CULTURE

How Black Drag Queens Invented Camp: An Incomplete History of Lena Waithe’s Jacket

Camp was created by marginalized communities, in part to avoid traditional confines of language, and particularly, to escape restrictions of gender, sexuality, and the kind of power and wealth that funds the Metropolitan Museum of Art and puts on its star-studded gala each year.

When Lena Waithe stepped out wearing a jacket that read, Black Queers Invented Camp, she was making a decidedly pointed statement.


Sunday's Met Gala boasted thousands of designers' takes on the theme of camp, an elusive and complex term usually linked to Susan Sontag's essay, Notes on Camp. However, there is no one set definition of camp, and in fact, camp is partially defined by the fact that there is no precise record of where or why it was invented.

We do know that it was created—somewhere, at some point—by marginalized communities, in part to avoid traditional confines of language, to evade scrutiny, and particularly, to escape restrictions of gender, sexuality, racism, and the kind of power and wealth that funds the Metropolitan Museum of Art and puts on its star-studded gala each year.

The Secret Language of Queers: Reading Into Lena Waithe's Jacket

Lena Waithe's Met Gala jacket—emblazoned with the words Black Drag Queens Inventend Camp—made a powerful tribute to camp's roots in queer black subcultures. "Pepper LaBeija, Benny Ninja, RuPaul, all these pioneers . . . I really wanted to pay tribute to them and all that they did for the culture," Waithe explained. "They started this whole 'camp' thing by being over-the-top." Her jacket was also emblazoned with lyrics from traditional drag queen anthems, like Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and "I'm Coming Out."

Image via Hypebeast

Even the misspelling of "Invented" was purposeful. "First there was "Periodt," Waithe tweeted, "and Kerby and I wanted to give y'all another one 'Inventend' — which we take to mean a heavy emphasis on the 'D.'" By purposefully misspelling and reinterpreting a word to support her own community, Waithe was operating in the old traditions of secret queer languages and other dialects and styles used to express solidarity between marginalized groups. That extra D in the Invented might mean a lot of things—but it's definitely a fuck-you to heteronormative ways of doing things, and a shoutout to people who break from dominant traditions.

Camp has always been connected to secret languages of queerness. According to John M. Wolf, "Camp is a queer sense‐making practice that subverts dominant gender norms and heteronormative practices and institutions." Essentially, camp is a way of existing as a queer person within a heteronormative culture—a way of using exaggerated performances to both celebrate one's identity and to critique and reclaim the mainstream.

The word camp actually originated as a queer slang term, part of a secret language called Polari that gay people have used for centuries. Polari has roots in secret languages of sailors and theatrical performers in the 18th century. In 20th century Britain, it soon evolved to function as a street language that contained many euphemisms for police as well as homosexual relationships and was eventually largely left behind as queer culture became more publicly acceptable.

Camp and Black Queer Culture: An Interconnected Relationship

Black queer people, in particular, have to contend with the intersection of racism and homophobia and have had to invent their own languages and performance styles within these systems. True to form, the history and language of camp and black queerness is not a linear or easily readable one, especially for those who are not part of those communities.

According to Myles E. Johnson's Afropunk article, "The Met Gala Turned Drag into Deities," "To truly understand camp as it concerns the Black queer person in America in 2019, you'd have to wrestle with history. Not necessarily knock it out, but slightly strangle it until it can't fight the investigation of its body; leaving you to discover through excavation the source (usually racist) of the things we find pleasure in as a culture and what we perform."

The article goes on to cite some early examples of black people performing camp and making it into what it is today. Black performers like Bert Williams and George Walker, who brought the first African American blackface minstrel theatre to the stage in the early 1900s, used minstrelsy—a format traditionally used to marginalize black culture—to reclaim their own identity through a self-aware performance of racial stereotypes. Camp is not merely a performance of exaggeration; it involves a level of critical self-awareness and humor. These early African American minstrel shows were, in a way, examples of early camp.

Since then, black drag queens have long utilized exaggerated, stylized performances to carve out spaces of freedom for themselves. Unable to fit into dominant, white traditions of femininity even through drag, "black gay feminine men took the rejection of black women from the femme canon and created a coded language that allowed them to not only exist in the world but also, for those who understood the language, express their true selves," Mikelle Street writes in her article "Do Not Erase Black Femmes in Your History of Gay Slang" for PAPER Magazine. This intersectionality—between gender roles, sexual orientation, and racial politics—created a need for secret modes of expression and celebration that brought modern radical black camp into being.

Camp arose in part as a way for drag queens to access and transcend ideas of wealth, opulence, and mainstream fame that, in a white supremacist, heteronormative world, was difficult for them to attain. This is seen in the film Paris is Burning, which tells the story of a group of drag queens desperately pursuing a dream—"to live for a brief, dazzling moment in a fantasy world of high fashion, status, and acceptance," as Steven P. Schatt writes. Somehow, through this desire and the fantasy needed to access it, the fantasy became the desire, and camp became the end goal of many drag performances. Ultimately, the artifice became the celebration.

