Oh, but if I quit my job it’s not disturbing
I’d use very often a liter of bourbon
‘Cause I can sit and in one minute eat my turban
And still make my money with my bananas
– Carmen Miranda
‘Nothing subverts the straight like excess.’
– Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
IN RIO DE JANEIRO, a collection of more than four hundred headdresses, brassieres, platform shoes, costume jewellery, shoulder flounces, skirts and spencers from Carmen Miranda’s extravagant exotic wardrobe are waiting to be moved from the small Carmen Miranda Museum in the Flamengo neighbourhood to the shiny, newly built and in-progress Museum of Moving Image, conceived of as a vertical boulevard echoing Rio’s sinuous sidewalks. Forty-two garments will be exhibited in the new museum’s section ‘Los Tropismos,’ focused on the iterations of the artistic Tropicalísmo movement from the 1960s, which fused avant-garde with popular and indigenous cultures. Miranda, born in Portugal in 1909 and whose brief life span ended abruptly in 1955, could be seen as a precursor to this movement, using camp and counter-appropriation techniques in a world which, on the one hand, would only allow her to exist as a tropical caricature, and, on the other, was not ready (yet) to engage intellectually with her popularisation of ‘lower class’ music (samba) and Bahian cultural identity and aesthetic, which were seen as vulgar, low class and ‘too black,’ and therefore not suitable for export during Brazil’s nationalistic awakening in the 1930s. Interestingly, during the same decade Carmen Miranda was also the muse and mascot of Theodore Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy towards South America, which stated that the US would not interfere with the domestic affairs of Latin America. As a cross-cultural political symbol of art and commerce she is still a contested figure, sometimes seen as something akin to an imperialist emblem intended to carry on influencing how Latin America is portrayed in the world.
To the layer of her constructed, transracial Brazilian identity, Miranda added pan-South American garments like flamenco skirts and flounced blouses, resulting in an exotic cornucopia of Latinidade. 1 It is an enduring, clichéd image which Chilean designers and founders of the collective Las Malvestidas Tamara Poblete and Loreto Martinez see ‘as a paradigm of the cultural appropriation and exoticisation of “the Latin feminine” that offers a bleached, sanitised, homogenous, festive Latin America free of conflicts.’2
I would like to argue however that, even though at first sight Miranda reinforces cultural stereotypes and ‘Tutti Frutti’ tropes, she uses camp through her dress, mannerisms, gesture and speech as a way to destabilise and undercut hierarchies of class, race and sexuality, and shows this through what scholar Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez calls the ‘performative wink,’ her redirecting of the camera’s gaze with a knowing smile.3 Carmen Miranda’s dress and gestural language are an example of Latin carnivalesque4 in which she ‘camps’ the Afro-Brazilian identity of Bahian women as well as Latin femininity. It is true that, given the era she lived in (Hollywood’s Golden Age, during the Hays Code and pre-Stonewall), her transgression is a sanitised one; a camp (and hence, also closeted) performative strategy was the only means at her disposal.
Post 1952, Miranda would dress in Orientalist garments, jewellery and turbans, designed by Bruce Roberts, thereby Othering herself for a third time. Her Orientalism is not serious (as in Susan Sontag’s example of the serious Orientalist who calls out, ‘Voilà: the Orient’), but rather a humorous vehicle for self-expression in a restricted setting. Miranda’s camping tools were her body and her body language as well as her outlandish costumes: material testimonies of a life lived in Technicolor. Carmen’s lines in the ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat’ convey the camp and queer sensibility she so often expressed through her clothing: ‘Some people say I dress too gay/ But every day I feel so gay/ And when I’m gay I dress that way/ Something wrong with that?’
At the Carmen Miranda museum, the stage costumes’ ephemeral quality, often made of cheap and artificial materials, causes conservation challenges: the plastic sequins and acrylic pearls on the papier-maché pears, pineapples, grapes and bananas are rapidly degrading; the garments, which have been altered many times to adapt to the movement of her performances and to fit her changing body shape, are fragile relics of a non-stop life on stage.
