WTF Is Camp? Making Sense of the Met Gala Theme
From cone bras and meat dresses to more subtle style subversions, here's what to expect.
Met Gala season is here, and with it, a lofty theme meant to “inspire” (read: dictate) the outfits of celebrities, designers, and a few lucky billionaires who are invited just for fun. The 2019 Met Gala theme is “Camp,” a subject that strikes a pose smack in the middle of high-minded, lowbrow, and…well...confusing. (In simpler times — like last year — Met Galas had straightforward subjects like “Punk,” “Superheroes,” and, uh, “China.” Alas!)
So what is Camp? Why is it a fashion buzzword you should care about, and even talk about, in 2019? And how will celebrity hosts like Harry Styles and Lady Gaga make it matter on the red carpet this Monday? Let’s discuss.
What Is Camp?
As cool as it would be for the Met Gala to celebrate Girl Scouts and s’mores, this is not the kind of camping seen in The Parent Trap. Instead, it’s an idea captured by cultural critic Susan Sontag in her landmark essay Notes on Camp. Sontag defines the movement as “a contrast between silly or extravagant content and rich form… It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
In other words, Camp is a contrast between cheap irony and serious luxury; between incredible skill and tacky delivery. According to Sontag, the Palace of Versailles is classic Camp: It’s gaudy and extravagant, but still — the priceless materials! The workmanship! Versailles is too beautifully built to be bad, and too opulently gross to be good. That’s why — at least in the world of Camp — it’s neither good nor bad; it’s amazing.
Sontag’s essay was published in 1964, and besides Marie Antoinette’s living room, it name-drops King Kong, flapper style, and the “corny, flamboyant female-ness” of sexed-up screen sirens. (She names Greta Garbo and Jayne Mansfield; today, they’d be swapped for the tongue-in-cheek burlesque style of Katy Perry and Cardi B.)
So what is Camp in modern terms? Today, it’s what you might call “Extra.”
VIDEO: Lady Gaga Carried a Feathered Pom Pom on the Red Carpet
Where did Camp come from?
Like all cultural movements, Camp’s origins are vast and complex. They come from the velvet-draped wit of Oscar Wilde, the massive poodle wigs of Mozart, the bombshell moves of Josephine Baker, and a long line of over-the-top comediennes like Bette Davis in All About Eve and Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Drew Barrymore in Scream is Camp because she’s cheesy until she’s terrifying; Natalie Portman in Black Swan is Camp because she’s terrifying until she’s cheesy. Madonna’s iconic cone bustier is Camp because it’s sexy and absurd. Troop Beverly Hills is Camp because those girls are camping… at the Four Seasons.
But though Phyllis Nefler is indeed a Camp icon, the movement’s strongest roots lie in the LGBTQ community. As Elyssa Goodman writes in an essay for Them, Camp is “a notion rooted in the Queer experience,” one that explores and subverts gender norms with humor, bite, and unforgettable style. “Drag is camp,” she explains, “parodying gender and culture in its extravagance of visual and attitude.” So were the vogueing balls of ‘70s and ‘80s New York, where va-va-voom fashion and exaggerated posing became genuine expressions of community and love.
What counts as Camp fashion?
Good news for celebrity stylists: the Camp theme invites tons of interpretations, and many of them are runway smash hits. The most literal Camp example is a Trompe L’Oeil, which means “Trick of the Eye” in French. Examples include those Prada bags with illustrated (but not real) buckles, Moschino’s necklace-but-not sweatshirt dress, and Gucci’s famous “drawn on” capes and bows… along with their infamous Fall 2018 fashion show, when models carried replicas of their own heads down the catwalk. Toting your fake face instead of a handbag?! Totally Camp.
Speaking of insanity, going over-the-top is another easy (and very fun) way for Camp to conquer fashion. When Thierry Mugler made corsets from Cadillacs for his 1992 fashion show, it was a perfect Camp moment. Likewise when the late, beloved downtown designer Benjamin Cho made a knit dress with the knitting needles still attached in 2007. Christopher Kane’s balloon fetishwear from his recent runway is Camp perfection, as is Prada’s Fall 2018 Frankenstein dress, as seen on Cara Delevingne, above. Even Dolce & Gabbana’s tomato sauce pencil skirt from last year’s Spring collection could be considered Camp, since it uses a super-basic ingredient (Ragu!) to cook up luxury design.
