It’s that time of year: The 2019 Met Gala, a.k.a. the first Monday in May, is less than a week away. The annual event is a star-studded fundraiser for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and it’s widely considered the biggest night in fashion. This year it will be co-chaired by Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Serena Williams, and Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele.
Part of what makes the ball so entertaining is seeing how celebrities will interpret the Met Gala theme. This year, they’ll be tasked with showing off their best takes on “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” While the word “camp” is likely to conjure up images of sitting around a fire, pitching a tent, and wearing something flannel, that’s not exactly what this type of camp is referring to. Ahead, we break down this year’s theme.
What Is Camp Fashion?
Exaggerated. Extravagant. Gaudy. Ironic. Kitschy. Tongue-in-cheek. These are some of the terms used to describe camp fashion. Consider Viktor & Rolf's meme gowns, Vaquera's oversized bath robes, and Chanel's supermarket set at its fall/winter 2014 show. But in all fairness, camp is also pretty subjective. What one person interprets as camp might not translate that way to someone else. It’s undoubtedly one of the Met Gala’s most open-ended themes to date, which should make this year’s red carpet looks all the more interesting.
“We are going through an extreme camp moment, and it felt very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art's curator-in-charge Andrew Bolton told The New York Times. “Whether it’s pop camp, queer camp, high camp, or political camp — Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely.”
Where Did Camp Fashion Come From?
Although people have arguably engaged with campish appearances for centuries — think the over-the-top decadence of Versailles and the reign of Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV — the aesthetic was formally labeled in 1964 when writer Susan Sontag published her essay, “Notes on Camp,” in the Paris Review. She’s credited with coining the term camp to describe the intersection of high-brow art with popular culture. Her essay is the driving source of inspiration behind this year’s theme, but more on that shortly.
It's also important to note that Black and queer people are critical pioneers of camp style — without these communities, camp as a lens through which we can view and experience fashion would simply not exist.
"Camp [as a theme] will certainly be exciting," award-winning fashion writer and editor Constance White told Refinery29. "Rihanna is always in the race. Lady Gaga is the perfect person to host. I mean, she rode into fashion on a horse named camp. Nicki Minaj, RuPaul, Beyoncé are some of these celebs already embodying camp. Rappers are interesting. I never know when they are deadly serious or going for high camp. I believe it’s part of the Black culture through the ages, sometimes adopted by the gay community."
In Them, writer Elyssa Goodman points out that camp "for the longest time had lived in the queer underground." She cites drag culture as one of the blueprints for the camp aesthetic that we know and recognize today.
"Drag is camp, parodying gender and culture in its extravagance of visual and attitude, including everyone from 1930s cabaret icon Josephine Baker, who swathed herself in rhinestones, to David Bowie’s gender-bending Aladdin Sane/Ziggy Stardust days, to the performances of Trixie Mattel," Goodman explains.
What Does Camp Style Look Like?
For the most part, camp style boasts an air of irreverence — it’s in your face, and it doesn’t make any apologies for being loud and obvious. Think of the ubiquitous pink flamingos and garden gnomes that people place on their lawns, or of Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans painting. A present day example is Banksy, whose satirical street art is widely recognized for both its distinctive stencilling technique and its blunt political messaging. Camp style is inherently performative, but it’s also easily digestible for the masses.
Many of today’s most prolific designers are actively turning to camp fashion to inspire their collections and runway shows. Moschino’s Jeremy Scott is perhaps one of the most well-known figures who frequently channels camp. From McDonald’s to Barbie to The Sims, Scott regularly pulls from mass consumer culture to influence his designs. Balenciaga is another fashion house known for its penchant for all things camp, like its platform crocs, fanny packs, and Ikea-inspired tote bags.
A notable camp runway moment came back in February 2018, when Gucci sent models strutting down the catwalk holding their own severed heads. Fittingly enough, Met Gala co-chairs Styles and Michele recently collaborated on a campy campaign that featured literal chickens (and plenty of other animals, too) for a menswear collection. Virgil Abloh for Off-White is yet another designer who unapologetically employs camp influences in his designs. His signature use of quotation marks, for example, adds an ironic twist to what would otherwise be a standard sweatshirt or a pair of sneakers.
What Are Examples Of Camp Fashion In Pop Culture?
Of course, camp fashion has reached well beyond the confines of fashion runways and magazine spreads. It's been a popular source of style inspiration on red carpets for decades. Take, for example, the infamous "meat dress" Lady Gaga wore to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Janelle Monáe is an equally prolific style icon whose wardrobe — from the tailored tuxedos to the school girl-inspired babydoll dresses — is bursting with camp motifs. And for the sake of a good throwback, who can forget Björk sporting a Marjan Pejoski swan dress — complete with an actual egg that she "hatched" — on the red carpet at the 2001 Academy Awards?
In recent Met Gala history, we've seen endless camp moments even when it wasn't an explicit thematic element. In 2015, when the theme was "China: Through The Looking Glass," Sarah Jessica Parker stepped out in an H&M ensemble topped off with a custom Philip Treacy headpiece that resembled a live fire. At the event in 2017, Solange looked extra campy — and cozy — in a couture puffer jacket by Thom Browne. And in 2018, Rihanna stole the show, channeling a sexy Pope in a custom Maison Margiela by John Galliano to commemorate the theme, "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination."
What Is Susan Sontag’s “Camp: Notes on Fashion” Essay About?
Sontag's landmark essay was published in 1964 and now, 55 years later, it's being celebrated as the seminal literary work on the topic of camp fashion. Part of what makes her commentary so significant is that she found a way to describe a burgeoning, flamboyant sensibility that was still under-the-radar at the time. In 2019, camp is practically everywhere and defines so much of our daily lives. Sontag was nothing short of a fortune teller.
"The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," she writes in her essay. "Camp is esoteric… something of a private code, a badge of identity even among small urban cliques… I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it."
That conflicting mix of attraction and displeasure is what makes camp fashion such a paradox. It can simultaneously be beautiful and overwhelmingly tacky. Sontag's definition of camp has typically been summed up as failed seriousness. "The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious," Sontag explains. "Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious."