Don’t let tonight’s Met Gala attendees fool you – camp isn’t all about fun and games, glitter and rainbows. On a stage or inside a museum, this adjective might describe an exuberant aesthetic and an outrageous style walking the line of good taste, but as many queer people can tell you – being camp isn’t just a costumed performance. Actually, it’s a way of life, one that’s often ridiculed and considered as inferior to the mainstream.
This year’s big Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition is titled Camp: Notes on Fashion, and comes exactly a century after the expression camp was first defined via the Oxford English Dictionary as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals.” Men like Liberace, Elton John and Alan Carr have been considered poster boys of camp. These performative gay men, most often white and dressed in “fun” suits, represent only one aspect of what camp has since become. It was Susan Sontag who, in her 1964 essay Notes on Camp, widened the definition of the term into something ostentatious, frivolous, exaggerated and over-the-top; a social phenomenon that included everything from music genres and subcultures to film and fine arts. Despite becoming less connected to sexuality and more to aesthetics, the word camp, just like many other queer-defining adjectives, became a subtle derogatory term, this one used by straight cis-gendered folks for describing effeminate queer people.
Translating “camp” into different languages is quite tricky. According to Google Translate, the French equivalents are “kitsch”, “cabotin” and “affecté”, neither of them specific but rather descriptive words of behaviours and visuals related to what camp is about. In Croatian, there’s not even a similar expression – instead, it’s defined as “banalan”, a literal translation of the word banal. And being a camp man in Croatia is everything but banal. Whilst growing up and not being open about my sexuality, I was defined by my over-the-top personality and called by many a derogative word. Without knowing what being camp means, I was camp. The loudest in the group (both audibly and visually), flapping my little hands around into what some might mistake for an impromptu vogueing routine and joyously swaying my hips while walking. That’s a sashay if you’ve ever seen one. Dancing acrobatic rock’n’roll to the best of Pat Benatar and The Pretenders while shimmering in my multicoloured, Swarovski-stoned costumes. I was basically the Eastern European teenage version of Liberace. And while it all now sounds quite fabulous, this behaviour came with a price of being called those derogatory terms without even understanding the means of sexuality and attraction.
The first time I got introduced to the term camp was actually through X-Factor back in 2011. Part of Tulisa’s team, a group of two over-tanned glamour girls were described by one of the other judges as “camp as Christmas.” The duo’s name was 2 Shoes and they performed Something Kinda Oooh by Girls Aloud on the first week of live shows, driving onto the stage in a hot pink convertible. I had no need to google what camp meant – the definition was unravelling in front of my eyes. Soon after moving to London in 2014, someone on my course described me as camp. I found it offensive, probably due to not being at one with my sexuality at the time. It seemed like a (more) socially acceptable way of someone calling me gay without saying so explicitly. Yet it also made me rethink everything I thought of myself. And before I accepted my sexuality, I accepted my campness. Outlandish outfits became slightly more ridiculous. I started tying my hair with silk ribbons, all while going out to places with sequinned backdrops and drag queens performing. Embracing my inner cliché of camp was my trajectory towards experimenting with sexuality and gender to finally defining myself as a queer cis-gendered man. And here I am today, slapping on the keyboard à la Carrie Bradshaw whilst wearing a skin-tight printed mesh shirt and listening to I Want Your Love by Chic. Textbook camp, right?
For the past few weeks, Vogue Runway has been re-uploading important archive shows onto their website in celebration of them being featured at the upcoming Met show. Moschino SS94, Jean Paul Gaultier SS97, Versace SS91… The shows curator Andrew Bolton has quoted Susan Sontag’s seminal text as the leading thought for the process of curation which, according to the few released visuals, seems to be dedicated over-the-top fabulosity and extra-ness. How exactly the Anna Wintour Costume Centre will interpret the theme – I’m yet to discover. How Anna Wintour’s tonight’s guests will interpret the theme – I’m slightly scared of. With Gucci’s Alessandro Michele co-hosting the night along with Lady Gaga, Serena Williams and Harry Styles, a spectacle is guaranteed. Will this be the night camp finally becomes part of a global vocabulary? I sure do hope so.
by Dino Bonacic