From the royals to Riverdale, a guide to what is (and isn’t) ‘camp’

In 1964, Susan Sontag defined camp as an aesthetic "sensibility" that is plain to see but hard for most of us to explain: an intentional over-the-top-ness, a slightly (or extremely) "off" quality, bad taste as a vehicle for good art.

Notes on Camp, her 58-point ur-listicle, builds on that inherent sense of something being "too much", and also fences it in. Camp is artificial, passionate, serious, Sontag writes. Camp is Art Nouveau objects, Greta Garbo, Warner Brothers musicals and Mae West. It is not premeditated — except when it is extremely premeditated.

Ukraine’s Verka Serduchka performs the during the final of the very camp Eurovision Song Contest in 2007.Credit:AFP

Her list of camp dos and don'ts has grown since it was first published. Some, including the filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, have updated and expanded it to include references as categorically specific as Twilight (bad straight camp) and Sarah Palin (conservative camp). Still, Sontag's treatise remains the top-cited attempt to define a slippery concept.

The essay is also the founding document of this year's Met Costume Institute exhibit and its attendant gala. On Monday, when Anna Wintour's campers ascend the Met's steps for a first look at "Camp: Notes on Fashion", few of us will be among them. But that doesn't mean we can't camp on our own terms. What, among a random sampling of our exciting and tacky enthusiasms and passions, is — and what is not — camp?

Dog shows

Is it camp? Yes.

Dog shows began alongside county fair-type events: cow and poultry shows and the like. Today, they show no trace of the messier side of animal behavior. Perfect doggy specimens are pampered and fawned over like models, but tragically the dogs themselves never know exactly what's going on, or realise how hot they are. Personalities and desires are projected wildly onto the furry celebrities by owners, announcers and spectators with pure and unbridled enthusiasm.

For every Westminster Dog Show brought to you by Purina Puppy Chow, there are thousands (more than 22,000, actually, according to the American Kennel Club) of smaller events happening across the country where you can find handlers trotting around bright green synthetic show rings wearing every shade of pastel suit jacket and A-line skirt you can imagine. It's a world of caricatures, of fans who identify with a breed as strongly as a religion. The dog show ring is also the only place where one can win the covetable title of Select Bitch.



Is it camp? Yes.

Cher was the picture of camp long before she discovered plastic surgery. Rhinestones, bugle beads and feathered headdresses — furnished by her partner in kitsch, Bob Mackie — helped build her outsize persona in the '70s. Over time, Cher developed a reputation for humour and almost self-consciously terrible taste.

For every movie in which Cher wowed critics, there were half a dozen songs establishing her as the sultan of schlock. The one she's most proud of is Believe, a trifle of pop music that sounds like Everything but the Girl's Missing as re-imagined by Nancy Meyers. But even Cher can't take Cher seriously. "I've made millions of albums, and most of them are absolutely no good," she told the New York Times in 2018. Of course, that's what made them good. It wasn't an accident that she became the first bona fide A-list diva to razzle-dazzle audiences for years at a time with residencies in Las Vegas. Or that a show of her life ultimately made its way to Broadway. Sontag asks, "When does travesty, impersonation, theatricality acquire the special flavor of camp?" The answer is: whenever Cher appears.


Donatella Versace, right, pictured with Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour last year.Credit:Domenico Stinellis

Donatella Versace

Is it camp? Yes.

She is hair (blonde), she is tan (tan), she is jewellery (gold), she is gloss, she is heels, heels, heels. She is Versace, both literally and proverbially, and yet she is so much Versace, so impossibly anything but Versace, that she is never called Versace. She is Donatella or, to her staff, DV. The Versace, like a radiant halo, announces itself.

If Donald Trump is a poor person's idea of a rich person, Donatella is a fashion victim's idea of a fashion idol: everything skintight, everything bellissima, the jets, the parties, the famous friends, the Milan mansion, the gesticulating cigarette (she quit, but a cigarette, like a phantom limb, will always trail DV). This idea, which in lesser hands could be gaudy or merely glitzy, is sewn into each of her garments; once, at a private showroom appointment in Milan, a designer at Versace described to me in utter seriousness the "important shoulder" that distinguished a jacket.

Improbably, all of it works. Fashion critics, even the harrumphing ones, love her, love it. The people love her. Versace is one of the few places where they agree. She has the operatic grandeur of public tragedy (she took over Versace after the murder of her brother, Gianni) and personal struggles (the drugs, the rehab). And so she has been taken up, by drag queens and YouTubers, Penélope Cruz (who didn't do her justice) and Maya Rudolph (who did). A benevolent queen, DV proved herself in on the joke and joined faux-Donatella onstage, shoulder to important shoulder. Bellissima.



Is it camp? Hot assassins are always campy.

