‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’- A Semiotic Analysis of the 2019 Met Gala

In her essay ‘Notes on Camp’, Susan Sontag described camp’s essence as being “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (1964)  – in other words, camp can be defined as an acceptance and appreciation of what is seen as kitsch, so that it is so bad that it becomes good. Camp has existed in both culture and specifically the media for decades, but it was not until the theme for the 2019 Met Gala was announced that it was introduced to the wider public in an instantaneous and pervasive manner. The combination of Hollywood’s most glamorous A-listers and their mixed success in following a theme that encourages one to dress outside of the box led to public awareness and misunderstanding of camp. In this essay, along with investigating these reactions, I will analyse the conditions of camp in popular culture, and consider specific outfits and their accordance to the theme through a semiotic lens. I aim to prove that the misunderstanding of camp in media has prevailed following the 2019 Met Gala, but that semiotics can deepen our comprehension of the term, all the while using case studies from the event to support my argument.

 

In ‘Camp and the Gay Sensibility’, Jack Babuscio takes Sontag’s definition further, explaining that camp’s “irony, aestheticism, theatricality and humour […] describe those elements in a person, situation, or activity that express, or are created by, a gay sensibility” (1977) . He explains that whilst something does not need to be gay to be camp, and one does not need to be camp to be gay, the polarization of queerness leads to the development of new “general understandings about what the world is and how to deal with it”  – including camp. There is a clear connection between the queer community and its place as an outsider group in society, and camp’s acceptance of what is different, and seen as being out of the ordinary. It can be seen that camp originally emerged from gay culture. For example, drag queens have been camp since before Sontag’s essay was published – Emily Barker, quoting Simon Doonan, explains that “drag is a “visual assault:” inherently theatrical and taboo” (2021) , fitting the definition set out earlier of camp being so bad that it is good. Movies, such as ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, “clearly qualify as camp” (1981)  and tell queer stories – here, for example, of Dr Frank N. Furter, a transvestite whose androgynous appearance has contributed to making the film an extravagant, camp classic. Camp is pervasive, and has been pervasive for years, in LGBT+ subcultures. Thus, for camp to be publicized to a wider public as the theme of the Met Gala opened it to broader consideration and, potentially, dissociation from the gay community. Camp’s troublesome relationship with the Met Gala can be understood more deeply by looking at it through a semiotic lens. Barthes introduced his semiotic theory in ‘Mythologies’ , introducing the signifier as a perceived physical form, the signified as the concept it represents, and the sign being the combination of both. Here, the sign is the concept of camp as an appreciation for the extravagant and ironic, the signifier is the word camp, and the signified is the concept of camp. The signifier contradicts the idea of the event itself – a mass published, professional occasion is suddenly becoming a gathering of the out of the ordinary and outrageous.

 

Whilst some of the Met Gala’s attendees were camp, some wore outfits that exhibited this disconnect between the attendees and the concept of camp further. I would argue that their adherence to the theme was determined by their public persona and identity, and can be explained with semiotics – with the outfit itself being the signifier, and a celebrity’s or brand’s understanding of the concept of ‘camp’ being the signified. An important factor that plays into the relationship that the public have with these outfits, is how a celebrity is already perceived to the public. The connotation between how the sign relates to other signifiers or concepts is intrinsic to understanding the sign, as shown through how celebrities who aren’t generally perceived as “camp” or “gay icons” already had a lower expectation for their outfit.

  This explains why some of the Met Gala’s guests whose identities to the public includes their campness succeeded at following the theme more successfully than others. For example, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are seen as camp through their extravagance in their music, performances and outfits through their careers – it is thus expected for them to understand the theme and triumphantly execute it, which they did when they wore a dress resembling a chandelier and putting on a piece of performance art including four outfit changes, respectively. However, others like Miley Cyrus who would also fit into the category of today’s camp celebrities disappointed by wearing a, albeit geometrical and playful dress, simple dress. Their statuses as camp celebrities impacted the execution of their attempts at following the theme. For others who would not be considered to be camp, such as Lili Reinhart, their outfits did not require as much flamboyance to actually be camp – the expectations from people like them were lower, and so her bright blue dress, extravagant updo and intensely pink makeup and accessories were enough for her to successfully execute the theme. This shows how the sign impacts the signifier and signified, as had Katy Perry worn Lili Reinhart’s look, the reaction to it would have been disappointment; when it was worn by someone from whom campness is unexpected, the reaction was instead positive. This is not to say that any celebrity who is not known to be camp could follow the Met Gala theme successfully by stepping slightly outside of the box. Shawn Mendes, for example, wore a black suit but excitedly pointed out that he had “some gold in his hair, which [was] crazy for [him]” . Whilst being outside of his comfort zone, he did not adhere to the definition of camp in the slightest – a celebrity who is camp might have to go above and beyond, but one who is not cannot simply do the bare minimum.

 

Their subjective experiences also affect their individual views on what camp is. When interviewed, celebrities were asked to define camp, and their answers ranged – however, what was clear was that their understanding of it fluctuated vastly. Interestingly, whilst attendees seemed to have a grasp of the extravagance of camp, very few acknowledged the queer history of it. Some examples of their definitions include Jared Leto’s, who said, “[He] think[s] camp is celebrating things that maybe are discarded, it's not taking life or fashion too serious” , or Madelaine Petsch, who said, “[She] think[s] it's all about finding what makes you you and running with that in excess - it's all about being playful and going overboard, over-the-top” . But Lena Waithe, who is openly gay, said that “[She] really wanted to make sure [her] outfit represented the black drag queens who started this camp thing about being over the top and all that jazz […] People like RuPaul, all these pioneers who really started this whole thing and [she] really wanted to pay tribute to them” . One’s identity reflects on their camp understanding and expression, as it relies on their class, sexuality, race and gender. This can be understood in terms of ideology, which is “the imaginary relationships people have with real conditions of existence”  – camp is related to the facets that make up their identity. Public reaction and perception to the 2019 Met Gala also showed this, as the wide misunderstanding of what camp is, as the term gained broader attention, often stemmed from the difficulties people had relating it to their identity. One person on TikTok said “their [celebrities] understanding of what camp is, is just wearing something ugly.”  Camp as a concept has been heavily demystified since the Met Gala, with the complex term being reduced to simply being understood as ugly or outrageous.

 

Overall, the primary effect of the Gala is that the material conditions of existence that the term ‘camp’ originated from, LGBT subcultures, have been overridden in favour of a more heteronormative understanding of the word. This is a key example of a social phenomenon where aspects of culture from marginalised communities are changed to fit society as they are integrated into the mainstream. Another example of this being the difference in Chinese food in the UK, versus in China. This dilution the term can be tracked back to Sontag’s essay, where she argues camp as an apolitical concept, with a critic arguing “My perhaps idealized conception of camp is that it is, or was, by its very nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations.”  By basing the theme of the Gala on specifically Sontag’s essay, the creators of the theme decided to align with Sontag’s viewpoint about camp being apolitical, which set in place the societal conditions for camp to be diluted, building the foundations for an understanding of the word camp which is less focused on LGBT subculture, and instead significantly more heteronormative.

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