‘The Word Is Camp’: What to Know About the Inspiration for This Year’s Met Gala, as Explained in 1964 (2024)

The annual benefit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute is as high-fashion as fashion gets — but this year’s Met Gala, on Monday night, will bring a heavy dose of low culture to the red carpet. After all, the gala’s theme celebrates the opening of its exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion, and that interaction of high and low is key to camp’s spirit.

While the origins of camp can be traced back to the reign of the French King Louis XIV, the inspiration for this show is much more recent. The modern camp aesthetic was solidified in the 1964 Partisan Review essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” by the American critic Susan Sontag.

The essay first appeared that fall, and didn’t take long to grab mainstream attention. Case in point: That December, TIME’s “Modern Living” section explained to readers why everyone was suddenly talking about camp:

Where are the dandies these days? Not the mere fops and mannered exhibitionists, but the lovers and arbiters of style for style’s sake, the cherishers and curators of what’s amusing (as opposed to what’s serious) — a predilection that is one of the luxuries of affluent societies. They thrived in Socrates’ Athens and at the Roman courts of emperors and Popes. The 18th century shone with them, and the 19th century produced the dandy of all time, Oscar Wilde.

Wilde rebutted the industrial revolution with flowing locks and velvet suits; he warded off its fumes with a long-stemmed flower. The modern dandy, on the other hand, revels detachedly and deliciously in the vulgarity of mass culture. And the word is not dandyism any more. According to one of Manhattan’s brightest young intellectuals, Novelist Susan Sontag, the word is “Camp.”

The essence of Camp, writes Miss Sontag in the Partisan Review, is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Tiffany lamps are Camp, she says by way of illustration, and so is a fondness for Scopitone films and the lurid pseudo journalism of the weekly New York National Enquirer. Turn-of-the-century postcards are Camp; so is enthusiasm for the ballet Swan Lake and the 1933 movie King Kong. Dirty movies are Camp — provided one gets no sexual kick out of them — and so are the ideas of the French playwright Jean Genet, an ex-thief and pederast who boasts about it. “Genet’s statement that ‘the only criterion of an act is its elegance’ is virtually interchangeable, as a statement, with Wilde’s ‘In matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style.'”

In matters sexual, according to Miss Sontag, Camp goes against the grain, cherishing either the androgynous, swoony girl-boys and boy-girls of pre-Raphaelite painting or the plangent supersexiness of Jayne Mansfield or Victor Mature. In art, Camp’s exaggeration must proceed from passion and naiveté. “When something is just bad (rather than Camp),” she writes “it’s often because the artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish. ‘It’s too much,’ ‘It’s fantastic,’ ‘It’s not to be believed,’ are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.”

Click here to read the full story from 1964 in the TIME Vault

The essay launched Sontag’s career as a literary critic, in which “she argued for a more sensuous, less intellectual approach to art,” TIME noted in her obituary, when she died in 2004 at the age of 71. “It was an irony lost on no one, except perhaps her, that she made those arguments in paragraphs that were marvels of strenuous intellection.”

“Notes on ‘Camp'” not only launched her career, but also it launched a new way of thinking. It fit right in with the spirit of the ’60s, an era known for new ideas and the breaking down of taboos. As TIME noted in 1964, when it came to camp, this phenomenon was particularly true in terms of sexuality. Camp was not gender or sexuality specific, Sontag argued, but the aesthetic had been embraced by the LGBTQ community as a way to “neutralize moral indignation” by promoting a playful approach to that which others took seriously.

Which was not to say Sontag didn’t take camp seriously.

“Seriousness was one of Sontag’s lifelong watchwords, but what she sometimes dared to take seriously were matters that educated opinion, as it emerged from the cramped quarters of the 1950s, dismissed as trivia,” TIME wrote in her obituary. “At a time when the barriers between high-and lowbrow were absolute, she argued for a genuine openness to the pleasures of pop culture.”

At the time, however, some were worried that coverage in a mainstream publication like TIME would spell the closing of camp’s fun. “By publishing your recent analysis of ‘Camp,’ you have ensured that Camp will no longer be Camp, if you see what I mean,” one reader argued in a letter to the editor, while another argued that “‘Camp’ is here to stay.” Fifty-five years later, on camp’s big night, it’s clear that the latter was right.

