Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Notes on Camp

I was rereading the famous Susan Sontag essay, and my thoughts wondered towards Camp in fashion. I was thinking how framing certain designers as Campy gives their clothes a new meaning, particularly in allowing me to separate their work from kitsch. I am not crazy about Camp myself. My style is by and large monochromatic, and Camp tends to be more colorful, although it does not have to be. Rick Owens can be campy - those 5" heels of his certainly are.

According to Sontag, Camp allows one to be serious about the frivolous, and frivolous about the serious. I think that is exactly what attracts me to work of Jean-Paul Gaultier. He is whimsical in his creations, yet there is a certain seriousness in his work. That seriousness lays in subverting traditional bourgeois images - a sailor becomes a gay boy, a grand dame becomes a hooker, and Gaultier hysterically laughs at the bourgeois propriety that he repeatedly violates. But this laughter is not mean - the way Vivienne Westwood's punk rock laugh was in the 70's - it's hearty. It is not an apolitical laughter (contrary to Sontag's view of all Camp as apolitical) but it is light-hearted all the same. Gaultier is the guy that the sophisticated Camp traffickers like Galliano silently pay homage to. Gaultier's last trick was sending Ms. Velvet d'Amour down the runway as a commentary on the media hoopla surrounding the malnourished models. Before you get all self-righteous, let me repeat - it was commentary not on the underweight girls that are treated like props, but on the media hoopla surrounding the issue. Gaultier rightfully picked up on the insincerity of the bourgeois media - where was the same media the next season lamenting the waifs? Nowhere, because all they care for is a hot story, not the girls.

In my view, what separates Camp from kitsch (something that Sontag only lightly touches upon) are two things - lack of seriousness and quality of execution. Lack of seriousness is what separates Gaultier from Lagerfeld - the King (the Queen?) of kitsch. Lagerfeld, while producing plenty of things that could be seen as campy (little Catholic school girl uniforms, for example), fails to be frivolous. He is dead serious about his role in fashion, and about the things he produces. Barbara Vinken rightfully calls him out in her book Fashion Zeitgeist for violating everything Coco's legacy by putting the Chanel logo on display. That's kitsch. It could've been Camp, but it's not.

Quality of execution is the second aspect, and that's where I think the Camp men are separated from the kitsch boys. After all, I fully subscribe to the idea that art has to be well executed and manifest the artist's prowess. This is where Gaultier, McQueen (sometimes), Comme des Garcons (strange company for Rei, but don't blame me), Galliano (for the most part) stand apart from the likes of Bernard Willhelm, Jeremy Scott, and Heatherette. While someone could make the case for Willhelm in the past - his Bavarian peasant references done in quality fabrics and gorgeous colors certainly made one look twice - his present work lacks the same quality of execution. Jeremy Scott and Heatherette are nothing to take about - their "work" is kitsch, although it borders on Camp.

What is pure kitsch in fashion, then? There is no lack of it. D&G is pure kitsch. Loud and ugly, it says nothing. DSquared is pure kitsch, although it tries to be campy. Camp is superficial, but it's not shallow enough to simply yawn at it - D2 is. Camp, while being loud, is also sophisticated - D2 is way too crude to be Camp. The Milan would-be Dandy who wears the huge double-G buckled Gucci belt is kitsch - he takes himself seriously. By now the division should make sense.

Camp can be found in strange places. Comme des Garcons is one of them. Rei Kawakubo used to be dead serious about her work, or so it seemed judging by what she sent down the catwalk. Her innovative cuts were matched by her innovative fabrics - I cannot describe her work by any other word than "Avant-Garde." But, it seems as Ms. Kawakubo got older, she had some kind of an internal World War III, and her Modernist ideals became Postmodernist. The Avant-Garde turned into Camp. Somber colors and distressed fabrics gave way to Pink Panther and the Rolling Stones. I am not sure what happened (I'd like to know), but I can tell you one thing - much of Camp (not all) is thematic, and it's easy to be thematic.

For all that, Camp can be fun. Although not my cup of tea, I can enjoy looking at it. And why not? After all, as Sontag says, "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak."


Anonymous Sister Wolf said...

Wow, I barely know what you're talking about but I like it! It seems like you're saying: Camp is good, Kitsch isn't.

Maybe, kitsch is trying to hard?

Which group do Pierre et Gillet fall into?

4:47 PM  
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