“Camp: Notes on Fashion,” based on Susan Sontag’s iconic 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” was recently announced as the forthcoming 2019 Met Gala theme. This means that the Met Gala’s theme, relative to last year’s “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” is unabashedly Jewish. Like, opposite-end-of-the-spectrum-Jewish, or Abbi-and-Ilana-Jewish, and not because the theme is summer camp, which it is not. But still — it’s much more Jewish than you think, as are many things in life (hot dogs, Zac Efron, et cetera).
To start, Susan Sontag is Jewish, and to spotlight the work of a 20th century Jewish intellectual like Sontag is, for the Jews, about equivalent to spotlighting something from the Pope.
Also, Judaism — at least, as I know it — is Campy. (Stick with me: I mean Sontag’s kind of Camp.) Most religions can probably be considered Camp, but Judaism is especially so. This will require me to better explain “Camp” for you, which I’ll attend to shortly.
A lot of people I know (a lot of Jewish people I know, I mean) are making the joke that Anna Wintour has decided to make the Met Gala theme “summer camp.” One popular tweet reads: “I’m really disappointed this doesn’t mean Soffe shorts with the waistband rolled three times, Havaianas, Hollister camis, and Juicy hoodies.” A Teen Vogue article referenced a joke made by an editor: “They told me the theme was camp,” he said, paired with an image of a model wearing a tent.
I think it is important to understand that these people are not totally off: I think camp (for Jews) is Campy (a la Sontag). But I also think understanding the essence of Sontag’s Camp is too important to dismiss. It’s something good to know in terms of one’s greater knowledge of intellectual things, but also is good for understanding the other camp — the kind you probably want me to talk about. As putting Jewish intellectual thought with Jewish millennial tradition is more or less a personal brand, I’d like to breakdown the introductory paragraph of Sontag’s essay in the context of summer camp, which thus makes the link between the two inarguably apparent.
“A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed.”
I went to Tripp Lake — a seven-week all-girls overnight camp in Maine — and the chorus of one of our camp songs went as follows: “How can you ask me/Why I am crying/If only you knew/The meaning of Tripp/Please forgive me/For I try to explain.”
No matter what camp you went to (if you went to camp), you probably get the gist of this. We tell ourselves that there are special albeit indescribable reasons why camp cannot be discussed in a fashion any deeper than the usual reminiscing. Otherwise, “you just don’t get it” because “it’s a camp thing.” And yes, not only can we not describe camp aptly, but we cannot describe why we cannot describe camp. Like the first rule of fight club, this is, more or less, the first rule of camp. And if you are able to break it without crying, even if you are in your 40s, then it is clear to everyone else that you simply do not get it as much as you say you do.
“It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Camp is a place where the youth can go and be the people they aren’t in real life. It is a place where you can wear tutus to lunch, and have your hair in two pigtail braids like you did in kindergarten, and cheer nonsense words and say nonsense things, and walk around holding hands with your best friends all the time. For young women who are otherwise confined to New York City prep schools and/or Hebrew school every Tuesday and Sunday, this is utterly unnatural — it is the mask we put on for seven weeks every summer. It is the reason why most 10-year-olds have undies that say “10 months for 2” across the pelvic area.
“And Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.”
Particularly (sub)urban cliques in the tri-state area.
“Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954), it has hardly broken into print. To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.”
I have never seen a work of art that accurately imitates my experiences at camp. The closest I’ve come is Lena Dunham’s chapter on being a camper at Fernwood Cove (15 minutes down the road from Tripp Lake) in her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. Other than that, interpretations of camp are often corny, a poor exaggeration of something that is already, inherently, exaggerated. No one has been able to properly capture the strange things that happen at camp: the time I shit my pants while cast as “The Wall of Thorns” in the 10-year-olds’ production of Sleeping Beauty; the time I got my period atop Tumbledown Mountain; the several times I had lice.
This is also a good time to talk about the difference between “corny” and “campy.” Here it is: corny is an alternative jab or joke in poor taste. Camp is just alternative.
Camp is love of the niche and the exaggeration of such. It lies at the intersection of culture and stereotype. It is show business, drag, cartoony, satirical, spectacle. It is, as Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, notes, “the idea that there is no such thing as originality.” So, in other words, it’s wearing Crocs ironically because someone once wore them in all, total, seriousness. Or it is wearing Crocs in total seriousness, which is absurd but obviously self-aware (this late in the game, at least).
To understand Camp is to understand camp — no matter which way you look at it. But past that, shrugging off Met Gala Camp as a swing and a miss at a largely Jewish American tradition is to undermine the work Susan Sontag, one of the greatest female Jewish intellectuals in history, did to bring light to a subject that we’ve taken for granted as existing — a strange and indescribable thing, or a name we did not know we could use to describe every quirky Jewish way of thinking and feeling — for all these years.
All this goes without saying that Camp is important today because of how it has crossed from the fringes to the mainstream. It feels like we are living in a world where everything is Camp: the people whose lives we watch from afar on Instagram, celebrity culture, the climate change crisis, the political status of our country, Balenciaga Crocs. It has all become a mockery of itself; America is becoming washed away shores, a sea of black mirrors, burnt up trees, and men with angry red faces. It is of comic book quality.
So, let me leave you with this: If everything is Camp, is nothing Camp anymore? What does the Met Gala being “Camp” do to Camp itself? Is the Met Gala Camp? Is Yves Saint Laurent Camp, as Michael Bolton claims? And, might I ask, where is canteen?