Dazzling to the eye with a dark, fecund mystery that’s laced with myth and history, ‘the vamp’ is omnipresent in contemporary culture. While her roots can be traced to goddesses synonymous with seduction and ruin, in this century, she has been iconically codified through fashion and film. There are the sartorial choices that influence our understanding of vamp, and then there are the femme fatales onscreen, who embody the archetype in image and action.
“A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about,” writes Susan Sontag in “Notes on ‘Camp.'” Vamp, like camp, with its shrouded origins and multivocal meanings, is no different.
The vamp seems to have entered the popular milieu with silent screen star Theda Bara’s 1915 film, A Fool There Was. It’s a tale of the seduction and corruption of a Wall Street lawyer by a woman credited ominously as “The Vampire.” Not an undead beauty, Bara plays a psychic vampire, feeding on weakness and destroying with sex and excess. With dark, painted eyes and a sly smirk she crushes rose petals in her hands, and with her wiles, leads her lover to the gutter. She earned the nickname “the vamp” in the American public from that point on, cementing the slang for predatory females.
From the outset, vamp is a gendered term. (Paraphrasing Sontag: “to (v)amp is a mode of seduction.”) Vamping is a stylized sexual performance that invokes a heated sense of foreboding. It’s the classic ‘fear of female’ embodied: desire mingled with fear, agony accompanied by ecstasy. The vamp’s bewitching energy toys with male insecurities enough to turn the virtue of a sexually empowered woman into a vice. Regardless of what her true intentions may be, the vamp’s untamed eroticism marks her as a woman to be both pursued and avoided.
Along with the most common use of the term, there are other meanings, too. In dictionary English, ‘to vamp’ is to patch up or piece something together. It is to concoct or invent. Like camp, vamp has its performative aspects, but there is no wink to betray the performance. Vamp does not deal in irony: it is dead serious.
More interesting are the musical implications of vamp. A vamp is the ostinato of popular music, and the sounds of a vamp in musical theatre or jazz can often evoke the qualities of the abovementioned vamp: a sultry slink, a wanton strut. As a sonic structure it provides the musical meat of the performative aural arts. The vamp can be itself an introduction to a vamp: just take in any moment of Cabaret, Chicago or Sweeney Todd to see this put into practice. And while there’s often musical improvisation over one, the vamp itself is musically spare, open to variation, and keeps a repeated rhythm. The visual vamp is much the same way.
The vamp look is never overdone. In fact, it is the understated fashion of a vamp that makes her stand out so severely. The red lips, the impeccably tailored outfit, the silk stockings, the spike heels. You can find elements in the imagery of Victorian mourning attire, Coco Chanel, Helmut Lang, Thierry Mugler, Rick Owens, and Gareth Pugh. From Theda Bara to Bettie Page and Morticia Adams to Elvira, the vamp look has changed dramatically. Nonetheless, it retains a stark aesthetic, open to change, with a repetition of the risqué.
Back to Sontag: “(v)amp is, above all, a mode of enjoyment…It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice.” The pleasure-seeking that drives the vamp only turns dangerous when her desire is thwarted. She is enveloped in darkness to literalize the death drive while oozing life out her pores. The vamp is eros and thanatos in lipstick and lace. Now more than ever, as the word ‘vampire’ is so laden with immaturity and sexual abstinence, ‘vamp’ remains a rare and worthy archetype of unbridled female sexual power.