Thursday 23 May 2019

How Lady Gaga became camp culture's modern-day poster girl

As the fashion world prepares to celebrate the colourful, the garish and the simply fabulous, Rose Mary Roche examines how camp culture used playful clothing to make serious statements - and how boundary-pushing Lady Gaga became its modern-day poster girl

Singer Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet during the 58th Annual Grammy Music Awards in Los Angeles February 15, 2016. AFP PHOTO/ Valerie MACON / AFP / VALERIE MACON
Singer Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet during the 58th Annual Grammy Music Awards in Los Angeles February 15, 2016. AFP PHOTO/ Valerie MACON / AFP / VALERIE MACON
Happy camper: Lady Gaga
Cher
Kylie Minogue
RuPaul

On Monday, May 6, the 71st Met Gala will celebrate the theme 'Camp: Notes on Fashion'. This is a marriage made in heaven for the annual New York fashion fund-raiser, which has emerged in the past decade as the most flamboyant red carpet in celebrity culture.

The announcement that Lady Gaga is the co-chair of the event - alongside Alessandro Michele of Met Gala sponsors Gucci, singer Harry Styles and tennis ace Serena Williams - has also added to the sense of anticipation. With the bar raised exceptionally high by last year's 'Heavenly Bodies' theme, which saw Rihanna's turn as a bejewelled female Pope, speculation has been rife about what Lady Gaga will wear to the ball.

The past year has seen her evolution from underground superstar to mainstream Hollywood star expressed in more classic red carpet choices. Her meat dress of old has been replaced by dramatic designer gowns and Gaga has morphed into a more polished version of her iconic persona - couture rather than charcuterie is her style signature now.

In the past year, we've seen her wearing pink feathered Haute Couture Valentino in Venice, ornate historical Alexander McQueen in London and Cinderella-style Valentino to the Golden Globes. Her refined new look reached its apogee in the exquisite yet understated McQueen worn to the Oscars with that stonking yellow Tiffany diamond.

RuPaul
RuPaul

In the past, fashion watchers would have been confident that the diminutive diva would dress to shock, provoke and puncture expectations at the Met Gala, but the rebel has now become regal and her tastes have evolved accordingly. But perhaps, she might just return to her underground roots and surprise with a subversive choice on May 6.

The theme offers immense scope for experimentation for the Haus of Gaga creative team. Camp as a cultural phenomenon has been the defining force of post-modernism. It possesses a particular cultural resonance in our image-saturated era as we redefine ideas of gender fluidity and the breakdown of sexuality along the traditional male/female binary.

Camp has influenced art, culture, media and politics since it first began to enter mainstream consciousness, when Susan Sontag penned her essay 'Notes on Camp' in 1964. The writer described the sensibility as follows: "Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of 'style' over 'control', 'aesthetics' over 'morality', of irony over tragedy." She further evolved her definition stating: "The whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, and anti-serious." In light of the current divisive state of modern politics and society, a dose of camp is just the medicine the doctors might prescribe.

Camp isn't about no taste - rather it is about the subversion of accepted rules of "good taste". It combines high and low culture seamlessly, conferring the same weight to each. Andrew Bolton, the curator at the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art, home to The Costume Institute), has defined camp for the show as "irony, humour, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, excess, extravagance, nostalgia and exaggeration".

The origin of the term is in the French verb, se camper - meaning to strike an exaggerated pose, a reference to the flamboyant postures and costumes adopted at the French court at Versailles, under Louis XIV. Later in 1870, Frederick Park, a Victorian cross-dresser trialled for illegal homosexual acts (he and his co-accused were referred to as "he-she ladies" known as Fanny and Stella and are the inspiration for Erdem's current SS2019 collection) referred to his "campish undertakings" in a letter. Subsequently in 1909, the Oxford English Dictionary gave the first definition as "ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of homosexuals".

