Recently, I encountered an image of a Moschino shirt from 1991, emblazoned in sans-serifed black letters across the back: “TOO MUCH IRONY.” The shirt made me think of my class of undergraduates to whom I teach rhetoric. We examine how irony has been used as a tool to examine latent social absurdities and hypocrisies, and allow subversive ideas to enter public spheres under censorship. Since the 2016 election, I’ve noticed that my students are more resistant to irony or camp as a political tool — many articulated that they felt the use of irony seemed a maneuver aimed at rhetorical superiority over those doing the often futile work of earnestly believing in or fighting for something.
Yet ironic, campy clothing seems to be ubiquitous among them: this term, I saw many Vetements hoodies emblazoned with slogans like “May the Bridges I Burn Light the Way,” or expressions adjacent to those in Viktor & Rolf’s meme-gowns: “I’m not shy, I just don’t like you,” “Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come,” etc. The question lingering in my mind as I look out over a classroom-sea of Anti Social Social Club hoodies is the same as that after watching a recent Vetements or Balenciaga show: are we in on the joke?
It’s unsurprising that Moschino’s “TOO MUCH IRONY” shirt is among the garments featured in the upcoming Costume Institute exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” While camp is enjoying a serious resurgence in fashion (to the extent that it is the theme for the upcoming Met Gala), use of the term it can be traced back to the French courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, during which the verb, se camper, “to posture boldly” was used to reference the flamboyant costumes and affectations of court people. Hamish Bowles elaborates:
The Sun King himself consolidated his power by compelling the French nobility to abandon their country strongholds and to gather at Versailles, the glittering showplace that he had built a suitable distance from Paris, where the elaborate protocol and demands of dress forced them to squander vast sums literally to keep up appearances. The king ordered elaborate court ballets that required complex costuming, and established complex faux military camp cities made from canvas in which he and his courtiers paraded in yet more lavish ensembles. At Versailles, everything was pose and performance.
Our most workable contemporary definition of “camp” comes from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Notes on Camp: “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Sontag neutralized what was originally presented as a queer term, (pejorative or positive), depicting camp not as flashy nostalgia lacking in political or cultural substance, but as a defined aesthetic of irony, pastiche, excess, longing: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” she wrote, bringing to mind Virgil Abloh’s zealous use of them. “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” Among Sontag’s camp-classifications: the ballet Swan Lake, Art Nouveau, Tiffany lamps, tabloid headlines and stories, Anita Ekberg parodying herself in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
It is fitting that the Costume Institute’s exhibition, which will run from May 9 through September 8, 2019, has been framed around Sontag’s essay. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele commented that Sontag’s essay “perfectly expresses what camp truly means to me: the unique ability of combining high art and pop culture,” and Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibit added, “Sontag in her essay said not everything is camp, but since I have been working on the show, I have started to think it is everywhere, and that all fashion is on some level camp. It has gained such currency it has become invisible, and part of my goal is to make it visible again.”
What does camp in fashion look like today? Lady Gaga’s meat dress, garishly ugly sneakers (Margiela, Prada, Acne Studios, Louis Vuitton), Rihanna’s pope-esque Met Gala costume, Alessandro Michele’s renaissance of over-the-top at Gucci, Off-White’s “For Walking” boots, Gucci’s Chateau Marmont laundry bags and Yankees caps, influencers holding more power than fashion editors, and the consumer revolt of streetwear. The Costume Institute exhibit will feature around 175 pieces, divided into two sections. The first will explore the origins of camp, from Versailles to the Stonewall riots, while the second will focus on contemporary designers, among them Demna Gvasalia, Miuccia Prada, Cristóbal Balenciaga, John Galliano, Anna Sui, Donatella Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Jeremy Scott, and Rei Kawakubo.
Ideally, camp can offer playful encounters with the absurdity of our cultural moment, or challenge the disingenuousness of the virtue-signaling dominating the political conversation — but does our contemporary fashion-camp flood come at the expense of communicative value? It would be difficult to argue that Balenciaga is interrogating the emptiness of popular culture with their Comic Sans printed dresses, or that Abloh is provoking phenomenological reflection by putting everything in quotations. Vetements co-founder Demna Gvasalia has insisted that “First and foremost, Vetements is a business. That’s the reason we do it. We are not a conceptual or artistic project. We are 100 percent product-oriented and open about it.”
