The 2019 Met Gala took inspiration from Susan Sontag’s renowned essay, ‘Notes on Camp’, but what of the less glamorous, closer-to-home forms of Sontagion camp? Here, Rebecca Savage looks at the queer origins of Coronation Street, its campy costumes and flamboyant characters.
Fifty-seven years ago Susan Sontag penned her now famous essay ‘Notes on Camp.’ In a series of fifty eight points, the writer attempted to provide an explanation of what was meant by ‘Camp’ or ‘Campness,’ outlining some of the key tenets of the aesthetic. Since the essay was published Sontag’s ideas and those written after her have been used to understand a plethora of cultural events. Most recently, in 2019, ‘Notes on Camp’ inspired the annual costume exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was named Camp: Notes on fashion in homage to Sontag’s work. This exhibition – and the attempts by celebrities such as Harry Styles and Gwyneth Paltrow to engage with its ideas at the associated Met Gala – brought the essay back into public consciousness and inspired debates around its meaning in publications such as Vogue and The New Yorker. However, while these discussions focused on the outlandish fashions of designers such as John Galliano, the ideas of ‘Camp’ outlined in Sontag’s essay really hold a significance much closer to home.
Sontag’s definition of Camp (if it can really be called a definition at all) emphasises that it is a ‘love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.’ She notes that ‘the hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance’ and that ‘the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. These ideas of excess and flamboyance will be familiar to anyone who has watched the British soap opera Coronation Street; a show which is well known for its penchant towards an exaggerated, heightened, and theatrical sense of reality.
Coronation Street has long been associated with theories of Camp. Many of its characters have been lauded as gay icons, while others have been the subject of pastiche. Think, for example, of the now famous music video for Queen’s 1984 single I want to Break Free, in which members of the band appeared in drag to represent and celebrate four of the show’s most iconic characters. Connections to Camp sensibilities and queer culture are unsurprising. The show’s creator, Tony Warren, was an openly gay man long before this was legal in the United Kingdom. Warren is reported to have based many of his female characters on the drag queens he met in Manchester, placing the show’s origins in queer culture.
In fact, Coronation Street is far closer to the ideas of Camp than the expensive privileged world of the Met Gala; an idea which is born out in the outfit worn to the Met by writer and producer, Lena Waithe. Waithe’s suit, which was printed with the misspelled statement ‘black drag Queens Invented Camp,’ emphasised the fact that Camp has always been the property of the marginalised. Although today Coronation Street attracts 6.7 million viewers, it remains in the realms of low culture and is dismissed by most cultural critics. Moreover, while elements of the soap’s diversity must be addressed (the first black family only arrived on the street in 2019), its origins with Warren and its focus on working class lives distance it from the majority of British media.
It is the outfits of Coronation Street which really emphasise its Camp status. The soap focused on its wardrobe from day one, with characters like Ena Sharples appearing from the first episode in an overcoat and hairnet. The male characters also get in on the action. The character of Les Battersby was well known for his double denim ensembles; a homage to the characters favourite band Status Quo who ultimately made a cameo on the soap, playing at Les’ wedding. But it is the women whose outfits dominate the screen and epitomise ideas of Camp. These women, such as Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker, Raquel Welch and more recently Michelle Connor, have become known for wearing clothes which celebrate their loud, confident personalities and epitomise the very essence of ‘too much’ described by Sontag.
Take, for example, Bet Lynch, whose penchant for leopard print is still discussed fifteen years after she left the soap. Bet’s clothing choices were so iconic that today leopard print has become synonymous with the character; celebrities as diverse as Kiera Knightley and Kylie Jenner have been accused of ‘channelling Bet Lynch’ when wearing versions of this print. However, in line with Sontag’s arguments that ‘Camp is esoteric – something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques’ – there is a greater meaning behind Bet’s wardrobe than it may first appear. The actress Julie Goodyear, who played Bet, was largely responsible for the iconic outfit. In her autobiography she notes that when Bet arrived on the street in the 1960s, leopard print was considered ‘naughty, racy. Very sexy,’ all attributes she wished to relay through the character. Perhaps more importantly, the print also happened to be readily available on market stalls where Bet was likely to buy her clothes. Goodyear perceived a value in these connections and throughout her time on the street only wore items which could be afforded on the characters salary, making Bet resemble those working in pubs and bars across the country.
While maybe not as iconic as Bet’s leopard print, Liz McDonald also epitomised Camp in her outfits. From her arrival in 1989 to her departure last year, Liz’s wardrobe was filled with mini-skirts, Lycra, leather and the occasional zebra print dress, all of which were hated by the actress who played Liz, Beverly Callard. Liz’s hemlines were so high and her necklines so low that her clothes were frequently commented on by other characters, the most memorable example being when Blanche Hunt described Liz as having a ‘skirt no bigger than a belt, too much eyeliner and roots as dark as her soul.’ Regardless of the criticism levelled at them however, Liz’s clothes embodied her matriarchal personality, drawing attention to her as head of the McDonald clan. Her love of leather emphasised the characters strength and power, and played with expectations of ‘feminine’ outfits in a manner which follows Sontag’s call for androgyne and ‘things-being-what-they-are-not.’ Similarly, the tight fit of Liz’s clothes encapsulated Sontag’s description of drag as ‘a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms,’ thereby showcasing all sides of Liz’s character.
But it is not only the most over-dressed characters that embody Camp. With her hair curlers, head scarf and apron, Hilda Ogden was hardly the most fashionable woman to walk the famous cobbles. Even so, today Hilda’s look has become an iconic image of British culture. In 2019 Hilda’s famous accessories were sold at auction for £4200, while the artist David Knopov has been inspired by her appearance to produce screen prints of the character.
Hilda’s outfit epitomises Sontag’s belief that ‘the pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.’ Her outfit stemmed from practicality. As a char woman, Hilda relied on practical accessories to complete her job, using a head scarf to keep her hair tidy and an apron to keep her clothes clean. The actor Jean Alexander, who played Hilda, provided insight into this. She notes that the outfit was inspired by the factory girls of Liverpool who ‘had their hair tied up and scarves like that to stop their fashionable long hair getting caught up in the machinery at work. They had the curlers in place in case they got asked out on a date, so they’d be ready for a night out after the shift’. It was the regularity with which Hilda wore this outfit however, which pushed it towards the point of absurdity and into the world of Camp. Hilda’s tendency to wear her curlers to the pub exaggerated the humour of her outfit and raised questions around what (or who) she was curling her hair for. Meanwhile, the character’s apparent oblivion towards this joke encapsulates the innocence which Sontag believes to lie at the heart of Camp, making Hilda an undeniably Camp figure during her time on the street.
It is the innocence of Hilda and characters like her which make Coronation Street the camp icon it is today. While the Met gala focused on creating an allusion of Camp, the soap embodies the essence of this aesthetic. It accepts Campness in all its forms; from the glorious to the vulgar and follows Sontag’s insistence that ‘camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character”’.
About Rebecca Savage
Rebecca is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Her research looks into the lives and works of female poster artists living in Britain between 1900 and 1939. Rebecca’s work considers the intersections between fine art and visual culture and attempts to assess how poster design provided 20th century women with new artistic, social and economic opportunities. Beyond her research Rebecca is keen to share her work with those outside of the academic community, including museums and galleries, poster art dealers, and members of the public. Rebecca can be found on twitter @r_savs and can be emailed at RXS411@bham.ac.uk
This piece was commissioned for our latest guest editorial, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
Click here to see the full Call Out and submit to b a r o q u e, Guest Edited by Frankie Dytor.