The first Monday in May this year marked the launch of the Metropolitan Museum’s 2019 fashion exhibition — Camp: notes on Fashion. Of course, this launch also saw the ever-anticipated annual Met Gala return in all it’s glittering glory.
With a guest list as immaculately curated as the Met’s exhibition itself—and a mandatory OTT dress code—the Met Gala saw the glamazons of the world light up the red carpet (and our social media feeds) in a parade of dazzling outfits. The looks were everything from ironic to eclectic, fabulously flamboyant to eccentric.
Considering the Met Gala has long been synonymous with extravagance, frivolity and culture, this years’ theme perfectly encapsulated – and even further amped up, the gala’s legacy.
This theme couldn’t have come at a more timely moment. Conversations around LGBTQI+ and celebrations of sartorial difference—two themes that have played a pivotal part in underpinning and shaping the ‘camp’ style—are gaining more momentum in 2019 than ever before.
With sequin stars still in our eyes from May, we explore what makes ‘camp’ camp while musing on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” essay, celebrating camp elements in local designers’ work and it’s place in todays society.
Susan Sontag’s Notes: on Camp was the essay that inspired this year’s Met theme. Although published in 1964, her reflections on past and present styles in and their levels of ‘campy’ are still incredibly relevant today. 58 notes later, Sontag’s essay concludes that camp creations have wildly different aesthetics yet the same personality.
“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance,” notes Sontag, coining “a dress made of three million feathers” as an example. She nods to Rococo, Baroque and Art Nouveau as frivolous movements. It’s safe to say that the flurry of plumage and embellishments seen on this years’ Met Gala red carpet were testament the fact that it still is the case today. It’s not just the red-carpets: show-girl costumes, haute couture collections, eras of cinema femme-fatale ensembles, figure-skaters’ get ups, and even occasion pieces hanging in our own wardrobes have shown the far reach of this camp hallmark.
A number of local designers have become akin to camp through their celebration of extravagance. Trelise Cooper’s aesthetic is perhaps the most iconic in terms of extravagance, with collections featuring opulent elements in both small splashes and epic proportions. Karen Walker’s iconic eyewear pieces have also embodied this spirit through larger-than-life shapes and unique materials, as have World’s flamboyant suits, Harman Grubiša’s modern yet opulence pieces, and Yvonne Bennetti’s constant stream of sequins.
Many New Zealand designers have celebrated androgyny since day one: Jimmy D reigns supreme as a champion of androgynous pieces, new label Sweepstake Winners’ collections are exclusively unisex, and World and Jason Lingard also drop bold unisex collections that demystify masculine and feminine norms. In 2019’s fashion climate where we’re kissing goodbye gendered dressing norms, Sontag’s notes on the androgynous elements of camp are as relevant as ever. She sites androgynous silhouettes and “going against the grain of one’s sex” as “one of the great images of camp sensibility.” The Met Gala’s outfits certainly celebrated this—Michael Urie’s half-dress-half-tux look being among the most flamboyant, as well as a flux of feminised suits.
Another rhinestone in the camp aesthetic crown is artifice. “Nothing in nature can be campy,” writes Sontag who muses that camp is “a love of the unnatural” and that “camp objects and persons contain a large element of artifice.” Liza Minnelli’s overdrawn eyes and the outfits worn by the likes of camp icons like Elvis, Cher, Liberace and Dolly Parton prove that the artificial ingredients in camp looks can be more defining than the look itself.
Interestingly, artifice has always been part of mainstream trends—but more as something that should be hidden. Shaping undergarments created a figure to show off while staying covered-up, makeup was applied to quietly enhance natural features, and glass jewels were created to mimic precious stones. In 2019, however, we’re seeing mainstream trends celebrate all things artificial than ever. Beauty trends have strayed away from the confines of what is considered ‘natural,’ empowering people re-design every aspect of their eyebrows, opt for larger-than-life false nails for everyday wear and dye our hair impossible colours. In terms of everyday wear, materials like PVC, rhinestones and synthetic fabrics that hallmark “artificial” are being boldly embraced in garments for what they are. Acetate eyewear and PVC bags are some of the most notable trends, as explored by Karen Walker, as well as Kate Sylvester and Deadly Ponies, respectively. There are also emerging designers like Winie that embrace acrylic to boldly re-create jewel shapes into fabulously exaggerated trinkets.
Sontag also muses that the camp style sees everything in quotation marks. “It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman,”” she says, as camp sees things and people as “beings-playing-a-role”. In the world of camp, the metaphor life is a theatre; things also can be what they are not.
This irony has been seen in many kinds of art, from the Dada movement where everyday things turned into art with the touch of an artist’s signature, to Margitte’s “ceci n’est pas une pipe” painting and Warhol’s pop art. Campy representations of things also pop up in fashion, and instantly embody a new meaning: everyday items are turned into quirky patterns and prints, handbags are crafted to look like something completely other than a bag, and jewels are arranged to mimic creatures or things. Quotes and slogans are also literally embody “seeing things through quotation marks” in a campy style. Off-Whites collection of obviously labelled garments, including boots marked with “for walking” are a modern icon of this light-hearted phenomena, which has also featured in World’s recent seasons, Jarrad Godman’s “got cynicism?” ribbon brooch and Jimmy D’s tote bag range in recent seasons.