We ought to believe him. Even the house’s name — Vetements meaning “clothing” in French — seems poised to discount the body’s role in bringing the clothing to life. What makes these clothes “designed?” They’re just garments, Gvasalia tells us. Ascribing subversive potential to fashion brands is sometimes part of the narrative we are sold, while other times, we come up with it on our own. Gvasalia’s remarks are a refreshing reminder that we shouldn’t rely on fashion houses to be moral compasses or beacons of representation in the age of pop spirituality and vague, capitalist notions of “empowerment.” If the Vetements-Balenciaga complex is articulating something of cultural resonance, it is by showing the fashion industry holding a detached, self-referential mirror up to itself.
Other camp-fashion does seem to be part of a larger conversation of influence. Vetements showed shoes similar to Maison Martin Margiela’s trademark Tabi boots in their F/W 2018 show, but Gvasalia owes much more than this to Martin Margiela, particularly to his legacy of deconstructing traditional models of “la mode destroy.” Charlie Hardie writes that Margiela’s work integrates with deconstructionst philosophy:
“Margiela’s work proved particularly accommodating to this sort of commodification of theory. For the conceptually minded, a dismantled Guernsey jumper with arms made from the lining of a tailored jacket echoed the practice of a reading and (re)writing that brought secrets to the surface, or revealed the hidden assumptions and enabling conditions through the dismantling or close reading of cultural actors and events. Margiela’s house had an agenda: his anonymity, refusal to do interviews, the universal studio uniform of white coats, the appropriation and refiguring of vintage clothing – all worked to decentre the act of creation away from a single designer-as-authority and forced comparisons with the anonymity of contemporary art…”
Margiela didn’t invent the Tabi boot, but his use of it was more than an empty reference, or a co-opting of an aesthetic, Hardie continues:
“Margiela’s well known appropriation of the Japanese tabi shoe reveals what is at stake. As it migrates from an ethnic reference to a cloven hoof that leaves bloodied footprints across the floor of his shops, it demands some acknowledgement of the entanglements in fashion of beings both human and non-human. Garments clothe and protect but fashion signifies the wearer’s cultural location. Margiela’s mode parlante reveals the totemic quality of clothes, their capacity to become fetishised commodities invested with diverse sentiments.”
One wonders if contemporary camp-trends that co-opt worker aesthetics, like the Vetements “Securite” “uniforms,” Miu Miu military jackets, and the Margiela fisherman suit, have the same disruptive possibilities, or if selling the aesthetics of the privileged at an extreme markup is just, well, obnoxious. John Waters — a king of camp — said part of the allure of Rei Kawakubo’s clothes for Comme des Garçons is that “She lets us be stylish in secret. Because most people think we’re poor when we have on her outfits.” The merciless blending of these class-divides also seems reflective of our progression toward the hyperreality depicted by philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in which all is composed of references without referents. Judith Thurman writes:
“Kawakubo ennobled poor materials and humbled rich ones, which were sent off to be reëducated in the same work camp with elasticated synthetics and bonded polyester. She crumpled her silks like paper and baked them in the sun; boiled her woollens so that they looked nappy;faded and scrubbed her cottons; bled her dyes; and picked at her threadwork. One of the most mocked pieces from 1982 was a sublimely sorry-looking sweater cratered with holes that she called (one assumes with irony, though one can’t be sure) ‘Comme des Garçons lace.’”
Decadent, luxurious camp can be just as divisive. “Those are a lot,” my boyfriend said when he saw my pearl-encrusted mid-heeled Gucci loafers (he preferences the practical, hardline urban-minimalist aesthetic of Everlane or Acne Studios). “I’m a lot,” I retorted, acutely aware that my shoe collection suggests that I am a terrible leftist. But the camp of Michele’s Gucci is something of a caricature, conflating wealth and legacy with tacky flashiness — a despair-under-capitalism that is the antithesis of Kawakubo’s “stylish in secret” aesthetic. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, my loafers seemed to say. Wear the shoes.
Recently, I interviewed the artist Carolee Schneemann.“I hate irony,” she told me. I had to admit that I usually do, too. As Sontag said, “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it… the discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating… Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism.”
But perhaps we could charge forth into our witty hedonism in good fabrics and craftsmanship. In 2013, Opening Ceremony released a sweater emblazoned with the title of another phenomenal essay by Sontag, “Against Interpretation” — ironic, of course, in its explicit about-ness. To my delight, someone quipped on Twitter, “It’s not even 100% cashmere. I feel she would disapprove.”