The art of extravagance: understanding the camp trend

08 May 2019 | Posted by Zackary

We are at Versailles, somewhere before the end of the 17th century. Louis XIV organizes one of his great balls, held to the beat of Lully's music and the rhythm of the fountains. Courtiers wear their most beautiful clothes, richly decorated with patterns embroidered with gold thread. The Duke of Orleans, a lover of transvestism and knights, makes his appearance in one of his famous dresses made of velvet or brocade. 

The volumes of their puffy costumes are only equalled by the luxury of their ornaments and trimmings. The whole world is amazed by such splendour, the aristocracy dazzles by its style. Everything seems larger than life, nothing is ever enough. Neither the height of the wigs, nor the paleness of the skin, nor the brilliance of the diamonds, nor the baseness of the gossip — install cameras in the Hall of Mirrors and you will get the best reality TV in history. 

Mother of all excesses, life at the castle is a permanent staging. From the "morning reception", the nobles gather around the absolute monarch to admire him drink his bowl of broth. Star before the stars, he plays more than sixty glorious roles in shows given at the court, dances, is painted as a Greek god and then as Alexander the Conqueror. The Sun King does not only crown France with refinement, he unknowingly establishes the foundations of camp... 

(Alexander McQueen — SS19 ; © Kim Weston Arnold for IndigitalTV)

A complex concept

Camp takes its name from the French word "se camper", which means adopting a proud pose and an ostentatious confidence. Yet, it will take three centuries before it is formalized in the pen of Susan Sontag. In 1964, the author writes the essay Notes on Camp, which attempts to identify its contours. Written in fifty-eight points, it has lost none of its relevance today, the text even serving as a common thread for the MET exhibition.

Its essence? The love of the unnatural, the artificial — wearing only polyester does not count. It embodies the "spirit of extravagance", thus making of camp a sensitivity rather than a trend per se. A little like elegance, it is a form of aesthetics that can be declined in a multitude of different registers, without necessarily sticking to a single given interpretation.

It is about seeing the world in a different way, marked by exaggeration and theatricality. Finding art in what is not traditionally considered "in good taste". Taking frivolity seriously, laughing at conventions and pushing back the beauty ideals. Dressing with irony, playing with appearances, shapes and trompe-l'oeil.

If kitsch also shares this inclination for inauthenticity, it is precisely intended to be perceived as kitsch. On the other hand, camp wishes to surprise, wants to be unique. As for the works judged bad rather than camp, according to Sontag, "they simply lack in ambition"...

(Viktor & Rolf — SS19 Couture ; © Alessandro Viero for GoRunway)

The reflection of an era

While France is undergoing its Revolution, the torch of camp is taken up by the British dandy (the term will then evolve to define a man of great elegance, editor's note). The handle of his sword is inlaid with precious stones, his vests are embroidered and his wigs topped with hats. Whether he is of noble birth or has become rich, he wallows in idleness, cares for his excessive manners and gives importance only to his appearance. The good life ends at the same time as Oscar Wilde's trial, sentenced to prison with hard labour for his homosexuality. "Camp" even becomes synonymous with "gay". The flamboyance then takes refuge in the shadows.

Paris, 1930s. Elsa Schiaparelli, whose descendants from the Medici would almost suffice to explain her taste for this aesthetic, creates the campiest fashion house. Influenced by surrealism, she knits sweaters with trompe-l'oeil knots, embroiders mythological scenes on her cloaks, and has patterns evoking the female anatomy painted on the front of her dresses. Dali's accomplice, they collaborate to create a compact in the shape of a telephone dial, before she imagines a crystal oil lamp used as a perfume bottle. On the other side of the Atlantic, it takes on the features of Hollywood icons whose overrated images are calibrated by studios, or finds itself among the first drag queens fluttering their eyelids lined with false eyelashes.

(Elsa Schiaparelli — FW18 Couture ; © Kim Weston Arnold for IndigitalTV)

When Sontag pens her essay, camp is imbued with a Warholian philosophy — the artist will actually make a short film called Camp. The line between art and mass culture is narrowing, both merge on fabric while the universe is seen through a kaleidoscope of pop colours. In the 90's, it is worshipped by haute couture, from Galliano's Victorian fables for Dior to Mugler's fetish wasp outfits. The rhinestoned-top-and-micro-skirt style of the 2000s? Vulgarity at its campiest.

While it may materialize differently according to the time, we can see that it appears more pronounced in times of crisis. Schiaparelli makes her debut shortly before the stock market crash of 1929. The 60's are marked by fear of the Kremlin, while the transition to the third millennium is sandwiched between two wars in Iraq. Camp eventually emerges as a manifestation of a fashion aspiring to be lighter in the face of serious problems. One that approaches style from an optimistic, often outrageous angle, in order to drown the misfortunes of society in its clothes.

I think camp can express something deeper and can give birth to progress. — Rei Kawakubo, designer of the label Comme des Garçons.

From marginal to mainstream

Currently at MOSCHINO, a collection entirely inspired by the circus, plus a collaboration with the video game The Sims. For her latest collection, Mercredi Addams is Miuccia Prada's muse; prints bearing the effigy of Frankenstein's monster are displayed on dresses like a Z series poster. On Valentino's side, we give in to aliens and UFO patterns. J.W. Anderson has been feeding his clients retro homo-eroticism, while Demna Gvasilia is working to rehabilitate the worst of the 90's. And it works...

The camp is almost everywhere on the catwalk, influencing retailers in the process — how many VETEMENTS knock-offs have you already found at ZARA? Fashion gets rid of its complexes, transforming clichés into trends. Tongue-in-cheek, she laughs at herself while reaffirming her right to singularity.

While this could once again be seen as a response to the upheavals currently affecting our society, one may also wonder whether it is not rather our world that is turning camp. From the disproportion of Trump's character, to that of Kim Kardashian's figure, to Lady Gaga's dresses, and TV programs in the vein of RuPaul's Drag Race or The Real Housewives, we are living in an era of theatricality.

A phenomenon amplified by social networks, which have transformed us into ersatz stars sharing their ordinary daily lives under a rain of filters and artificial stagings. We fight each other through the likes on the retouched photos of our OOTDs, take pictures of ourselves like the Sun King getting his portrait painted. If eating while being watched by his courtiers allowed him to keep an eye on them, what is our excuse every time our plate ends up in a story? When we film ourselves at parties?

So, aren't we all ultimately a little bit camp...? •

Hugh Hefner's and Donatella Versace's love child, I am the visible half of the duo behind ZACKARIUM. Addicted to fashion and to Lucky Strike, my mission is to guide you smoothly through the jungle of brands and catwalks.

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