The headdresses, even though their authorship is uncertain, were known to be modified and customised by Miranda: as such they are symbols of her own (limited) creative agency and skilled craftsmanship, having started out in a millinery shop when she was a poor young girl coming out of the convent where she was educated by nuns (in a biographical turn similar to Gabrielle Chanel’s). In 1948, a TV journalist called Miranda’s outfit ‘the Brazilian New Look,’ an adulatory expression which highlights the difference between Paris and the Tropics, but which also captures the highly fashionable status of Miranda’s creations. Miranda ironically comments on the labour captured in wearing the outfits and playing ‘Carmen Miranda’ in the song ‘Bananas is My Business’: ‘I’d love to wear my hair like Deanna Durbin/ But I have to stuff it in a turban/ A turban that weighs five thousand tons/ forty-four and one-half pounds/ And besides that I have to wear those crazy gowns.’ As her biographer describes, Miranda would often undo her costume or take her Ferragamo platform shoes off on stage to show the artificiality of her image and unveil the self-parody, to which she was limited by the studio bosses. ‘Successful Camp,’ writes Sontag in her oft-quoted essay on the topic, ‘even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love.’ Miranda’s highest form of self-parody happens in ‘Copacabana,’ when she wears a twenty-four pound chandelier turban, capturing the performative, humorous mode at the centre of camp: ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.”’5
A similar type of Latin carnivalesque camp can be found in the work of Dominican actress Maria Montez. Montez, dubbed the Queen of Technicolor in the 1940s, inspired Jack Smith’s exotic camp phantasmagoria Flaming Creatures and Susan Sontag’s writings on Jack Smith and Montez, even leading to a male incarnation in the shape of Warhol superstar Mario Montez, famous for his promiscuous banana-eating scene in 1964. Like Miranda, Maria Montez camped onscreen: wearing costumes bedecked with flowers and golden platform wedges, making excessive use of fans and being especially known for her cobra headdresses. Smith defended Montez’ stylised form-above-content acting: ‘Wretch actress – why insist on her being an actress – why limit her? […] Her eye saw not just beauty but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty. … magic for me, beauty for many, a camp to homos, Fauve American unconsciousness to Europeans etc. … Acting to Maria Montez was hoodwinking.’6 She was an exalted work of performance art, doing simply ‘what acting substitutes for,’ according to Smith.7 Similarly, Cuban singer La Lupe, whom Sontag mentions as a ‘random example of the canon of camp,’ was known for her stylised, frenzied performances in the 1960s and 70s, often superficially interpreted as exotic eccentricity.
Carmen Miranda’s identification with marginalised northern Brazilian women from Salvador in Bahia, whom she saw as fruit vendors in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, got criticised at home as perpetuating a bad stereotype, and her subsequent overseas success (she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in 1945), resulted in her being booed upon her return to her adopted homeland. The song ‘They Say I Came Back Americanized’ is a harrowing and illuminative expression of Miranda’s position of being trapped between two cultures which both claimed her, yet did not allow her to determine her own artistic path. In America, although she learned to speak English well, she was not allowed to speak with a less ‘tropical’ accent, lest she get in trouble with studio bosses. She was obliged to keep making use of sexual innuendos and exotic onomatopoeia (‘chq- chqchq- crrrr- ch ch ch’), which famously resulted in her being commodified into a logo for Chiquita Bananas. Her association with bananas blocked her from being taken seriously as an actress, which she sang about: ‘I’d love to play a scene with Clark Gable/ With candle lights and wine upon the table/ But my producer tells me I’m not able/ ‘Cause I make my money with bananas.’ Like those of Montez, Miranda’s roles are restricted to two-dimensional characters, a phenomenon described by Sontag with regards to a, superficially at least, very different actress – Greta Garbo. ‘Garbo’s incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She’s always herself.’ These actresses’ stylised, even sterile, aesthetic performance, is, according to Mark Booth, ‘a social, performative and political response to a period of sexual regulation that coincided with the heyday of the Hollywood musical.’8
Miranda’s ‘Brazilian Bombshell’ image was limited to that of the exotic, phallic woman. Her female masculinity and transgressive sexuality was expressed by the height of her hats, extremely amplified in Busby Berkeley’s direction of her perfomance ‘The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’ in The Gang’s All Here. As a phallic woman Miranda’s inflated role play shows up the artificiality of gender, not unlike Mae West, who memorably impersonated a female impersonator.9 It could be said of both West and Miranda that they use camp as a strategy to undercut categories of race and gender, and Miranda’s camp in particular aims to overcome marginalised cultural identities. Both Miranda and Montez, through their sartorial excess, identified with minorities, with people of colour, women, gypsies, Jews, blacks, or even more generally, second-class citizens: ‘Those who, in their soul – in the centre of their earliest memories – felt different, their memories unbroken pain: not of a majority, not of they who say what shall be.’10
Although film scholar Pamela Robertson writes that camp, racially constructed as white, can be seen as a kind of blackface,11 I would argue that Miranda’s transracial camp, even though she is a white woman born in Portugal, is a precursor to ‘black camp,’ a form of double carnivalesque – a parody of a parody which upends stereotypes through a double negative. Social theorist Jonathan Dollimore has written that, ‘camp thereby negotiates some of the lived contradictions of the subordination, simultaneously refashioning as a weapon of attack an oppressive identity inherited as subordination and hollowing out dominant formations responsible for that identity in the first instance.’12
A noteworthy example of black camp in costume is Josephine Baker’s sequined banana skirt, which contrasted the nudity of her fetishised, black ‘natural body’ with the artificial nature of the sequined bananas in a collision of comic incongruity. The bananas are used as phallic tools for queering preconceived notions about femininity and race.13 Together with Miranda’s sequined bananas, these phony fruits are camp vehicles unveiling the artificiality of race and gender, and they express the intersectional quality of both Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda’s theatrical costumes and performances. In Miranda’s case, her headdress of ‘forty-four and one half pounds,’ combined with platform shoes, made natural movement almost impossible, resulting in exaggerated hand gestures, another trademark of camp.
In 1986 African-American designer Patrick Kelly made a version of Baker’s banana skirt that combined the skirt with a metal wire top in a similar type of camping which ‘comments on the black body as consumable.’14 The banana skirt, like his use of the golliwog minstrel figure and the symbol of the watermelon, are examples of queer black camp instrumentalised by a black designer. By appropriating token symbols or memorabilia of blackness, they use the comic incongruity to overcome that otherness, flaunting the rules of political correctness. It transgresses the original Othering, not by negating it but by exaggerating and owning it.
Many are the scholars who have refuted Sontag’s claim that camp is apolitical, (Andrew Ross, Fabio Cleto, Richard Dyer, Jack Babuscio are but a few) and camp can indeed be used both as a ‘closeting’ tool of minorities in straight society and as a transgressive tool – its use is usually not neutral. Today, Carmen Miranda lives on both as a contested symbol of mass-market ‘Latinidade,’ as well as a queer signifier embodying the notion of the constructedness of gender, nationality and race. In the ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, one can see eye-to-camp-eye with an example of a sequined fruit turban which Miranda wore for performances in Cuba in 1955. In the exhibition, too, is the Josephine Baker ensemble by Patrick Kelly, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and accompanied by Philip Core’s 1984 piece ‘Camp is Josephine Baker.’ Illustrating Sequoia Barnes’ statement that ‘camp is inherent in black style,’ Josephine Baker’s performances and costumes continue to cast a long shadow touching upon the work of not just Patrick Kelly, but also contemporary artistes like Dapper Dan, Grace Jones, RuPaul and Billy Porter. One can but hope that black camp has – irreversibly – passed through oppression to inflate and embellish identity and queer cultural difference.
Karen Van Godtsenhoven is an Associate Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and works on the museums exhibition programming and collection development. She has contributed to the museum’s 2019 exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion.
Latinidade is Portuguese for the Spanish word Latinidad, the Latin cultural identity. ↩
Interview with author. ↩
Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez, Creating Carmen Miranda, Race, Camp and Transnational Stardom, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2016. ↩
According to the Fabio Cleto: It has in fact been possible to trace a convergence between the camp scene and the Bakthinian carnivalesque, for the two share hierarchy inversion, mocking paradoxicality, sexual punning and innuendos, and a complex and multilayered power relationship between dominant and the subordinate (or deviant) […]. See Fabio Cleto (ed.) Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject—A Reader. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1999. ↩
Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp,’ Partisan Review 31, no. 4, 1964, pp. 515–30. ↩
Jack Smith, ‘The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez’ in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, 2013. ↩
Mark Booth, Camp, Quartet, London, 1983, p. 169. ↩
According to Susan Sontag, ‘To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.’ ↩
Ronald Tavel, ‘Maria Montez, Anima of an antediluvian world’ in Flaming Creatures: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1997, pp. 65-67. ↩
See Pamela Robertson, Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. ↩
Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. ↩
‘To camp in public, especially in front of an audience of whites, is unacceptable on two levels. This is not only because the black body has fixed itself to mimic a transgression, but also because that black body is explicitly and unapologetically queer.’ Sequoia Barnes, ‘If you don’t bring no grits, don’t come:’ Critiquing a Critique of Patrick Kelly, Golliwogs and Camp as a Technique of Black Queer Expression, Open Cultural Studies 2017; 1: pp. 678–689. ↩