CAMP CAN BE VULGAR BUT IT CAN ALSO BE LIFE-ENHANCING
The Edwardians loved cross-dressing female comedians. They wore suits and brandished walking sticks for all sorts of vulgar play — and it allowed the women leeway to make double entendres that would never have been sanctioned if they had been wearing skirts. But there were still pockets of disapproval. During a royal performance, Queen Mary showed her objection to the famous male impersonator Vesta Tilley, not because of her patter but because she was wearing trousers. The queen buried her face in her program to block out the shocking sight. The king had no such scruples and enjoyed the act immensely.
Paris-born Diana Vreeland, the great magazine editor, showed how fashion can use camp to great effect. As she grew older, she realised she must make herself extraordinary in a way as far removed as possible from the conventional looks of the younger women who surrounded her every day at work in New York. She dyed her hair raven black, rouged her brow and earlobes and exaggerated her already memorable voice by dramatically changing tone and volume — all of which was accompanied by mesmerising eye and hand movements, the latter helped by the many bangles she wore, which jangled in a carefully orchestrated performance of sound, movement and speech.
Today we have a new breed of camp in fashion, which is all about borrowing clothes for a brief appearance before changing and going on to the next show. Mistress of this is Anna Dello Russo, creative consultant for Japanese Vogue. Or Daphne Guinness, who dresses in extraordinary clothes of the highest camp potential but who always looks herself.
Fashion always gives us what we want and, as shown by the extraordinary demand for increasingly extreme heels and handbags, we all want camp. Drama is essential in female camp — think Tina Turner cavorting in a tiny mini or Josephine Baker dancing in 1920s Paris, naked but for a bunch of bananas slung around her hips. That is one of the great things about theatrical camp: it is done with a knowing, self-deprecating honesty that makes the person involved as amused as the viewer.
From top, Liberace in action; Marlene Dietrich, left; Tilda Swinton as Lady Ottoline Morrell in the film 1970 film
British comedian Julian Clary, left; Josephine Baker