Flamboyant is often confused with and even used as a synonym for camp. The two notions are quite different, even if there is some degree of overlap. Just as a crowd is distinguished from a mob by intent, camp implies subversion in a way that flamboyance doesn’t. Camp behaviour, dress, attitudes refuse to conform to societal norms and the rules of etiquette, not to mention the questioning of gender and sexual roles that it sometimes evokes, albeit subtly and implicitly. In her groundbreaking article “Notes on Camp” published in 1964, Susan Sontag describes camp as a sensibility. This, I think, allows us to differentiate between the two. Flamboyancy is not so much a sensibility as a style and this fits in well with its etymology. Somewhat surprisingly, given its associations with decadence and excess, flamboyant originated as a term to describe certain features of gothic -not, as might be first thought, baroque- architecture. The term in French denotes flaming and the idea is that the ornate, ribbed vaulting on the ceilings or window frames of medieval churches resembled flames shooting up. This sounds fanciful at first, but a look at the image, below, of an example of a flamboyant feature neatly enables it to be visualized. It’s best seen like this, in isolation from stained glass and surround, to appreciate how appropriate the term is.
Unlike the spiritual rationale that underpins gothic architecture, camp, on the other hand, has a different agenda. As Sontag notes, the way of camp “is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization”. Flamboyancy therefore aims to emulate and enhance nature, whereas camp is purposely artificial. Sontag summarizes this as well: “All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy”. The most pleasing definition that Sontag provides is this: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman””. Seeing life in terms of quotation marks is to live vibrantly and ironically. And who would not want either to do that or to experience it from others?
One prominent 20th-century example of camp or flamboyancy that comes to mind is the entertainer Liberace (1919-1987). Liberace is difficult to pin down in terms of exactly how he should be viewed. He exulted in over-the-top and excessive shows and was unambiguously flamboyant. Does his persona qualify as being camp, however, given that he was not making an overt statement about his homosexuality, which he continued to deny for all of his life? I think the subversive element in his act is not in its effeminate and homosuggestive undertones but rather in its utter glorification of doing it the way that he wanted to do. In a famous and true anecdote, Liberace wrote to a critic who had published a damning review stating: “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank”. He was to use the latter end of this delicious rejoinder for the rest of his career. Despite his outrageous costumes, a self-deprecating humour characterized the man, and while his insecurities led him to terminating many friendships, he could also be fiercely loyal and generous. He also was very religious for all of his life, receiving the last rites during his final illness. Catholicism is, let it be said, a religion that knows a thing or two about display. During that illness, while he became very gaunt and his body ravaged by viruses, he still insisted on receiving doctors and friends while wearing his wig, attempting to take his baldness to the grave. One of his most glorious moments was starring in the 1960s campy TV series Batman, playing the role of a concert pianist called Chandell, as well as the evil twin brother Harry. These episodes attracted the highest ratings of the entire show and a clip of Liberace hamming it up, or perhaps just being himself, is here.
A contemporary style to Liberace and one which is not without a campy vein is Hollywood Regency, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and which has recently made a comeback thanks to the interest in Eames Era furniture and jewellery. The designer Jonathan Adler explains what it means to him: “I define Hollywood Regency as Neo-classical lines mixed with Hollywood glamour and a top note of mod moxie. Hollywood Regency was a style of architecture and decoration popular in the 60s in LA that was a revival of classical regency style through a modern lens. Hollywood Regency added a layer of pattern and decoration and opulence and glamour to the minimalism of mid-century modernism” (credits to http://parishotelboutique.blogspot.fr/2007/03/what-is-hollywood-regency_11.html). In many respects, then, Liberace was indeed a product of his time, while at the same time offering an idiosyncratic example of stubborn non-conformism.
Today’s cufflinks are defiantly loud. Like a well-groomed man who just misses out on being considered good-looking, this pair just misses out on being gaudy. They are fabulous things, imbued with optimism. They date from the 1950s and bear the maker’s mark of Robert Zentall, who ran a jewellery company together with his wife Betty, until 1984. To return to Susan Sontag, “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance” and there is no doubt that these cufflinks, crafted out of brass and goldtone, are extravagant. Robert and Betty Zentall were concentration-camp survivors. I think these cufflinks cry out energy and joie de vivre, and also constitute a visible refusal on their creators’ part to be anchored in the past but rather to enjoy life in the present. A lesson to us all, perhaps.