Why Kim Kardashian won the 2019 Met Gala

When dressing 'camp' automatically means feathers and sequins, platforms and shoulder pads, aren't we begging for a new stylistic definition?

12 May 2019 - 00:06

The Village People, platforms, Cher, Tiffany lamps, Ziggy Stardust, a gay man dressed as a boy scout, a row of pink tents? What exactly is "camp"? This is the question the A-list peeps of the fashion world were asking themselves on Monday last week as they prepared to attend the most prestigious party on the fashion event calendar: The Met Gala.
This year's theme was: "Camp: Notes on Fashion", a reference to the 1964 Susan Sontag essay, Notes on Camp, and despite the fact that there were no prizes for the celebrity who epitomised "camp",  I'll try to substantiate my own choice of who did it best.
According to Sontag, camp is "the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalisation of experience". But how to interpret that? She wrote 58 points that gestured at a definition, but failed to come up with anything that really stuck.
Official definitions of "camp" call it a style that's appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value, but who gets to define bad taste and isn't irony "dead"? Insert eye roll here ...
The word "camp" comes from the French verb se camper, which means to strike an exaggerated pose. Vogue magazine traces its origins to the court at Versailles of the "Sun King" Louis XIV's "the epicentre of pomp and pose that became a hub for let-them-eat-cake extravagance and rococo splendour expressed through art, fashion, furniture, theatre, music and architecture". But even then, it wasn't about good taste - just taste with all the extra flavours mushed together.
Sontag writes, "camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated."
But too much of a good thing can be rather sickening, like too much fudge or too many rainbow cocktails - I'm looking at you, Lady Gaga and your four costume changes.
With this in mind, the problem with having a party where everyone is supposed to dress camp is no longer making a statement in any meaningful way, but, in fact, reduces the impact of what was previously used as a way of challenging and inverting notions of good taste, beauty and value.
The theme belies the paradox that to be self-aware of one's own campness is to no longer be camp - by virtue of attempting a pure camp look, you've already failed at it - particularly if you've succeeded.
Sontag wrote, pure camp must be naive of its ridiculousness. "Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying."
The problem it seems with asking people to dress "camp" is that it pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to genuinely do so and belittles what "campness" is trying to say. It takes "camp" off the periphery and places it in the centre, giving it the stamp of approval it wasn't asking for in the first place and, at the same time, reducing it to the mainstream.
Ironically, when we can define camp by calling it drag or grotesque, over-the-top, pantomime or effeminate it loses some of its power to delight and shock. It becomes expected. When dressing "camp" automatically means feathers and sequins, platforms and shoulder pads, aren't we begging for a new stylistic definition?
So in my opinion it was Kim Kardashian in a Thierry Mugler corset-shaped dress dripping with trompe-l'oil raindrops who did "camp" best. She epitomised the exaggerated pose without referencing the established notions of "campness" by "being" camp - not just "performing" it.Instead, by foregrounding her over-the-top, silicone-enhanced body proportions and by emphasising her inherent "Barbie-doll-ness", without making a direct reference to Barbie (as some other guests, like Kacey Musgraves in Jeremy Scott for Moschino did), she takes the multi-tiered cake in campness.In her essay Sontag wrote: "The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness - irony, satire - seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal."If Donald and Melania Trump had attended as themselves, they would have received my top vote...

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