The Met Gala 2019: a spectacle deeply rooted in academia

Bernadette Bruu, Arts Editor

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On the first Monday in May each year, the entire fashion world has its eyes focused on the same red carpet: the Met Gala. The event is technically a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, but it resembles a film premiere on steroids as a result of its extensive press coverage and the larger-than-life outfits of the guests. 2019’s gala delivered an obscure tribute that proved to be an artistic and an intellectual challenge for the masses.

The Met Gala’s theme changes year to year to match the subject matter of the new Costume Institute exhibit. Being part of a museum, the Costume Institute attempts to pay homage to the people, places and concepts that have had a particularly substantial impact on fashion. Attendees of the Met Gala arrive wearing an ensemble that they believe embodies the essence of the exhibit’s inspiration. This year’s theme was “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” representing a return to more obscure fashion influences. It inarguably involved much more research on the parts of celebrities and journalists alike as everyone involved raced to understand the sociological/art-historical phenomenon known as camp before it took center stage Monday night.

What is camp? The definition and its examples span centuries of visual culture, but the concept did not surface in the mainstream until 1964 when American essayist Susan Sontag wrote “Notes on ‘Camp,’” which contained 58 short musings on the subject of some of Oscar Wilde’s most eclectic writings.

According to Sontag, “Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon.” She believes that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity…” More specifically, camp refers to a joyful embracing of flamboyant and conventionally “tacky” modes of expression, especially when they have an archetypal element that can be played up to produce the most vibrantly hyperbolic presentation.

Not everything that is camp sets out to be and Wilde even stated that the purest camp is unintentional. He explains that while satire pokes fun at what it exaggerates, camp comes out of fondness for its basis. Drag queens, Live Action Role Players (LARPers) and primetime drama writers seek to magnify beloved ideas, not belittle them. For this reason, camp is often found in the aesthetic traditions of fantasy and science fiction, made all the more campy by laughable early attempts at special effects and otherworldly beings.

Camp has long permeated fringe cultures of the past and present. In particular, coding mechanisms for LGBT communities have almost always had roots in camp. Such individuals were ubiquitously reduced to a stereotype and assumed to be distorted, fabricated beings; deciding to embrace the signifiers of “perversion” instead of hiding their identities allowed them to connect with each other in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Furthermore, camp’s ironic sensibility has always delighted in gender-bending and its possibilities for exaggerated physicality — exploring alternate gender presentation always involves transcending the visual status quo, which is undoubtedly camp.

Fictional fashion and gender play, and sometimes both, were the most common camp interpretations at this year’s Met Gala. Not everyone followed the theme, as is often the case, but those who did transformed the fundraiser into an true extravaganza.

Unmissable looks from this year are as follows. Rising pop star Lizzo came dressed head-to-toe in hot pink, with a floor-length feather cape fit for a queen. Lily Collins imitated Priscilla Presley’s most iconic appearance. Curren Head Designer of Gucci Alessandro Michele dazzled in a ruffled coral jumpsuit and a jeweled headpiece. Many guests made dramatic entrances to match their outfits. Lady Gaga, perfectly on brand, was flanked by an ensemble of tuxedo-wearers holding black umbrellas, and had four outfit changes that are worth the Google search. Billy Porter (“Pose” FX), dressed as an Egyptian sun god in all gold and bearing massive wing-sleeves, arrived on a bed carried by six men.

If nothing else, this year’s Met Gala instigated a mainstream discussion of the eccentric glamour at the edges of history and pop culture. Some say the “private code” of camp was never meant to become popular entertainment, but it’s kind of fun that it did.