Actor and producer Lena Waithe at the Met Gala in 2018 in New York. Credit: The Canadian Press/STRPA; George Marks/Retrofile RF/Getty Images; Francesca Roh/Xtra
Fashion
9 min

Whose camp is it, anyway?

As tonight’s Met Gala celebrates “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” a new generation of LGBTQ2 artists are reinvigorating and reclaiming this distinctly queer code

Depending on who you talk to, camp is having a moment in the sun, a comeback, a farewell tour or a funeral.

Much of this camp chatter has to do with this month’s unveiling of the ambitious homage Camp: Notes on Fashion at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit, which comprises 200-plus artifacts of artifice, is largely informed by Susan Sontag’s old-world observations in her definitive 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” inspired by the codes and conversations she witnessed among her circle of gay male friends. Tonight, the Met will celebrate the theme at its annual gala — a gathering of celebrities, models and fashion designers wearing the kind of debatable and click-baitable red carpet looks that will last a full news cycle.

The gala itself — an invite-only party that insiders like André Leon Talley call the Super Bowl of fashion — has two purposes. The first is to raise funds for the the Met’s Costume Institute; the second is fashion literacy. The Met’s aim over the past decade or so has been to showcase fashion as a cultural force that goes beyond the decorative, and exhibits like 2011’s Savage Beauty, which collected the most envelope-pushing designs from the late Alexander McQueen, resulted in a record-breaking attendance for the museum. All of which is to say: It is serious. It is superficial. It is seriously superficial. Which is exactly the way Sontag would have liked it.

Sontag’s essay identifies camp’s essence (“the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not”), its MO (“to camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation”) and its most genuine forms (“pure examples of camp are intentional, they are dead serious”). But Sontag’s treatise does not identify camp for what it had been and still is: a distinctly queer language, a queer way of reading and seeing culture and a queer form of survival in a world that is often hostile. While camp may not be exclusive to LGBTQ2 communities, it’s impossible to believe camp would exist without its main LGBTQ2 tribe.

In fact, the queer community’s camp read of the dreckitude of hetero-themed art, music and film of the late 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s should be regarded as the time the Kraken of camp was released. These earlier decades were ones in which camp was fed and led predominantly by gay men and often infused with political rage: from the idolization of MGM grand dames (see: Frank O’Hara’s poem on Lana Turner) to the way nightlife transformed street style (femme disco looks versus ultra butch style), parody and irony were VIPs inside and outside gay clubs of the 1970s. The evolution of New York’s Black and Latino ball culture during this period brought in a new age of extreme glamour, created by dance movements inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics and combined with fierce catwalk poses and riffs on couture and streetwear alike.

The lingo and dialect of camp secretly laughed at the tacky heteronormative mainstream and read it to filth by magnifying the parody, pastiche, theatricality, extravagance, excess and exaggeration of the times. Consider artists like filmmaker John Waters, who created subversive, campy films that critics defined as tasteless, rude and crude. One of his masterpieces, 1972’s Pink Flamingos, caused protests by puritans because the film concludes with its star, drag queen Divine, eating dog feces.

Given camp’s rich, gay history — and the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — emotions have been running high over the Met Gala theme. Scroll through any legitimate social media platform and you’ll find that the expectations for tonight’s event are higher than a pair of armadillo stilettos. One of the main concerns is how queer the event will turn out to be. For starters, there has been criticism of the fact that all but one of the event’s co-chairs are straight — they include Serena Williams, Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Anna Wintour. Another point of conflict was the omission of high-profile LGBTQ2 attendees. An inaugural list of the gala’s host committee, which leaked weeks ago, features heterosexual couples such as Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively and Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra front and centre.

In response, influencer @sohail posted: “Dear @voguemagazine NOT INVITING DRAG QUEENS TO THE MET GALA WHEN THE THEME IS CAMP IS A CRIME.” To which former ’90s club kid James St James replied with his own tweet: “And yet . . . how camp are drag queens anymore REALLY . . . they’re commodified, commercialized and too fashion-y by far to be truly camp. I think it’s the right call.”

There’s no doubt drag queens will end up making it to the red carpet tonight. The current winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race — a couture-savvy queen named Aquaria — has already taken over Vogue magazine’s Instagram stories. Still, there seems to be a disconnect between the very conventional and straight vibe of gala and the community it’s meant to celebrate. In the New York Times, Andrew Bolton, the out-and-proud curator, tried to explain the intention of the exhibit in a roundabout way: “We are going through an extreme camp moment, and it felt very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures.”

It is easy to understand where Bolton is coming from. We are in the midst of a drag renaissance of sorts, in part fuelled by the cross-over success of Drag Race. And outside the mainstream, a younger generation of performers who are re-interpreting camp for a digital age are building careers from camp roots. On YouTube and Instagram, actors such as Cole Escola are sending up Hollywood’s system (see: his take on the Oscars on his Instagram account) and bringing their wit and subversion to millennial and Gen Z audiences. Many are consumed with navigating identity and gender and how popular culture often gets it wrong. Comedians, writers and podcasters — like Julio Torres, who co-wrote the sensitive-gay-kid Saturday Night Live sketch “Wells for Boys,” his fellow SNL writer Bowen Yang, who does an expert lip sync of Tyra Banks, and Justin Martindale, who hosts Snapchat’s What The Fashion, a camp take on the now defunct Fashion Police — are making gold out of the garbage heap that the dominant culture is giving them.

