By Clara Godwin-Suttie
The concept of camp has long been regarded as famously undefinable, famously decadent, and famously gay, with a noticeable presence throughout history and contemporary times. Susan Sontag, a brilliant queer woman who understood sexuality and gender identity through a progressive perspective of celebration and creativity, wrote the seminal essay that is credited with defining camp and bringing it into the mainstream.
Sontag was born in 1933 in New York City. Her upbringing was marked by disjunctions, and she subsequently reflected on her relationship with her mother, whom she described as being distant and preoccupied. Sontag’s love life was similarly varied: she experienced her first same-sex attraction at age 15, married a man when she was 17, and spent 25 years as Annie Leibovitz’s lover until she died in 2004. Sontag was a prolific writer and multi-genre artist who produced works of fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays, and films and was outspoken in her opposition to the Vietnamese war.
One of her most famous essays was “Notes on ‘Camp,’” where she discussed accepted forms of expression and how this interplayed with gender identity and sexuality. Sontag’s relationship with Leibovitz started when Leibovitz was employed to photograph her for the dust jacket of one of her books. Doubtless, Leibovitz’s own aesthetic experiences offered a common interest with Sontag in the form of camp. Some of Leibovitz’s photographs, including those featuring Demi Moore and Paloma Picasso, have an undeniably camp aura.
“Notes on ‘Camp’” was originally published in 1964, and Sontag later included it in her essay collection in 1966. Sontag identified two different types of camps and discussed their perceptions and place in society. The first category is “high camp,” which is marked by an underlying seriousness and is generally considered highbrow. Sontag cites ballet as an example of high camp; other forms, such as opera, would also fit into the category. It’s self-consciously intellectual and arty. Sontag specifically referenced the ballet “Swan Lake” as camp, which is appropriate as Bjork’s swan dress was included in an exhibition of camp items. Similarly, the film “Black Swan” (2010), which is about the production of “Swan Lake,” is notoriously melodramatic and camp while also being disturbingly amusing.
According to Sontag, the other camp category is “low camp.” Sontag described low camp by quoting a passage about a young man impersonating Marlene Dietrich with peroxide blonde hair and a feather bower. Cabaret and drag might be considered low camp when they tend to be more fun, possibly even bawdy. There are no hard-and-fast rules in either type of camp, which explores performance, extravagance, and gender roles.
Sontag dedicated her essay to Oscar Wilde, a man who was unapologetically camp. Although Wilde died about 30 years before Sontag was born, he may have heard and identified with the term “camp” because it’s been around for a while. The etymology isn’t known, but it’s been theorized that it’s bastardized French and was supposed to describe decadent nobles who wore extravagant clothes, wigs, and makeup. Because of the rejection of gender roles, “camp” was associated with the LGBT+ community and often effeminated gay men. Sontag argued that although it may have been initially gay, camp as a concept had transcended into a different form of expression. Sontag believed that camp was fundamentally joyous, anti-serious, and extravagant, or, in her own words, “[camp is] the love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Although “Notes on ‘Camp’” brought the concept to mainstream attention, it is noteworthy that the idea of camp existed before its publication and has remained relevant to this day. Camp is still part of the public consciousness and has been associated with drag acts and used as a theme for the Met Gala. Drag Queen RuPaul has equated camp with drag, stating that both revolve around the idea of “not taking life too seriously.” Indeed, RuPaul went on to state that camp is about subversion and celebration and that “with camp, you have to be able to see the facade of life, the absurdity of life from outside yourself.” This is certainly comparable with the personas adopted by drag performers, who use alter egos to perform and often live relatively normal lives. Like high and low camps, drag can be perverted and sexually explicit, but it isn’t always.
Now, many drag performers dress as Disney princesses and offer singalongs for children, which allows parallels with pantomime dame and other forms of interactive theatricality. Camping has also manifested itself in various forms throughout popular culture. Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj’s early looks with brightly colored wigs and stylized movements are great examples. Incidentally, Minaj and Gaga have both appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race, further cementing their association with camp aesthetics. In addition, the film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its theatrical makeup, musical numbers, and disregard for gender conventions, is also a classic example.
The theme of the 2019 Met Gala was “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” a quote taken from Sontag’s essay. It was coordinated to run at the same time as a camp exhibition in the museum, which featured 200 pieces selected by Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour. The show included Bjork’s swan dress and a suit with an ornate flamingo headdress. Invitees to the gala were expected to dress according to the theme, which they did with varying degrees of success. However, my favorite looks came from Hamish Bowles, who wore an oversize fringed cape; Priyanka Jonas, who layered ombre ruffles and silver accents; and Billy Porter, who made a grand entrance (in a car) with substantial golden wings.
In an article on Vogue’s website, it is argued that camp comes more strongly into fashion but never really disappears completely. Some cultural critics believe that the concept of camp was especially prevalent during certain historical periods. “Notes on ‘Camp,’” by Susan Sontag, emphasized the prevalence of camp aesthetics in the 1960s. Camp continued to thrive in the 1980s, as evidenced by David Bowie’s iconic fashion choices and artistic output. Camp aesthetics have recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, as evidenced by the late-2010s Met Gala theme, which embraced the spirit of camp in all its dazzling glory.
However, there seems to be a backlash against camp in 2023, which is pretty sad… Conservatives argue that drag queens are inappropriate for children and are attempting to ban drag performances in public, but with wording so ambiguous that it could mean trans people are threatened. This is heartbreaking. Camp is art, drag is fun, and trans folk should be able to live their lives without fear and repression. I’d also like to mention the numerous little boys I’ve known who happily don lipstick or try on high heels, have a wonderful afternoon, and are none the worse for it. I think it benefits everyone to allow a little camp into their lives and explore different forms of expression.
While researching for this piece, I found that many people struggle to define camp and that there are lots of different descriptions. I think this is odd. While camp has changed and evolved since Sontag’s essay was written, she still clearly understands what camp is and isn’t. As a starting point, it’s pretty useful. Sontag said, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Sometimes, we might not have women; sometimes, the dress has ruffles and sequins, or the performer references a grande dame other than Marlene Deitrich…
It is evident that the concept of camping has endured through time and continues to captivate people today. From the 1960s to the 1980s and beyond, various historical periods can be identified as its origins. Despite its fluctuating popularity, camp aesthetics continue to be a compelling form of artistic expression that can be appreciated by anyone receptive to their whimsical and playful nature. This enduring appeal is what ultimately makes camping such a fascinating and enduring phenomenon.