In the contemporary wider sense, camp is an aesthetic style and sensibility that considers something appealing due to its bad taste and ironic value. It inverts aesthetic rules about beauty and bad taste by placing emphasis on wit, humour and imperfection. It celebrates artifice, ostentation and theatricality and delights in the desire to shock and provoke a reaction. It punctures pretentiousness and celebrates diversity. The original associations of camp culture with gay culture have been stretched - effeminacy was once its defining characteristic but now it simply refers to any over-the-top or highly stylised excess or silliness.

Happy camper: Lady Gaga
Happy camper: Lady Gaga

The term gained particular currency in the worlds of fashion and entertainment where gay subculture thrived despite its illegality in the early 20th century. Polari - the gay slang - developed its own coded terminology and visual cues to semaphore sexual identity, including green carnations, brown suede shoes, overtly tight clothing and red ties (please note that Mr Trump may be the campest US president ever with his predilection for 'blingy' gold interiors, dyed blonde hair, vivid orange-hued complexion and loudmouth persona).

As the modern era evolved and the aristocracy of old was replaced by new arbiters of taste, a more liberated and subversive attitude crept into Western popular culture - gay men who worked in creative fields including fashion, music and film expressed this irreverence in humour and a flamboyant aesthetic. They elevated frivolity into an art form and stylised silliness into an act of subversion. Artifice had become an art in itself.

On TV, popular favourites such as Batman, The Addams Family, Charlie's Angels, Dallas and Dynasty all played a role in introducing straight society to the joy of camp in the latter half of the 20th century. Similarly, famous female music icons who championed camp - Kylie, Dusty Springfield and Cher - opened up audiences to camp iconography. The appeal of camp grew to cross genders, sexual orientation, age, race and religion. By century's end it had gone mainstream.

Increasingly, the irony and black humour that underscores camp has provided rich inspiration across myriad art forms. Its flamboyant aesthetic has inspired film (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom and Hairspray), fashion (Alessandro Michele's geeky and eclectic Gucci collections and music (Liberace, Marc Bolan, Bowie, The Pet Shop Boys). Camp has infiltrated TV culture - the Eurovision has been hijacked by it while the huge popularity of RuPaul's Drag Race, Strictly Come Dancing, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians all celebrate the genre. Here in Ireland, Panti is a national heroine.

Camp has also been championed by social media to dominate Instagram and Twitter feeds. Tongue-in-cheek parodies, over-the-top outfits, cat memes and heavily applied irony are all par for the course in our virtual worlds.

Contemporary fashion is awash with camp references - think of Crocs at Balenciaga, Jeremy Scott's excessive '80s pastiche for Moschino, and Prada's comic strip bags and socks with sandals.

Contouring, the bane of modern life, started out as a makeup technique used by drag artists. Trends such as ugly footwear (such as dad sneakers) and a multiplicity of unwearable, even garish, clothes have led some to question if designers are laughing at their customers via camp style. Ironic detachment is the new black.

The 'Camp: Notes on Fashion' exhibition, which will run at the Met from May 8 until September 9, will feature work by Charles Frederick Worth, Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons, Thom Browne, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Alessandro Michele, Franco Moschino, Yves Saint Laurent, Jeremy Scott, Anna Sui, Gianni Versace and Vivienne Westwood. In total, the museum will display 250 objects from the 17th century to today to display the evolution and influence of camp and its myriad expressions in fashion and dress.

Of course, noteable among those who have used camp to express their own unique take on the world is Lady Gaga.

Kylie Minogue
Kylie Minogue

Her stylist, Tom Erebout, has previously stated: "There's never been a limit of what you can achieve with her." She has grasped innately from the start of her career the importance of a dramatic visual style, to her profile and persona. More than any other current star, she has pushed the boundaries when it comes to appearance about what is considered acceptable or appropriate as a choice of clothing.

The camp theme is perfect for Gaga's flamboyant fashion tendencies - since the off she has fused music, art and fashion fearlessly. She tells stories via her clothes, entertains us and creates narratives that provoke, and stimulate debate and strong emotions.

Gaga may be its contemporary embodiment, but the final word must go to Diana Vreeland, the influential fashion editor who ran the Costume Institute at the Met after her career in Vogue and was a singular champion of camp. "A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika," she said. "We all need a splash of bad taste - it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I'm against."

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