced that camp “can be a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures.” We usually think of “marginalized cultures” as being those of underrepresented minorities, but if you think about it, the angry white men who support Donald J. Trump would probably say the same thing about themselves, and he has been their blunt weapon. An orange one with tanner’s eyes, a blonde pompadour, and extra-long ties, because, well, you know what they say about ties: “Long ties, long… What? What do you mean? not true about ties, right? Well, in Trumpland, a world where things are different, they do.

Born in the campy world of reality TV, President Trump has become a symbol for behavior that makes people say, “It’s too much” and “I don’t believe it.” These are the kinds of reactions Sontag says are key to camp. The president always talks about how big his crowds are and how good his memory is, and his dislike of being politically correct is almost a sign. He’s the Louis XIV of today. Even more shocking is the fact that he has his finger on the button. VANESSA FRIEDMAN


“Riverdale” is like if “Twin Peaks” had a baby with every teen soap ever made. So, it doesn’t make any sense. Are the characters living in the present (and dying, once by crucifixion) or in 1960, as the decor suggests? Is Riverdale an hour from New York City or near the border with Canada? How can the parents be so bad, but the kids be so hot? The show’s look and feel are made clear by its weak plot, confusing details, and distractingly attractive cast. There are foggy rides through the woods, milkshakes at a retro diner after school, all-white cult initiations, and musical episodes that are almost impossible to watch. That’s alright. “Riverdale” isn’t meant to make people smarter; it’s just visual candy that looks like horror. BONNIE WERTHEIM

The Queen of England

The locks. The clothes. The purses. How much everything goes together. Queen Elizabeth II is not only the longest-serving female head of state in the world, but she also does head-to-toe black and white better and in more ways than anyone else. She has been an inspiration to many with her rainbow-colored glasses (which help her stand out in a crowd) and her favorite off-duty outfits of tweed, silk scarf, and pearls.

Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci and a co-chair of this year’s Met Gala, is one of the most vocal fans of her style. In 2016, he told The New Yorker, “The Queen is one of the most unique people in the world. She is a lot to look up to. She loves to color, which is obvious.” Insofar as the camp is about extravagance, her love of unique outfits, huge palaces, ornate state banquets, glittering horse-drawn carriages, and decades of polished public performance fit the bill. ELIZABETH PATON

Jim Steinman

Extravagance is what producer Jim Steinman does best. He helped make songs like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler and “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Celine Dion, as well as every song on “Bat Out of Hell” and “Bat Out of Hell II” by Meat Loaf. He is mentioned in the discographies of both Barry Manilow and Air Supply. The Long Island Music Hall of Fame has him as a member.

A lot of academics have been trying to kill off camp for a long time. But Mr. Steinman’s specialty, schlock, doesn’t have as much depth. The cousins of the camp who don’t have any irony, Objets schlock, are so bad that even regular viewers of the TV network CBS don’t like them. Even for people who like them, like me, Mr. Steinman’s heartbreak and desperation-themed mini-operas can’t be saved. They are too sad and silly to even try to be sophisticated. But when “so bad it’s good” is the norm, maybe the only safe place left is unredeemable. Bromwich, Jonathan Engel

Who knows what happened to Baby Jane?

Nothing says “campy” like watching two old divas fight with each other. In “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” Bette Davis plays a drunk, crazy, and delusional former child star who seems to have caused the car accident that hurts her prettier, nicer, and more successful sister (Joan Crawford) and holds her prisoner in the once-glamorous house they share. Davis has been wearing her jealousy on her frayed chiffon sleeves for over two hours. She turns away her sister’s visitors, plots against nosy neighbors, and even kills her sister’s pet bird. She says, “I’ll clean the cage,” and then she cooks it up as a meal for her sister. JACOB BERNSTEIN

Wood, Ed

He made flying saucers out of hubcaps and sets out of cardboard, and it was his bad habit to leave the boom microphone in the shot. People have called him the worst director ever. “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” Ed Wood’s science-fiction Z-movie from 1959, is often called the worst movie of all time. However, “Glen or Glenda,” his 1953 ode to cross-dressing, which starred Mr. Wood himself in beautiful angora, also gets votes. But he might have been better than we thought.

Since Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic “Ed Wood,” which starred Johnny Depp, there has been a kind of critical reappraisal of Mr. Wood, with his crude movies being called “outsider art” by his defenders. In 2017, the writer Johnny Mains told The Independent, “What comes across isn’t directing skill, but a lot of exuberance and enthusiasm, and I’d take that any day over a film that looks great but has no soul.” On Rotten Tomatoes, “Plan 9” gets a not-terrible 67 percent and is called the “epitome of so bad it good cinema.” Some people have said that “Glen or Glenda’s” portrayal of people who don’t follow gender norms was decades ahead of its time. In the end, the movie is 60 years old, but we still talk about it. It’s possible that being bad isn’t always enough. ALEX WILLIAMS

Moira Rose

In “Schitt’s Creek,” a family of spoiled, rich narcissists who has fallen on hard times is the focus of the story. Moira Rose is the show’s mother and biggest brat. Catherine O’Hara plays her, and she wears shiny fabrics. Moira has a lot of secrets, which is typical of “artists” who always want to be in the spotlight. Why does she have a North American accent with bits of French and Shakespearean vowels? What’s going on behind her fancy wigs? How many pills does she take, and can I take some? Why does she go to bed in a waistcoat and brooch? She is a grotesque example of what happens when you have a lot of money. Moira Rose makes me want to set fire to the rich while she says “Bebe” over and over again. ELEANOR STANFORD


