The aesthetic of “Camp” comes from the French “Se Camper” or “to flaunt”. The first use of the word and aesthetic was introduced 1671 during the play ” The Impostures of Scapin”. In this comedy a servant it told to “camp it up” and ‘strut around like a drama queen”. “Se camper” not only alludes to being overly dramatic or extravagant but also to a pose that derives from a man standing with his hand on his hip. This type of pose originally represented power and relaxation, until the Renaissance where it also became associated with homosexuality. Through the 1700 the word camp became used in the crossdressing community, mainly as a code word of a sort to describe noblemen who dressed as women, and later on in the 1800’s -1900’s to describe men in England who became famous for dressing as women. Although arrested or worse, many men who were “camp” did go out in public dressed as women. Two in particular Fredrik Park and Ernest Boulton created a small touring theatrical company in the1800’s and played the characters Franny and Stella. Click on picture to enlarge.
Author Oscar Wilde was also connected to the camp community. This affiliation was used against him when he tried to file a lawsuit against the father of his lover, Lord Alfred . Throughout his life his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas is well documented and so were his instructions to actors in his plays to wear symbolisms of camp culture. Both were used as evidence in the trial against him for “gross indecency” in the 1800’s. He was sentence to two years of hard labor in prison. The popularity of the trial and his sentence made Wilde a martyr and cemented the overlapping of camp culture with homosexuality.
In 1954 author Christopher Isherwood wrote “The World in the Evening”. Which basaclly broke down camp into high camp and low camp. High camp being one of a man who partakes in sophisticated activites and low camp being a boy in a feather boa. To him high camp was seriousness, expressed in fun, artifice and elegance.
In the Fall of 1964 Susan Sontag wrote “Notes on Camp” in the Partisan Review. She was the first to approach camp and study it as a subject in society that leveled the playing field and offered indifference between high art, pop culture and cultural hierarchies. Her notes pushed camp into mainstream society. In her notes on camp she mentions the following items, which could all be found at the Met.
She also wrote the differences on naïve camp and delibrate camp, which in part agrees with Isherwoodian camp. Naïve camp is being unintentional while deliberate camp is being calculated and manufacturesd. The fashion showed in this section are examples of niave and delibrate camp next to one another.
Camp Eye: During this part of the exhibition, camp is featured in a louder and bolder light as it became more acceptable in society. The fashion showcased here are categorized under 18 statements that talk about key aspects of camp, or what camp means to the designers showcased. I won’t list all the statements, but I found this one by Susan Sontang to be the most direct. “Camp is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Because of its ability to shock, Camp makes its way into times of divide whether in society or politics. Camp is different things to different people, whether they identify it as gay, a way to be extravagant or a way to showcase what’s happening around them. Camp: Notes on Fashion is open until September 8th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.-T.S.