'That's so camp': Defining the slang and aesthetic term, plus its place in queer history (2024)


"Camp" is a term many know but few can define. You may have heard it as slang adopted by Gen Z or in context with the 2019 Met Gala theme, but it has a much deeper history, particularly in queer communities.

Though “camp” preexisted American writer Susan Sontag, she produced one of the most seminal texts to define it in 1964:

“Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste,” Sontag wrote in her “Notes on ‘Camp.’”

What does camp mean?

Camp is an aesthetic or expression of “inauthentic visual cues,” says Michael Mamp, an associate professor of Lousiana State University’s fashion program and the director and curator of the university’s textile and costume museum.

In other words, "camp" isn't often intentional. It's expressing yourself earnestly and sincerely, but coming off as over-the-top to those around you.

“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style,” Sontag wrote. “It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”

Wesley Breed, a 20-year-old fashion influencer and student at New York University describes it as “so bad it’s good.”

“It’s an attempted seriousness that fails,” Breed says. “You miss the mark, but in missing your mark, you create something that's good in its own way.”

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Examples of camp fashion

Camp is often most clearly seen in fashion. Breed points out Comme des Garçons runway shows, which often feature over-the-top looks that, to the average viewer, may seem more like an arts and crafts project than high fashion.

“Rei Kawakubo, who heads Comme des Garçons, has a vision for her fashion that’s a little bit comic, but she kind of plays with it,” Breed says. “It creates this whole new aspect of seriousness that people really enjoy.”

Gen Z often applies the word to celebrities in the way they act or dress. Think Katy Perry’s bubblegum sweet, plastic-laden dresses, Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Breed even points out now-campy early 2000s runway looks.

The Met Gala tried its hand in 2019 with its theme “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” Billy Porter was carried in by six shirtlesspharaohs and flew gold wings. Michael Urie sported a half-tux, half-gown look. Cara Delevingne's headpiece was made of bananas, fried eggs, fingers, mouths and eyeballs. Zendaya wore an LED Cinderella gown. Janelle Monáe's trippy look included no less than four hats.

But Mamp says it failed – some didn’t understand the essence of camp (cue Karlie Kloss’ “Looking camp right in the eye”) and it didn’t center the LGBTQ+ community, which has been an essential part of camp expression for hundreds of years.

The Met Gala oozes exclusivity, and it's part of what makes it so interesting to watch for those of us who didn't get an invite. But the stories of wealthy celebrities do not necessarily encompass what camp is and has been, Mamp says.

“It put camp into the common vernacular in a way that it probably hadn’t been in a while,” Mamp says. “But I don’t think it did appropriate justice to the connection between camp and LGBTQ+ communities.”

Camp has roots in queer fashion, art

Sontag points to the early examples of the camp aesthetic in the late 17th century and early 18th-century mannerist art; English poets like Alexander Pope, William Congreve and Horace Walpole, architecture like the Rococo churches of Munich and a French literature style called preciosity.

The Palace of Versailles is another early example many point to.

“It’s hard not to think of life at Versailles in the 18th century, in particular, as being a personification of camp,” Mamp says. “What’s more campy than the queen building a little village, the Hameau de la Reine, for her to play shepherdess there, but to do so with crystal chandeliers, the marble tables and perfectly manicured gardens.”

But there’s an even richer history of “doing” camp in queer communities, says Mamp, who teaches a class at LSU on LGBTQ+ history through the lens of fashion. He references cross-dressing at masquerade balls and queer communities in the early 20th century dressing or acting in a way colloquially referred to as “camping it up.”

“Historically, this idea of camp is linked to what was someone’s personal truth but what was seen by others as inauthentic or outside of the norm for them to behave,” Mamp says. “While camp may be seen as inauthentic, it is often most an expression of the most sincere.”

Mamp points to Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, trans activists who played a pivotal role in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Their expressions were seen as “campy” in that period, he says, but they were a “very real and very personal expression” of who they were.

Sontag, who herself was queer, mentions this in her 1964 essay: “The peculiar relation between Camp taste and hom*osexuality has to be explained. While it’s not true that Camp taste is hom*osexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap.”

Historically, camp culture for gay men in particular has been queer icons that didn’t even identify as queer themselves. They just *were* camp, Mamp says.

“Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Barbra Streisand, camp icons Cher, Bette Midler,” he says. “You can’t help but watch a clip from a Judy Garland show in the 1960s and think ‘Oh my god, this is the campiest thing I’ve seen.’ Yet at the same time, she’s pouring every ounce of her most sincere emotion and energy into the performance.”

This is the essence of camp, both Sontag and Mamp agree: The best expressions are “dead serious,” Sontag wrote.

“Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character,’” Sontag wrote in her essay.

What does camp mean as slang?

Today, camp is used as slang to describe something over-the-top – eccentric, ridiculous, unexpected, striking, out-of-the-ordinary.

Earlier this year, Breed made a TikTok video explaining the history and definition of camp for an audience of 11 to 26-year-olds who want to get in on the lingo.

Breed likens it to a figure of speech: “If you have a friend who does something strange or stupid or ridiculous or unexpected of their character, it can be camp. It’s kind of like people just give camp a definition based on context.”

It’s slang and it’s fashion, it’s an art and a way of living. It’s everything and it’s nothing. And maybe that’s what camp has meant all along.

“I think the point that Sontag makes is that sometimes it's easier to define what isn't camp versus what is,” Mamp says.

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'That's so camp': Defining the slang and aesthetic term, plus its place in queer history (2024)


What does camp mean in aesthetic? ›

On social media, the term "camp" can refer to a particular aesthetic or style characterized by being deliberately exaggerated, theatrical, ironic, and often kitschy/over-the-top.

What does that was so camp mean? ›

: something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing. This version of the play is camp: outrageous in concept and wild in its execution with double entendres flying every which way.

Where does the term camp come from? ›

'Camp' originated in the gay slang Polari (as made famous by 'Julian and Sandy' - Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick - in the 60s BBC radio programme 'Round the Horne').

Is camp a certain mode of aestheticism? ›

To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.

What does camp mean in LGBT? ›

According to the dictionary, this sense is "etymologically obscure". Camp in this sense has been suggested to have possibly derived from the French term se camper, meaning "to pose in an exaggerated fashion". Later, it evolved into a general description of the aesthetic choices and behavior of working-class gay men.

What is camp in the queer theory? ›

'" According to Sontag, "Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical"; however, some postmodernists, feminists, and queer theorists have explored the ways that camp (for example, the drag show) can trouble the belief that gender is "natural" or inherent, and can therefore work against ...

What is camp slang for Gen Z? ›

Camp. Something that is ironically trendy. One might consider Crocs to be of the camp aesthetic.

What does camp mean drag queens? ›

Campy. A type of traditional, over-the-top drag. Campy queens usually don't intend to be a female impersonator, they're traditional, original, & over-the-top.

What is campy urban dictionary? ›

From the Urban Dictionary: “Camp” n. or “Campy” adj. refers to intentionally exaggerated thematic or genre elements, especially in television and motion picture mediums. “Camp” style willfully over-emphasizes certain elements of the genre or theme, creating an almost self-satirical milieu.

What does camp mean in slang? ›

adjective. If you describe someone's behavior, performance, or style of dress as camp, you mean that it is exaggerated and amusing, often in a way that is thought to be typical of some male hom*osexuals.

What does camp mean on Reddit? ›

deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style, typically for humorous effect. And another one, which is a little controversial, goes like this: • ostentatiously and extravagantly effeminate (typically used of a man or his manner).

What is an example of camp in slang? ›

Anything you describe as "so bad it's good" is probably campy. Many fans of over-the-top, campy films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, find them wonderfully funny and strange. The early 20th-century slang meaning of camp was simply "tasteless," with campy emerging in the late 1950s.

What is an example of the camp aesthetic? ›

A good example of the camp aesthetic in LGBTQIA+ culture is the drag scene. The origin of the term "drag" is debated, however, the most accepted theory is the expression "dressed as a girl", which comes from the world of theater.

Who started the aesthetic trend? ›

Aestheticism was named by the critic Walter Hamilton in The Aesthetic Movement in England in 1882. By the 1890s, decadence, a term with origins in common with aestheticism, was in use across Europe.

What is an example of camp fashion? ›

The most literal Camp example is a Trompe L'Oeil, which means “Trick of the Eye” in French. Examples include those Prada bags with illustrated (but not real) buckles, Moschino's necklace-but-not sweatshirt dress, and Gucci's famous “drawn on” capes and bows…

What does it mean if someone is camp? ›

What does camp mean as slang? Today, camp is used as slang to describe something over-the-top – eccentric, ridiculous, unexpected, striking, out-of-the-ordinary.

What does it mean to be called camp? ›

The first English definition of the term, which appeared in a 1909 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, conformed to popular, contemporary notions of camp: “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or hom*osexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, hom*osexuals…” If not synonymous with ...

What does camp stand for slang? ›

adjective. If you describe someone's behavior, performance, or style of dress as camp, you mean that it is exaggerated and amusing, often in a way that is thought to be typical of some male hom*osexuals.


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