Notes on ‘Camp’: This year’s Met Gala theme explained
By Archana Heenpella
“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’ of things-being-what-they-are-not…Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’ – Susan Sontag, Notes on “Camp” (1964)
If you heard this year’s Met Gala theme “camp” and were confused when you didn’t see any rolled up sleeping bags or a few pairs of combat boots, you’re not alone.
Celebrating The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 71st anniversary of one of fashion’s biggest events, the theme for this year’s exhibition was the work of Andrew Bolton, the museum’s curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute.
Based on Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp”, the Met Gala went forward with a theme that has proved one of the most confusing (to us plebs, at least) in recent years. This confusion was compounded by the different looks styled that night, arising from the various interpretations of the theme itself. Unlike last year’s overt religious influence, it may have, at first glance, been hard to find a thread of commonality in the pieces worn this year – whether it was Katy Perry’s seemingly out of place burger costume or Janelle Monae’s graphic 3D attire.
While Sontag provided more than 50 definitions of this very theme, “camp” can be condensed into a few core elements. To begin with, its style has an affinity for particular forms of art which span from clothes to furniture and all element of visual décor. Most of these, in turn, contain an artificial element, i.e. it’s all man-made. Camp has very little to do with nature and the natural.
The theme also possesses a particular fondness for quotation marks – which made Virgil Abloh’s Off-White a very popular choice for many of the event’s attendees. Camp doesn’t see a dress, but a “dress”; not a table, but a “table”.
According to the author of the now widely cited Notes on “Camp”, “when something is just bad (rather than camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish”. As an example, Sontag conjures the image of a woman as “walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”. She also notes that high culture has no monopoly upon refinement, and it is on this premise that the experiences of camp are based.
Major fashion houses like John Galliano, Gucci, Mugler, Vetements, and Moschino are known for their camp-inspired collections. Jeremy Scott, the Creative Director of Moschino, is a particularly well-known designer within this niche. His jarring designs are spellbinding not because they’re elegant or refined in the way most high-fashion collections are, but because they’re kitschy in an entirely arresting way.
Take Moschino’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection for example. Models strutted down the runway in outfits clad with the stars of popular children’s show My Little Pony.
His 2011 collection, which featured McDonald’s, cereal boxes, and SpongeBob SquarePants, also demonstrated his roots in camp’s irreverent, so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic.
Virgil Abloh is another forerunner in the camp movement, given Off-White’s characteristic self-identifying quotations. Stars like Serena Williams and Trevor Noah sported his designs at the Met Gala this year, and although they failed to elicit the grandiose and entirely excessive style that was central to this year’s theme, they did, nonetheless, conform to an element that is central to “camp”.
Even for those who are otherwise disinterested in all things fashion, the outfits styled at the Met Gala would have made for a very interesting lookbook. While the internet called out many of the male guests for their seemingly uninspired interpretation of the theme, a few stars stood out. One of the Gala’s hosts that evening, Harry Styles, certainly made a decent effort with his sheer, lace-ruffled shirt from Gucci. YouTube star and makeup guru James Charles made an impression with his glittery Alexander Wang getup. Fashion journalist Hamish Bowles also made a grand appearance in a purple Maison Margiela suit and cape that seemed to come straight out of a children’s fantasy novel.
This criticism stems from the fact that camp, whilst not exclusively queer or homosexual-centric in nature, was a movement popularised by the drag community.
Given the androgynous style camp favours, most male guests – more or less – missed the mark with their traditional suit and tie, although this was contested by The Daily Show host Trevor Noah, who commented on his show that everybody has a different idea about what camp really means.
Other outfits that warrant a mention included Kim Kardashian West’s mermaid-inspired Mugler after-party outfit, Cardi B’s oxblood number by Thom Browne (which may or may not have resembled a pad, you decide), Janelle Monae’s Christian Siriano outfit, and Lupita Nyong’o’s very Alice in Wonderland number from Versace.
While there are certainly many more outfits that left an impression, mentioning all would be simply impossible. For a look at some of the night’s best, Fashionista (www.fashionista.com) has an entire gallery dedicated to the best-dressed celebs at the Met Gala.
To conclude in the words of the woman behind the trend that has everyone buzzing, “(camp) it’s good because it’s awful”. If you’ve ever felt a tug towards fashion that’s garish, entirely too much, and over-the-top, it’s possible that you’ve been a camp enthusiast all along.