New York has always been the center of American culture. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is the capital of the camp. It’s where Siegfried and Roy used magic to do horrible things. It’s one of Cher’s favorite places, and this summer, she’ll be putting on another big show there. It was also once home to Liberace, the piano peacock who was known less for his music than for his 16-foot, 175-pound sequined capes that cost $300,000 and a giant bed that was placed under a $50,000 replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Liberace was always sure of who he was. He is also remembered for his sayings, such as “Being naked makes us democratic, and dressing up makes us unique.” “When the reviews are bad, I tell my staff that they can come with me to the bank and cry with me.” “Don’t wear one ring, wear five or six,” of course. People ask me how I can play with so many rings, and I say, “Very well, thank you.” JACOB BERNSTEIN

Wrestling for a living

Imagine if Liberace was on steroids and wore his most Vegas-ready sequined outfit to act out a fake sports event. Or you could just watch any WrestleMania video on YouTube. “Ryan ‘Macho King’ Savage and Hulk Hogan are good places to start.” World Wrestling Entertainment and other shows like it have always been a mystery to people who like regular sports. What are those? Ridiculous. The action was absurd. How do you feel? Like the masks of comedy and tragedy, which are made to look a certain way.

If you agree with the Urban Dictionary’s definition of “camp” as “something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement by being artlessly styled, self-consciously artificial, and extravagant,” then pro wrestling makes a lot of sense. Strangely, though, there is no clear evidence that anyone involved with the sport has ever made the connection. If you Google “professional wrestling” and “camp,” you’ll find a lot of places where Junior can stay overnight and practice back breaks and power slams. Since 1972, when the French literary theorist Roland Barthes said that wrestlers were “the key that opens nature, the pure gesture that separates Good from Evil,” no one has done a critical study of the sport or spectacle. It turns out that academia can also be fun. ALEX WILLIAMS


On a stormy night in 1954 New England, a dinner party is held in an old mansion. Everyone who is usually there is there: Mrs. Peacock, who had feathers in her hair and wore cat-eye glasses; Miss Scarlet, who wore a satin dress, a chiffon shawl, and an oversized rhinestone necklace; and Professor Plum, who smoked a pipe and looked dapper in a bow tie and pocket square. All of them live in the D.C. area. Everyone is hiding something. And they are being threatened with blackmail because their extortionist thinks they are “thoroughly un-American.” As the night goes on, characters are violently killed for unknown reasons: With the knife in the kitchen! With the wrench in the study! With the pipe in the library! Everyone could be guilty.

The movie “Clue” didn’t do well at the box office, but it became a cult classic over time. At first, people thought it was just a trick. It’s based on a board game, so they might be right. It reminds us of the original in every scene: The story is full of false leads, hidden paths, and a wide range of possible outcomes. There are three different ways to end the movie. Which one did you watch? If you said “none,” you’re in for a real treat. KAREN HANLEY

“The Queen’s Street”

“Coronation Street” has been on for longer than any other soap opera in the world. It is a celebration of working-class culture in Northern Britain. It takes place in a made-up part of Manchester. The characters of Elsie Tanner, Bet Lynch, and Liz McDonald, who are sassy and talkative, seem to be the main reason why “Corrie,” as the show is affectionately called, is still so popular. Strong women who got by with style, wit, and sassy one-liners. After a day at the pub in rollers, the hair is big and puffy, and the nails are long and red. There are also fake eyelashes and high heels that make your nose bleed, leopard print, and shoulder pads. These women have been the talk of the British fashion world for decades. They are known as “Queens of Shade with Golden Hearts” (and our drag scene too). But if you make them mad, they’ll gladly use their handbags to smash your front windows. ELIZABETH PATON

Paul Verhoeven

In “Basic Instinct,” Sharon Stone was a star as a serial killer who used an ice pick and showed her private parts to police officers. But Elizabeth Berkley was even better in Mr. Verhoeven’s next movie, “Showgirls.”

Her other self, Nomi Malone, goes to Vegas to try to make it big, but she ends up taking off her clothes a lot. Nearly all critics didn’t like it, drag queens made fun of it, and top film professors like Jeanine Basinger at Wesleyan University put it on their courses.

“Starship Troopers,” Mr. Verhoeven’s next brilliantly terrible (or just plain brilliant) social satire, also bombed in theatres, but critics later gave it a second look. The mission of a testosterone-fueled military unit is to save the world from aliens that look like insects and bomb people on earth by farting asteroids. Over the course of the movie, the “federation” leaders’ clothes become more and more like those worn by the Nazis. A network like Fox News is nationalistic and sells the war (that also broadcasts criminal executions live). Denise Richards stars in the movie. She later married and split up with Charlie Sheen, which made her a perfect fit for “The Real Housewives,” the campiest reality TV show franchise.

The negative reviews confused Mr. Verhoeven. In a 2007 interview, he said that “Starship Troopers” was at least a reflection of things that were going on in American society at the time, like the rise of neoconservative ideas during the Bush administration. He also said that “Showgirls” was a “hyperbolic” way to talk about the “absurdity of a certain American reality.” JACOB BERNSTEIN

“Wet Hot American Summer” is a song.

A day at camp can drag on like beads of sweat in the summer heat, or it can be a whirlwind of hormones and hopes. In the summer of 1981 at Camp Firewood, time changes and age is just a costume. A young camper helps an arts-and-crafts teacher in her 30s through her divorce, while an associate professor uses doughnuts and Spam to make a machine that can change the path of space debris. In the span of a day, several relationships end and start again, rescue missions are carried out, and one person learns to control the weather. In the middle of the movie, a few campers and the director go to town, where they smoke weed, drink beer, steal money, buy cocaine, and get high on heroin. When they get back to camp, looking fine, one of the characters says, “It’s always fun to get away from camp, even for an hour.” VALERIYA SAFRONOVA

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