From the instant Villanelle, the lightly self-mocking assassin of Killing Eve, played by Jodie Comer, dispatches a Mafia don by plunging a hairpin into his eye, her predilection for theatrical extremes is plain. In fact, you can't really miss it. After all, for Villanelle, murder is nothing more or less than a high-style form of play-acting.

Dressed to kill: Villanelle (Jodie Comer), does good camp.Credit:ABC

Watch with a mixture of horror and mirth as this wily assassin, dressed in a pervy variation on a milkmaid costume, eviscerates her victim in the window of a brothel. Could you be faulted for taking her performance as a brazen joke? Even Villanelle doesn't seem to be taking it too seriously — her approach to the kill is so comically efficient, so artfully contrived, that it rises to the level of self-parody.

That archness extends to her wardrobe. Villanelle dresses for excess, effusively wicked in pink tulle or satin, a high-collar Edwardian shirt, or a regal negligee worn by day with gilded chandelier earrings. She represents the essence of extravagance, the hallmark of an aesthetic that Sontag likened to "a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers".


John Waters

Is it camp? He is the king of camp.

No one channeled the joy of bad taste as efficiently as director John Waters. His muse was Divine, a 6-foot-2 drag queen who, in the director's self-described "trash trilogy"— Pink Flamingos, Mondo Trasho and Female Trouble— treated sexual assault, foot fetishism, coprophilia, incest, baby kidnappings and murder as big jokes. While Divine's bouffants reached to the heavens, her outfits barely covered her crotch. She did not so much act as perform onscreen karaoke. Her gestures and facial expressions were almost as big as her appetite. Only rarely did Divine play characters who could easily be described as likable. But empathy was not Waters' top objective. "If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation," he wrote in the opening of his autobiography.


Internet Astrology

Is it camp? It is artifice, but not camp.

If calamity defines this moment, internet astrology is a potent antidote. It's a pseudoscience exaggerated with a wink through memes, an everything-in-quotation-marks lens for culture. Photos of Rihanna with a wineglass, Lady Gaga posing with her Golden Globe in a periwinkle Valentino gown, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi with the cast of Queer Eye become a way of understanding — with questionable specificity — the habits of the signs. Do Leos "despise taking orders"? Are Geminis people who "aren't easily offended by jokes"? Are Sagittariuses merely defined by the concept of "athleisure"? It doesn't matter. In a world fated with no future (see: threats of authoritarianism, climate change and the impending artificial intelligence takeover), astrology's assured predictions ease collective anxiety while allowing us to indulge in a shared identity, however absurd.


Mae West

Is it camp? Per Sontag and us.

In 1933, Mae West cemented her status as Hollywood's original queen of camp in the vaudeville-esque film She Done Him Wrong. The story takes place in a boozy saloon, where West's character Lady Lou rules the roost, chewing up and spitting out every scoundrel who's "warm for" her. Back then, female sexuality onscreen was largely synonymous with vulnerability. West changed that. She makes her cinematic entrance in a carriage, wearing a giant feathered hat and holding a parasol. Hands on hips, eyebrows raised, the term "woman" doesn't begin to describe her; she's a broad. Her dresses have almost as much sparkle as her jewellery. Her greatest distaste is seriousness. Not even a visit to a boyfriend in the clink rattles her. When one of her many suitors tells her that her life is in danger, Lou says, "You're going to protect me? From what?" Then she adds: "When I need protection I'll write you a letter."



Is it camp? Not exactly, but it's definitely "too much."

When the New York Post, for a long time the most camp of the city's daily papers, placed an ad for Supreme on its front page, the brand's acolytes rushed to pay $20 for a paper that usually goes for $1.50. This kind of excess is wrapped up in the fact that the people who want to own Supreme far outnumber the people who can actually buy it. Every time the brand has a "drop", hundreds of people swarm its stores just to wait in line to spend hundreds on a pair of boxer shorts. In a Supreme devotee, we see how one can be "serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious", as Sontag puts it, to the point where even the founder James Jebbia is dumbfounded. In a phone interview with GQ, when asked if he ever thought Supreme would become as globally recognised as it is today, he compared the unlikely outcome to the election of Donald Trump.


US President Donald Trump

Is it camp? Much political theatre is camp, but he's upped the ante.

Camp "can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalised cultures", Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met's Costume Institute, told the New York Times when that show's theme was announced. We tend to associate "marginalizsd cultures" with underrepresented minorities, but if you think about it, the frustrated white men who make up Donald Trump's base would certainly describe themselves that way, and he has been their blunt-edged weapon. An orange-hued one, with tanning-bed-goggle eyes, an elaborate blonde pompadour and extra-long ties — because, well, you know what they say about ties: long ties, long … What? What's that you say? They don't say that about ties? Well, in the alternative universe of Trumpland, they do.

