What made "Camp" a Tricky Theme at the Met Gala

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The 2019 Met Gala was full of incredibly beautiful and creative looks, but left me feeling empty and disappointed. I then saw article after article and Facebook post after Facebook post of people expressing their confusion with the theme and indifferent or unsure feelings on the different garments. I kept wondering why even though I felt many looks were attractive or conceptually appealing, I felt completely unsatisfied with the pink carpet outcome. And I believe that it’s all due to the theme of the evening: Camp.

WHAT IS CAMP?

Camp is an aesthetic or way of dressing that mocks what is deemed attractive by society or by a subculture of people. It can be an exaggerated or ironic version of what is deemed suitable or the norm, or the exact opposite of what is acceptable. Either way it’s meant to shock, amuse or provoke.

The word camp can also be used to describe someone’s behavior and mannerisms. Some believe the term is derived from the French word “camper,” which describes an exaggerated stance or pose. It was also used to describe the aesthetic and behaviors of gay men.

Over time, the gay community has commonly used the term to proudly describe exaggerated or outlandish styles of dress, as well as forms of expression. For example, the exaggerated acting styles of Judy Garland or Bette Davis - which were more common at the time, but now almost comedically melodramatic - could be described as campy. And while Joan Collins’ Dynasty shoulder pads coming up to her ears were more than appropriate in the 80’s, they would now be considered extremely exaggerated, and are regarded as campy as well.

It’s an extremely fun concept that I love to see on red carpets and in magazines. And I love that RuPaul’s Drag Race has introduced camp to much of a new generation over its so far 11 year run. So why was I skeptical about it being the theme of the Met Gala?

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE MET GALA?

Established in 1948, the Met Gala was initially meant to be a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. In 1972, Vogue’s at the time editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland became a consultant for the Costume Institute, and merged the event and magazine to create the Met Gala we know to this day. A night of high fashion and glamour for the country’s celebrity elite. And each year, the guests dress in high fashion garments that represent that year’s theme. The first ever Met Gala theme was simply “Fashion Plate.” Since then, it’s been eye candy for the everyman to see what designs are highly regarded by celebrities and which designers to look out for in the upcoming year.

After analyzing the definition of the word camp and the current day purpose of the Met Gala, it makes sense as to why all the looks in the theme were so different from each other and why it’s so hard to get a consensus of which looks were successful and unsuccessful in fitting and outwitting the theme. The Met Gala is meant to showcase current day elite beauty and high fashion, while camp seeks to mock fashion and reference the past with a twist. It’s almost like hosting a vegan pot luck with the theme being beef. I mean the organizers of this event are literally called “Vogue!” Can something be unconventional and over the top, while still being in-vogue?

With this all being said, I have separated the most stand-out looks into several categories based on how campy I feel they were.

DISCLAIMER

Camp is a spectrum, and everyone’s going to have a different reference point the informs their idea of what the concept is. These are my personal takes on camp based on my references and tastes, and are not what I’m trying to label as the the correct answers in general. Just because I think a look was properly camp does not necessarily mean I thought it was flattering or smart. And just because I think something wasn’t campy does not necessarily mean I don’t find it attractive, fashionable or avant garde.

THE “CAMP” THAT WENT FULL ON

The following looks to me hit camp right on the nose. They took stylistic statements and either turned up the volume or turned them on their heads. Lupita Nyong'o takes the concept of wearing a pick in your afro to the next level, and dons a decorated version of Divine’s eye makeup. Queen of camp Joan Collins wore an exaggeratedly feathery gown that brings royal and old Hollywood glam to the pink carpet. Janelle Monae’s look beautifully references the work of Picasso. And while I hated Katy Perry’s chandelier look, it gave me major Beach Blanket Babylon-type camp vibes.

THE “CAMP” THAT DID CAMPY HIGH FASHION

The following looks are ones I feel were successfully campy, but in a high fashion way. They were conceptual and exaggerated in some sense, but also in line with silhouettes you could see on runways and on red carpets. I particularly love Cari B’s look and Lady Gaga’s initial gown before she stripped down.