Even so, camp cannot be used to define all drag performances. Violet Chachki, the winner of the seventh season of RuPaul's Drag Race and a Met Gala attendee, explained that although "to the fashion world, a man in a dress will always be camp," in the world of drag there are different categories—and camp drag queens perform in a way that's specifically humorous and-self aware, in a way that "alludes to the artifice of everything."

Image via Metro

Ultimately, though black artists did not necessarily solely create camp as a term, they have been instrumental in making it into what it is today. Some black artists who have helped make camp into a mainstream phenomenon include the inimitable, ever-changing persona that is Beyoncé, the gender-bending theatrics of Prince, Nicki Minaj with her alter-egos, and even Titus Andromedon in Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. All of these performers resist constrictive gender roles and propose the possibility of a world beyond them. They constantly change, while celebrating themselves as they are.

Modern Camp: Still Subversive or Totally Commodified?

Waithe cited RuPaul as an example of a modern forerunner in the world of camp, and certainly, RuPaul has been instrumental in bringing camp to the mainstream. However, this may not be a total triumph. Just like black culture has been packaged and commodified, camp culture has also been capitalized on—and not only by Anna Wintour. RuPaul's Drag Race has been called an example of camp and queerness made palatable and profitable for the straight consumer.

The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion - Arrivals Image via People

Similarly, Cristy Turner cites Sex and the City as a show that has capitalized on 'fabulousness'—aka style, color, and radical independence—another term that originated with drag queens of color. Basically, through this lens, styles like modern camp developed as queer modes of survival and communication, but now that they've been brought to the fore of mainstream capitalist culture—aka the Met Gala and Sex and the City—they no longer have the subversive potential they once did.

But even this commodification can swivel back around on itself, creating spaces for the people it was originally meant for and allowing them to express themselves and find joy. "The term's subversive origins as a form of cultural capital, most notably among drag queens of color, allows audiences to disidentify with a level of status specifically meant for the rich, white, largely straight characters on the show," Turner writes, essentially arguing that although Sex and the City has taken advantage of an idea created by black drag queens, audience members who cannot access the show's stars' kind of money-driven fabulousness can still relate to fabulousness as a way of resisting homophobic or racist cultures. Basically, although camp might've been capitalized on, that doesn't mean that the people who it was created by and for can't celebrate it.

It's particularly gratifying, though, to see camp performed in its original spirit. Few people embodied this true radical spirit of black, queer camp at the Met Gala better than Billy Porter, who was carried aloft onto the red carpet by fishnet-clad men, his entrance becoming an instant self-care meme. "I am a theatre baby, and I do understand camp," said Porter. "I am camp."

Before the Met Gala, Porter was asked what camp meant to him. "Camp means as hugely over-the-top and grand and what some may feel is ridiculous and silly, and embracing all of those creative impulses inside us that very often are squelched," he explained. When all is said and done, that's one way of understanding the spirit of camp—real, true, uncritical, and unapologetically joyful.


Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York. Follow her on Twitter @edenarielmusic.


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CULTURE

The Best of the Met Gala's Gender-Bending Looks

Gender had no place at last night's iconic gathering in NYC.

Monday's annual Met Gala once again initiated a conversation about expressing identity through extravagant fashion statements.

But this year's event celebrates the exhibit "Camp: Notes on Fashion," based on Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" in which she describes the eccentric style of camp as "something of a private code, a badge of identity even." While the Met's exhibit celebrates "how the elements of irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration are expressed in fashion," a number of celebrities used the opportunity to challenge gender norms, express their own queer identities, or merely show off how good men can look in make-up.

From men appearing in glittery, sheer fabrics and skintight dresses to women in top hats and formal pants, the best part of the Met Gala were these gender-bending statements.

Harry Styles

One of the gala's five co-hosts, Styles gifted the world with this sheer, slinky Gucci blouse and the luckiest pearl earring since Vermeer's painting. "I think fashion is supposed to be fun," Styles told Liza Koshy in a Vogue interview posted on YouTube. "And I think it's a good time for that right now, people being who they are and stuff."

Michael Urie

The Ugly Betty actor wore Christian Siriano's binary-busting ensemble that has to make us wonder: how did he go to the bathroom?

Billy Porter

The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion - Street Sightings

After being carried onto the red carpet in a custom, gold karat catsuit, Porter showed off the ensemble's weird and resplendent wingspan. Earlier this year, Billy Porter also defied norms at the Oscars with a velvet "tuxedo gown" designed by Christian Siriano. Porter told Vogue, "This industry masquerades itself as inclusive, but actors are afraid to play, because if they show up as something outside of the status quo, they might be received as feminine, and, as a result, they won't get that masculine job, that superhero job." He added, "My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up. To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean?"

Kristen Stewart

Stewart bleached her eyebrows, donned pearly pants, and channeled David Bowie.

Danai Gurira

The Walking Dead actress looked like America's perfect prom king.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto in a red dress and holding a mock-up of his own head looks like Jesus and Elizabeth Taylor had a mean baby, but we're into it.