Born from the camp crucible of reality TV, Trump has become synonymous with behaviour that elicits exactly the kind of reactions Sontag deems key to camp: "It's too much" and "not to be believed". Superlatives rule the president's speech — his crowds are the biggest ever, his memory the best — and his aversion to political correctness is practically a signifier. He's a Louis XIV for our times. That he has his finger on the button just makes it more jaw-dropping.



Is it camp? Like many other programs on the CW, it's intentional camp.

Riverdale is the love child of every teen soap in history and Twin Peaks. Accordingly, it makes no sense. Are the characters living (and dying, once by crucifixion) in the present, or in 1960, as the anachronistic décor suggests? Is Riverdale an hour outside New York City, or somewhere near the Canadian border? How are the parents so evil, and their children so hot? The flimsy dramatic arc, conflicting details and distractingly attractive cast serve to foreground the show's look and feel. There are foggy drives down forest roads, after-school milkshakes in a retro diner, cult initiations with all-white dress codes, practically unwatchable musical episodes. That's fine. Riverdale isn't here to make its viewers more intelligent; it's visual candy, a comedy dressed up as horror.


The Queen is, surely, the most camp member of the royal family.Credit:AP

Queen Elizabeth II

Is it camp? The British monarch is the most camp at Buckingham Palace.

The hair. The hats. The handbags. The extreme matchy-matchiness of it all. Queen Elizabeth II doesn't just rule over Britain and the Commonwealth — the world's longest-serving female head of state also does head-to-toe monochrome more thoroughly, and multi-dimensionally, than anyone else. She has inspired legions with her signature rainbow shades (the better to stand out in a crowd) and her favoured off-duty tweed, silk scarf and pearl get-ups.

One of her more outspoken style admirers is Alessandro Michele, Gucci's creative director and a co-chair of this year's Met Gala, who in 2016 told the New Yorker: "The Queen is one of the most quirky people in the world. She is very inspiring. It is clear that she loves colour." Insofar as camp is about extravagance, her preference for unmissable outfits, along with the vast palaces, ornate state banquets, glittering horse-drawn carriages and decades of polished public performance, surely fits the bill.


Jim Steinman

Is it camp? His songs are pure schlock.

Producer Jim Steinman specializes in excess. He helped bring us Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart and Holding Out for a Hero, Celine Dion's It's All Coming Back to Me Now, plus every song on Meat Loaf's albums Bat Out of Hell and Bat Out of Hell II. He is implicated in the Barry Manilow catalogue and the Air Supply discography. He is in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

A murder of academics have nearly defined camp out of existence. But schlock, Steinman's specialty, has less nuance. Camp's shuffle-footed, irony-free cousins, objets d'schlock are in such poor taste that they repel even regular viewers of television network CBS. Even for those who love them (me), Steinman's miniature operas of heartbreak and desperation are critically irredeemable — too solemn and silly to even pretend to sophistication. But when "so bad it's good" is a commonplace, maybe the irredeemable is the only refuge left.



Is it camp? Yes.

If the centre of US culture has historically been New York, Las Vegas is its capital of camp. It's where Siegfried and Roy made magic macabre. It's Cher's spirit city, home this summer to yet another of her concert spectaculars. It was also once home to Liberace, the piano peacock known less for the music he made than for his $US300,000, 16-foot, 175-pound sequined capes and giant bed underneath a $US50,000 replica of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. Liberace never had any doubt who he was. He is also remembered for his aphorisms, including: "Nakedness makes us Democratic, adornment makes us individuals.""When the reviews are bad, I tell my staff they can join me as I cry all the way to the bank." And, of course, "Don't wear one ring, wear five or six. People ask how I can play with all those rings, and I say, very well, thank you."


Professional Wrestling

Is it camp? That is the only explanation.

Imagine Liberace on steroids, donning his most Vegas-ready sequined ensemble to pantomime a parody of a professional athletic event. Or, you could just check out any old WrestleMania video on YouTube. ("Macho King" Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan are good entry points.) To fans of regular sports, World Wrestling Entertainment and its ilk have always been a mystery. The costumes? Ridiculous. The action? Ludicrous. The emotions? As artificially stylized as the masks of comedy and tragedy.

Pro wrestling makes perfect sense if you accept an Urban Dictionary definition of camp as "something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylised, self-consciously artificial and extravagant". Oddly, however, there is no clear evidence that anyone involved with the sport has ever made the connection. Google "professional wrestling" and "camp", and you find numerous sleep-away options for Junior to practice his or her back breakers and power slams. The sport — spectacle? — seems to have escaped critical study since 1972, when French literary theorist Roland Barthes called wrestlers "the key which opens nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil". Academia, it turns out, can be camp too.


New York Times

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