For more current examples of “camp,” see TIME’s illustrated guide.

‘The Word Is Camp’: What to Know About the Inspiration for This Year’s Met Gala, as Explained in 1964 (2024)


What does camp mean in the Met Gala theme? ›

The Met Gala 2019 Theme, Explained (NYT ) 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.

What does Susan Sontag mean by camp? ›

CAMP: A sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, theatricalization, irony, playfulness, and exaggeration rather than content, as Susan Sontag famously defined the term in her short essay, "Notes on 'Camp.

What does the fashion word camp mean? ›

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.

What is camp at the Met? ›

Exhibition Overview

In her essay, Sontag defined camp as an aesthetic and outlined its primary characteristics. The second section of the exhibition is devoted to how these elements—which include irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration—are expressed in fashion.

What does being camp mean? ›

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. [informal]

Why is it called camp? ›

Using the courts of 17th-Century France as a starting point (it has been suggested that the word 'camp' derives from se camper, meaning 'to posture boldly'), the Met's Camp: Notes on Fashion explores the trajectory of camp from the fringe towards popular culture in around 200 objects – outfits, sculptures, paintings, ...

What is camp and why is it important? ›

Camp helps children grow by providing a supervised, positive environment that has safety as a primary commitment. Camp professionals have enormous power in conveying simple teachable moments . . . special moments of passing experiences touched by the human spirit.

What is an example of camp Susan Sontag? ›

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.” Sontag's “random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp” are illustrative of the aesthetic, and worth reading in full, but they include Tiffany lamps, “the old Flash Gordon comics,” Swan Lake, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

What are the values of camp? ›

The Value of Camp
  • Sense of Self: Perceived Competence, Independence, Responsibility.
  • Sense of Community: Camp Connectedness, Friendship Skills, Teamwork.
  • Sense of the Earth: Affinity for Nature, Interest in Exploration.
  • Sense of Wonder: Family Citizenship, Problem Solving Competence.

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 camp fashion look like? ›

Camp means different things to different people. Generally, it is fashion that makes fun of fashion if that makes sense. Exaggerated lines, oversized pieces, very bright colors. Fashion with a sense of humor.

What is camp in popular culture? ›

It is a way of looking at the world through a lens of over-the-top theatricality, often with a sense of parody or kitsch. Camp can be seen in fashion, art, music, film, and other forms of popular culture, and is often associated with queer culture and subversion of traditional gender norms.

How much does it cost to go to the Met Gala? ›

A ticket to the Met Gala, which is invite only, is hard to come by. A single ticket costs some $50,000 though designers may opt to buy an entire table for at least $300,000. Typically hosted on the first Monday of May, this year's controversial theme will center around the late Karl Lagerfeld, who died in 2019.

What happens in a camp? ›

At some camps, all campers stay overnight in cabins and eat all their meals in a cafeteria. At some camps, also known as day camps, the campers go home each night. Some other camps allow both day and overnight campers. In the US, residential camps that have overnight facilities are sometimes called "sleepaway camps".

What is camp Vogue? ›

In a nutshell, camp is an elusive and playful and knowing sensibility, one that doesn't take itself too seriously. As Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton noted in his press preview remarks on Monday, it's likely to make you smile.

What does camp mean in horror? ›

: in the style of camp : absurdly exaggerated, artificial, or affected in a usually humorous way. campy horror movies.

What is the difference between camp and parody? ›

Camp sets up new meanings by synthesizing an original text or cultural artifact and its recontextualized version. In other words, it works parodically. Camp is more complex than simple parody, however. The following textual comparison will demonstrate that Camp extends beyond parody's intellectual synthesis of texts.

What is an example of camp aesthetic? ›

For example, drag shows, the gay "accent," and cult films popular within the LGBT community such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show are examples of camp.

What is a camp party? ›

Camping Party means an individual or a group of people (two or more persons not to exceed eight) that is organized, equipped and capable of sustaining its own camping activity in a single camp- site.


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