Another Camp element that fashion loves? Words, especially when they’re used to elicit wry smiles and knowing stares. Witness Virgil Abloh’s little black dress that says (yep) “LITTLE BLACK DRESS,” or Viktor & Rolf’s tulle couture gown that reads “LESS IS MORE” despite being massive (and massively expensive).
And because of the category’s gender subversions and outré use of glamour, androgyny and drag aesthetics are a huge part of Camp style. Examples include Gucci’s patent leather high heel boots for Jared Leto, the Ziggy Stardust suits from Miu Miu’s 2012 collection, Thom Browne’s signature preppy schoolboy looks (for girls), and Christian Siriano’s jaw-dropping ball skirt and tuxedo jacket for Billy Porter at this year’s Oscars. (The look was inspired by Hector Xtravaganza, a drag ball icon and patron saint of Camp, who passed away in December.)
Are any celebrities known for dressing Campy?
As Mr. Big says to Carrie Bradshaw, “Abso—fucking—lutely.”
Remember when Bjork wore a swan to the 2001 Oscars? That was so Camp, the Met snagged the infamous gown by designer Marjan Pejoski for this exhibit. (Valentino did their own version in 2014; fingers crossed someone wears it on Monday.)
See also: Katy Perry’s beach ball bustier at the Superbowl, designed by Camp couturier Jeremy Scott, who’s also the creative genius behind Moschino’s outrageously glamorous looks, including Gigi Hadid’s butterfly pouf dress and Madonna’s much-Instagrammed graffiti gown. Miley Cyrus has also gone Camping, including the time she became a living LGBTQ flag with Prada heels.
But perhaps nobody embodies the Camp aesthetic on the red carpet quite like Lady Gaga, whose historic ‘fits include a dress made entirely out of stuffed animals, a clamshell bra and mermaid-tail thong, and a 2011 VMA stint as Jo Calderone — a.k.a. Lady Gaga performing as an Italian American drag king, outfitted in Brooks Brothers and Hanes. Meanwhile, the 2010 steak dress that turned the pop star into a literal piece of meat? That’s so Camp, it has its own Wikipedia page.
What about me — can I be Camp?
Of course! Channeling the Camp aesthetic is all about embracing one’s most Extra self, whether that’s through over-the-top glamour, sly societal subversion, or an artful fashion prank. But while Camp style is fun, bold, and often interactive, it’s never nasty, mean-spirited, or disrespectful to other beliefs and identities. Quality also matters when going Camp — remember, it’s a long way from Versailles’ gilded halls to a cheap golden toilet.
So what’s the right way into the Camp scene? Baby steps include a Trompe L’Oeil piece like Cynthia Rowley’s brilliant “denim” wetsuit and Kate Spade’s painted blouse. There are also text-y pieces like Viktor & Rolf’s rainbow "BORING" dress or Off-White’s "FOR WALKING" boots, which will be part of the Met’s upcoming exhibit and are still available at Net-a-Porter. (Go! Go! Go!) A sequin rainbow dress by Milly has a Camp vibe but an easy-to-wear silhouette, and The Outnet has a divine tuxedo jacket by Victoria Beckham, along with some Camp-tastic Gucci shades at 50 percent off. You can also indulge in Moschino’s new makeup collection for Sephora, which combines ingeniously fun packaging (i.e. eyeliner in a Sharpie) with everyday beauty staples.
If you’d rather keep Camp as a spectator sport, explore it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit, running May 9 through September 8 in New York City, or follow this space to see how your favorite celebrities and designers show out at the gala on May 7, fittingly co-chaired by Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Serena Williams, and Gucci's creative director, Alessandro Michele. There’s also a book that catalogs the show, and its cover is just pink enough to cause a tiny scene on your coffee table — no swan dress required.