This Year’s ‘Camp’-Themed Met Gala Will Probably Be A Disaster
Camp is a distinctly queer language, wielded as a weapon against oppressive forces by the likes of John Waters and Lady Gaga. Is Kylie Jenner really the best person to pay homage?
Spare a thought, if you would, for the celebrities currently clutching their invites to this year’s Met Gala. This year’s theme, “Camp: Notes On Fashion”, might be one of the most difficult in recent history.
The Met Gala, held annually on the first Monday of May, is a benefit for the Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s Costume Institute. An invite-only event, the ~550 guests are asked to dress inspired by the institute’s annual exhibit, which opens to the public the next day.
Since 1971, Vogue Magazine has had a major part in the Gala, with the reigning editor-in-chief left in charge of the guest-list. Tickets can still be bought for US$40,000 ($56,966), but simply having money doesn’t guarantee a seat, as all names must be approved by Anna Wintour.
In the 2010s, themes have ranged from retrospectives on Alexander McQueen, Comme des Garçons, to examinations of how punk, Catholicism and Chinese culture have impacted high Western fashion.
But this year’s theme, based off philosopher Susan Sontag’s pivotal 1964 essay ‘Notes On Camp’, is both easy to misinterpret and very hard to pull off.
‘Camp’, as a concept, is hard to define: Sontag’s own essay is essentially a listing of 58 qualities. It is not, simply, something garish, ugly, or pointedly daggy, as it’s often used as shorthand for.
Broadly, Sontag describes it as “the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not” — a way of looking at the world that helps “dethrone the serious”. But camp is also found in very serious, high-brow things, such as opera or Gothic literature.
Anything that can be overtly sentimental to the point of artificial could be deemed camp, which means that camp is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder.
Talking to Vogue, the Costume Institute’s curator in charge Andrew Bolton said working on the Met exhibit made him start to see “everything as camp”. Which is the Met Gala’s issue: camp isn’t so much a visual style as a way to read the world.
It is also a distinctly queer language, wielded as a weapon against oppressive forces by the likes of John Waters, Lady Gaga and Oscar Wilde. Is Kylie Jenner really the best person to pay homage?
Cannot wait for the Tuesday morning sound bites of celebs explaining what Camp means to them.
— Ξvan Ross Katz (@evanrosskatz) May 5, 2019
The Elusive Chanteuse…
Then again, why do we care about Kylie Jenner, Karlie Kloss and Rita Ora almost definitely missing the mark on a red carpet? It’s a very fair question, one which, to answer, we need to establish why camp is getting a whole exhibit based around it in the first place.
Without going too in-depth, Sontag’s ‘Camp’ essay arrived in 1964 to articulate a counter-cultural (aka postmodern) rejection of not just conventional aesthetic tastes, but the restrictive ideas behind them too.
Camp laughs at anything that takes itself as normal — heterosexuality, 9-5 jobs, nuclear families — by showing how the artificial is everywhere. In terms of its relation to queerness, camp on a basic level devalues the idea of the ‘natural’. As RuPaul might say, ‘We’re born naked and the rest is drag’.
Which doesn’t make camp exclusively queer: in fact, camp can be found in many overwhelmingly heterosexual, gender-normative spaces.
WWE’s operatic storylines, overacting and overinflated masculine egos are as fake-yet-real as anything on a drag stage; evangelical talk shows are more ridiculous than Rocky Horror; and anti-LGBT activist Anita Bryant’s pearl-clutching was far campier than anything Harvey Milk ever did.
But to read the campiness of these spaces de-fangs them, reducing them down into something un-serious and incapable of harm. It’s why queer conversion therapy is better handled by the likes of But I’m A Cheerleader than last year’s Boy Erased, a film which speaks to and for a painfully serious (and straight) audience.
“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” Sontag wrote. “And Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.”
This private code, needless to say, has made for a difficult dress code.
“I wouldn’t say camp is synonymous with queer,” queer academic Erique Zhang told Refinery 29 recently, “but I would say that you can’t have camp without queer.”
What is camp without a queer eye? Well, we might find out soon enough.
According to the NYT‘s fashion director, designers have struggled to wrap their head around this year’s Gala theme — and, if you scour the blinds, rumour has it many celebrities are deciding to bail rather than dare wear something ‘ugly’, which misses the point.
Stream ARTPOP By Lady Gaga
Celebrities don’t necessarily need to be intimidated by the Met Gala’s theme, as most major labels have a rich camp history to pull from — that’s, you know, the whole idea of the exhibit.
As high-fashion often forgoes function for form, it revels in camp excess.
Think Bob Mackey’s sparkle-y costumes. Or Jacquemus’s tiny purses. Or Thierry Mugler’s 80s/’90s decadence (remember that ‘Birth Of Venus’ look Cardi B wore to the Grammys?)’. Or Comme des Garçons’ over-proportioned, ‘anti-fashion’ designs. Or the very being of Donatella Versace. Or Moschino’s recent TV dinner robe. And so much more.
We cannot blame celebrities for being confused, as this year’s Gala chairs are equally confusing. Alongside Wintour, we have verified camp hero Lady Gaga and Gucci creative director Alessandro Michelle — then there’s the decidedly un-camp but fashionable Serena Williams and Harry Styles.
It’s the latter that feels most iffy: Styles’ isn’t afraid of colour and bold choices, but a paisley suit does not camp make. It just feels a little too close to Vogue putting Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid on the cover and calling them ‘gender-neutral’ pioneers back in 2017 because the then-couple shared clothes.
Vogue‘s Met Gala tie-in issue has been a little suspect too. Inside, they featured several queer figures like Ezra Miller and RuPaul (in Elizabethan garb), but on the cover, they put Kim Kardashian-West — in a ‘no makeup’ look, no less. We suppose she’ll sell better.
Credit where credit is due. RuPaul looking flawless in the new May Vogue, shot by Annie Leibovitz. Why this was not the cover over Kim is criminal. pic.twitter.com/acMj88IZ7s
— Ξvan Ross Katz (@evanrosskatz) April 15, 2019
Which might be ‘The Problem’ with this year’s Met Gala. Camp punches up. It’s a protestor’s aesthetic, but the Gala’s red carpet, for the most part, invites guests to flirt with subversion, rather than dive deep. We need winks to the cameras, but are we going to get more than a pout from the likes of Hailey and Justin Bieber?
Anything can be camp — but should it be?
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.