Since its debut as the theme of this year’s Met Gala and the topic of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition at the Costume Institute, Camp has shot itself into the spotlight. While it still defies any easy explanation, initially sending the world into a thought spiral of summers, tents, nature walks and the Adirondacks, Camp’s rich legacy has found its ability to not only transcend fashion but flourish within the realm of design as well.
The theme pays homage to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp”, sending an onslaught of celebrities in extravagant and peculiar garb onto the pink carpet.
Initially, I was expecting Lady Gaga and the like to saunter out of their cars clad in avant-garde renditions of hiking boots and flannel. But after some research into the meaning of Camp and its colorful heritage, it turns out that I was unequivocally wrong.
Stemming from the French phrase se camper meaning “to pose in an exaggerated fashion”, the word first materialized in print and out into the world in 1907 in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it has found its place alongside “ostentatious, exaggerated, theatrical, affected; effeminate or homosexual.”
In general terms, Camp can be ascertained as a specific manner of aestheticism. It’s one of viewing the world as an aesthetic experience — the way of Camp does not function through beauty or through ordinary aesthetic judgement, rather it is successful in its degree of artifice and stylization.
Beyond fashion, Camp’s abundant history and undefinable character weaved itself into the decorative arts, taking shape in reevaluations of Art Nouveau to the Italian Radical Design Period. Decorative objects made with fervency and affectionately received at the time of its creation were perceived as tacky and gauche — deeming them perfectly eligible candidates of Camp.
Radical works, for example, featured irony borrowed from the Pop Art movement, which was introduced to Italy in the early 1960s. The “Pratone” foam seat, resembling a cartoon version of a patch of grass by Turin-based Gruppo Strum displayed a message of anti-consumerism, despite its charming appearance. The group produced objects with a purpose beyond its beauty and functionality.
Thus, from the 1960s and onwards, Camp became a modern concept that evolved from people taking sophisticated positions on objects that were seen as amusing by intellectuals.
In its true essence, Camp is meant to scream and shout; to create conversations and to make its mark in whatever time period it finds itself in. The exhibition’s esteemed curator, Andrew Bolton, told the New York Times, “Whether it’s pop camp, queer camp, high camp, or political camp — Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely.”