Janelle Monae

Monae was the classy version of the Mad Hatter in a dual-split between a feminine silhouette and tuxedo-inspired black and white color scheme.

Darren Criss

Criss made classic black cat-eyeliner look lazy.

Ezra Miller

Costume Institute Benefit celebrating the opening of Camp: Notes on Fashion, Arrivals, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA - 06 May 2019

All eyes were on Ezra Miller at last night's Met Gala. In a custom-made Burberry suit gown, Miller embodied the evening's theme beautifully.

Last night made it clear that fashion is finally emerging from the archaic shackles of gender once and for all.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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The Met Gala: The Irony of Camp

The Met Gala humiliates the functionality of fashion in its guests' attempt to celebrate it, and that's the campiest thing of all.

Invision/AP

As you may have heard by now, the theme for this year's annual Met Gala was "Camp," and one of the de-facto required readings was Susan Sontag's 1964 essay on the topic.

The aesthetic quality of camp is one that's notably difficult to describe, but easily recognizable in objects, behaviors, and media. Of course, feathers, glitter, and kitschy accessories are all low-hanging fruit when it comes to carrying out the camp style––and there was no shortage of any of the aforementioned on last night's pink carpet. But what was more interesting (and unsettling) to watch was major stars attempting to do camp, while fundamentally getting it wrong––and somewhere in that failure, creating the real camp of it all.

Lady Gaga makes an entrance at the 2019 Met Gala.Getty Images / VOGUE

The Met Gala––a self-serving artistic display of wealth, fashion, and celebrity culture––is in many ways antithetical to the tenets of camp itself, which Sontag prescribes should be "naive," "innocent," and even goes so far as to say intentional camp is "probably [...] always harmful." Sontag's essay maps out some of the main signifiers of camp: unnatural, highly stylized, exaggerated. However, one of her main points of the discussion revolves around the difference between pure (inadvertent) and deliberate camp. The latter, she writes, "is usually less satisfying."

The problem with the Met Gala camp theme is not only that anything that sets out to be camp can't be camp, but also that, like any other aesthetic sensibility, our conception of camp has shifted over time. It's gone from centering around fringe communities to becoming a dominant, mainstream aesthetic. Its true value lies in the duality of a style as meaning something vs. pure artifice. Camp loses some its essential innocence when carried out overly consciously because if it's too dogged or pretentious, its comedic value is lost. When Camp is being marketed and packaged into something profitable, something that can be exploited by major companies, it loses its sensibility of failed seriousness.

Kylie and Kendall JennerGETTY Images / Allure

To be sure, Camp's spirit of extravagance can be maintained when it's done deliberately, and the artist's rendering of the aesthetic ought to be genuine in intention. There is nothing half-hearted or blasé about camp. But in order to get it right, the subject ought to be "serious about the frivolous, and frivolous about the serious." Once capitalizing on a trend is involved, the necessary comedy of the thing gets diluted. Camp can, of course, be executed through fashion, but the fashion industry itself is fundamentally not campy––it's too self-conscious and calculated––and by this nature, can create a flattening effect on the theme.

While foundational, Sontag's piece is beholden to certain limitations and blind spots. For one, she hardly touches on the history of camp's entanglement with racial stereotyping and performance. Sontag does touch on how being genderless, (or "epicene," as she refers to it) is conducive for camp's qualities––essentially boiling down to the notion that things that are natural are not camp. But the analysis of gender's role in camp stops there. However, a handful of the looks last night did a good job of recognizing the influence of queer, fringe circles on camp taste.

It's important to note that as much as the concept of camp is rooted in expression by outsider communities, it's also conducive to the experience of conspicuous consumption. To camp something is to take on the authority of deeming something of bad taste to actually be in good taste––and usually, this is popular among the affluent and snobby crowds. Sontag poses the question: who curates camp? Her answer: "an improvised self-elected class, mainly homosexuals, who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste." Many queer-identifying celebrities were among the best dressed last night, so this analysis sounds about right.

Billy Porter Angelia Weiss/VANITYFAIR

Ezra MillerDia Dipasupil/FilmMagic

At the same time, the Met Gala is sort of perfect in all of its myopia and pretentiousness. What is campier than a slew of men being applauded for breaking down gender barriers wearing mediocre black tuxes and the occasional dangly earring? What is more hilarious than seeing self-obsessed models being ushered out of the way to make space for "more important" stars? The spectacle of Instagram stories featuring billionaires dressed in humiliating outfits is somehow a better camp portrait of the ennui of celebrity culture in the digital age than any of the intended looks managed to achieve.

In some sense, the Met Gala humiliates the functionality of fashion in it's guest's attempt to celebrate it, and that's the campiest thing of all.

"The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful."

Katy Perry dressed as a hamburger.Kevin Tachman/MG19/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue


Sara is a music and culture writer. Her work has previously appeared in PAPER magazine and Stereogum.


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