It’s certainly not surprising, then, that this new generation of lovers of camp — most of whom won’t be on the red carpet event this year — see the Met’s camp exhibit as a missed opportunity. Actor Drew Droege has amassed a cult following with his podcasts, YouTube videos and TV roles. Over the phone from his his home in Los Angeles, he wonders about the Met’s true intentions: “Wasn’t it Sontag herself who said, ‘to speak of camp is to betray it?’ So much of the work I’ve done is about deeply caring about camp and how subversive it can be.”

“I’m just wondering why they didn’t choose the masters of the craft, the real culture disturbers, so they could do this right. Where are the drag queens? Is the gay history being represented properly? So much of what it means to be queer is being erased today. So handing over huge slabs of radical culture to a pretty conservative institution [like the Met] that may not know how to bring this message together could be problematic.”

Droege’s work includes impressions of indie It Girl Chloë Sevigny, the cartoon spoofs series Unicorn Planet and parodies of so-bad-they’re-good ’80s TV shows like Cagney and Lacey (reinterpreted by Droege and co as Fagney and Gaycey). His work has a groundbreaking, digital-friendly sophistication to it that is thoroughly camp nouveau.

“I would be nowhere without camp, the internet or wigs,” Droege explains. “I had to figure out how to translate a lot of the old Hollywood films that I watched — the ones with mean, monster, diva-like ladies that I am just so obsessed with — and give them all a modern spin. But I play them seriously so I could give them the layers they so deserve.”

Droege’s biting yet zeitgeist-reflecting camp sensibility has landed him roles on the TV series Transparent and Heathers. It’s also given him a chance to widen the definition of camp by creating one of the most critically-raved-about gay plays in the last five years, the hilarious, acerbic dramedy Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, about a single gay man who has to endure an oppressive gay wedding in Palm Springs.

Following in his footsteps are a slew of viral campsters, a new collection of talent who are reinventing the language of camp with every click. Actors such as Quinta Brunson and meme makers such as Sebastian Tribbie (of the @youvegotnomale Instagram account) are grabbing younger audiences whose sense of taste and humour is ginsu-sharp and ever-evolving. How? By using their own point of view and their public or private fails or those of their friends as context. In many cases, they are making the personal even more political by being much more open about who they are in relation to the camp language they use or create.

“Today, I think camp has to do with how seriously intense and extra everyone gets around their obsessions,” says Brunson, whose star rose after posting a YouTube video called “The Girl Who’s Never Been On Nice Date” in 2014. Brunson is straight and she wasn’t necessarily intending to capture a gay audience. But her catchphrase, “he got money,” was so embraced by gay fans that they claimed it as queer slang, and it was even remixed into dance tracks and played in clubs.

“My work is based on what I see and know,” she says. “I’m not making fun of it, I don’t come at it like that. I see it more as I’m just turning the truth up a notch on the speakers. I think that’s why [the video] did so well, so many women aren’t treated well on dates [and] so many queer people can relate to it because you have to laugh at the pain of life just to get through it.”

That idea of turning up the volume on extravagance and drama present is precisely what scholar Sebastiano Bazzichetto does in his independent arts magazine The Yellow Gloves. The online publication, for which Bazzichetto is currently the editor-in-chief, mines details of art and culture with an old school camp spirit and a sense of grandeur that is as subtle as a blowtorch. The writing is lavish and unabashedly extra — nurtured wholeheartedly by the editor’s own love of baroque poetry (he has a PhD in the field), his knowledge of the scandalous and socio-political history of Italian fashion (he lectures about both at the University of Toronto and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, also in Toronto) and late figures of Venetian style, like Marchesa Luisa Casati, who is said to have used her immense inheritance to transform herself into a living work of art.

The Yellow Gloves mixes camp’s antique finery with a sense of dedication and an eccentricism that is so far removed from the premeditated, catch-phrase-laden writing of today it reads as campy AF. For example, a trend thinkpiece on Anna Karenina appeared in a 2018 issue as if the book had just been released. Bazzichetto calls the tome “an unmissable appointment to those who want to enhance their personal journey while sailing the wondrous sea of literature” and says it “represents a tremendous mouthpiece for the most human feelings, as well as the complex social fresco at the twilight of Imperial Russia.”

“Today, communication can be too lowkey and boring for me,” Bazzichetto says of the magazine’s gallant style and tenor. “Why not talk about galvanizing things in a galvanizing way? The whole point of coming from this world — a gay world where you are seen as constantly breaking the rules, sometimes without a map or blueprint for life — is to recreate what you see and what you have into something better,” he explains.

“I don’t care what platform you use, we need to aim higher and to want to reach to a magnificent place. To me, camp is that desire to reach, it is an aspiration to be more than we are because let’s face it, people in the LGBTQ2 community are always told we are less.”

In the past, camp was a secret code and a tool for survival. Today, a new generation sees it as an escape route and a multi-faceted weapon that can help expose hypocrisy in a fast, meaningful and, sometimes, comical way. It’s also a reclamation of our past. As LGBTQ2 lives are becoming much more accepted in North America, our collective history is in danger of being lost or co-opted.

Time — and scathing or praising reviews — will tell if the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit is mindful of LGBTQ2 culture. But one thing is for sure: No one who gets the theme wrong on that red carpet will be left unscathed.