Kira Garcia is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York magazine, Bon Appetit and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own.
Schiaparelli Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2018 Credit: Peter White/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Since the theme was announced last in October, A-list invitees and their stylists have no doubt been asking themselves the question: What exactly is camp? Definitions of the term vary by generation, but everyone seems to agree that if isn’t fun, it isn’t camp. Camp is teasing, impractical and fun-loving. Camp is catchy, a little obnoxious and flirts with (but refuses to be depressed by) tackiness.
And let’s not forget, of course, that camp is queer to the bone. With roots in the rich culture of drag, camp rejects good taste, exclusivity and the authority of the fashion industry in favor of freedom, joy, color, and humor.
Sontag tried to pin down a more precise definition in her essay, writing that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” At the time, that included America’s mid-century love affair with things like Cool Whip, Dacron shirts and drop ceilings, but also, according to Sontag, the Art Nouveau entryways to the Paris Metro, women’s clothes of the 1920’s and “much of Mozart.” (She was a tough critic.)
But Sontag’s 55-year-old essay can’t define camp in the present day. She admits herself that time changes our interpretations of this slippery notion, saying “time contracts the sphere of banality” — in other words, we’re less critical of old stuff.
Gucci during the Autumn-Winter 2016 Credit: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
As a child of the ’80s, even my own camp benchmarks — the hysterical excess of Pee-wee Herman, Jane Fonda’s relentlessly perky workout videos, and the cult classic film “Back to the Beach” — seem woefully out of date.
Moschino Spring-Summer 2017 Credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Viktor & Rolf Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2019 Credit: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
But in general, we’ve cast our winking Britneys aside for unblinking Kendalls. Our current moment is sadly lacking Spice Girls-style grins, Austin Powers-level buffoonery and the bizarro brilliance of John Waters.
It may be tempting to say that our American political moment is defined by camp, given our leader’s cotton candy hair, Scotch-Taped tie and carnival barker rhetoric. But there’s something missing from the Trump era that makes it decidedly un-camp: joy. Artifice and coarse aesthetic choices abound, but so do pettiness, misery and bad humor.
Ashish Autumn-Winter 2017 Credit: Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Speaking at a Milan press conference in February, curator Andrew Bolton said, “When you look at the times when camp comes to the forefront of culture, it is at moments of polarization. The 1980s of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America was one such time, and now is another. It seems to me that this is because camp is a powerful language for the marginalized.”
As disturbing headlines pile up by the minute, we need the life-affirming power of humor more than ever. Maybe a little bad taste in a rich place will remind us that we have more freedom than we think.