THE “CAMP” THAT WENT MORE COSTUME/CONCEPTUAL

The following looks were campy to boot, but to me looked like they’d be more appropriate for a costume party. Kacey Musgraves looks gorgeous and nostalgic as Barbie, and Zendaya looks like Cinderella if she missed a few dress fittings and went to EDC. But they’re more costumey than campy, as they don’t stray very far from their original source material/standard silhouettes. And Jared Leto’s Gucci inspired look of holding his own severed head, and Ezra Miller’s gorgeously conceptual Trompe-l'œil inspired look, were more artfully referential than campy in my opinion. Camp doesn’t just reference something, it mocks it or makes it absurd. And in my opinion, that means more than color-shifting properties.

THE “CAMP” THAT MISSED THE MARK

The following looks (besides that of Katy Perry) made me feel like these celebs were all headed to the Grammys rather than the Met Gala: Year of Camp. The Kardashians, as well as Priyanka Chopra and Emily Ratajkowski looked like they were going so much for sex appeal and glamour, that they forgot to bring on the camp. While Gigi Hadid looked gorgeously androgynous, I wish she had worn something with more of a campy punch to it a la Elton John or Liberace. Had she taken it in that direction, I think it could have been one of the most successful looks of the evening. And while I tried to throw her a bone for her chandelier look, Katy Perry’s cheeseburger costume is just that: a costume. Camp is not Halloween, it’s a tongue-in cheek way of looking at fashion that mocks conventions. This look was completely unsubtle and probably has confused thousands of people on the concept of camp. For me, it was the most insulting look of the evening.

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THE DRAG RACE “CAMP”

While I wasn’t blown away by any of the looks from the RuPaul’s Drag Race family, it’s clear who went full camp and who went camp-inspired. RuPaul in his bright and charmingly garish suit looked really fabulous and fun, but it was more inspired by camp than full on. Aquaria’s look is unfortunately unpolished and thrown together-looking, without much connection between the headdress and garment. But Violet Chachki dazzled me in her gown with a train shaped like a long satin glove. It to me was the most tongue-in-cheek moment of the night, and my personal favorite look regarding the theme.

MY TOP 3 ALL-TIME FAVORITE EXAMPLES OF CAMP

The Björk Swan Dress

Icelandic avant garde music artist Björk made a splash at the 73rd Academy Awards when she showed up dressed in a ballerina-like dress that looked like a literal swan’s neck was wrapped around hers.

While I don’t find this to be a flattering or beautiful garment, it screams of camp. In the middle of all the glamor and high fashion came the adorable and spunky songstress in this wonky and ill-fitting loud gown that made her look like she had a stuffed animal glued to her. In many ways, this piece and the nude illusion underneath poked fun at conventional ballerina costumes. And she wore it with all the confidence and carefreeness that we know and love her for.

It’s gone on to become one of the most controversial, comedic and memorable moments in all of red carpet history, and to me, embodied the concept of camp and mocking beauty standards.

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Carol Burnett’s “Gone With the Window” Look

In 1976, during the 10th season of The Carol Burnett Show, Carol Burnett donned an outfit that would go down in entertainment and camp history. During her “Went With the Wind” skit, a parody of the cinematic classic Gone With the Wind, Burnett wore a dress inspired by the one Scarlett O’Hara crafts out of her curtains in order to save herself from having to admit to her community that she has no money. Burnett takes things a step further and wears the curtain rod draped across her shoulders as she descends a staircase.

It went down as one of the funniest moments in all of television, and is still an image people can’t out of their heads, for better or worse. Its reference to old Hollywood, its parodic nature and its shock value all make it a camp moment we need to pass down through the generations.

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Everything Fran Fine Wore

During my childhood, the fashion icon I regarded as the campiest was Fran Drescher’s character Fran Fine of The Nanny.

Fran Fine’s story was that she was a spunky woman from Flushing Queens, who lacked a formal education, but had an abundance of street smarts. Her effervescence and unique way of handling children gets her a job as a nanny for the wealthy sophisticated Maxwell Sheffield. The juxtaposition of their knowledge sets, styles and outlooks on life make for some really memorable comedic moments.

But Fran always stuck out like a sore thumb on the show, not just from her accent and background but from her colorful and over the top sense of style that the people around her called tacky and prostitute-like. But no matter whether it was a leopard print fuzzy collar or a mod dress with go-go boots, she wore it with an attitude that matched in sass and flair.

That confidence mixed with those daringly kitschy clothes made her my all-time favorite campy fashionista.

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While I know much of this is based on personal taste, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the concept of camp. Feel free to sound off about your favorite campy looks and queens, and who you think got the theme correct at the Met Gala. There are no wrong answers…well, except for maybe what Kim K wore. Until we meet again!