Fashion’s Love of the Unnatural: Elton John and Camp

November 3, 2018

Lynn Hlaing

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The year is 1973 and you’ve just listened to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” A year later, a 27-year-old Elton John stands on stage behind a piano banging out “Bennie and the Jets,” wearing a glamorous suit of satin, glitter, sequins, and feathers. It’s the most outlandish costume you’ve ever seen.  You’ve never seen a human peacock, with three-foot-long feathers, on stage. 45 years later, Elton John, now 71 years old, is touring one last time for the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. His stage costumes are as vibrant as ever.

Looking back on his wardrobe over the last fifty years, John remarked, “I can’t believe how sartorially crazy I was, particularly in the ‘70s!” Elton John and David Bowie were always seen as the most flamboyant men of their era. Bowie was the ever-evolving sexually ambiguous musician; one day the androgynous avant-garde Ziggy Stardust-- bold and colorful--, the next day the dapper Thin White Duke-- slick and tailored. John was the fabulous and decadent “male showgirl.”  John established himself an over-the-top symbol of glamour. A rock pianist, John explained in an interview with Vogue, "I wasn't David Bowie… I was sitting at a piano. I had to have humor in my costume."

Today, humor and flamboyance is still at the core of his wardrobe—the difference is that the fashion industry has caught up with Elton. These tenets of Elton John’s wardrobe now enamor the fashion industry. Alessandro Michele, Creative Director of Gucci, will be reinterpreting Elton John’s wardrobe for his farewell tour.

In a Vogue interview with Michele and John, Michele explained that John had long been an inspiration. "When you're working in fashion there's always a picture of him or David Bowie from the 1970s: the most flamboyant guys on earth... It's a dream come true, and Elton was one of my latest and biggest dreams I didn't plan."

The unnatural and the exaggerated is now commonplace. We see it in the news. We see it in pop culture. We see Crocs transformed into $800 dollar Balenciaga stilettos. The embellished style that John fore-ran and that fashion has adopted will be constituent to the theme of the MET Gala: “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”

The theme is based on Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp.” Sontag focused on “camp” as the unadulterated “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Subsequent to the MET’s 2018 theme of “Heavenly Bodies,” the “Camp” is an abrupt shift from sacred elegance to the intricacies of absurdity. “Camp” is the unorthodox. What Elton John embraced long before, this movement acknowledges what he fore-ran as he closes the curtains on his tour life.