On the traditional first Monday in May, the celebrities arrived by the limo-full to fete the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s yearly Costume Institute exhibit. This year’s theme? “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”
In an interview with Vogue, Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton explained that this year’s exhibition is inspired by Susan Sontag’s defining 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp.” The exhibit, he said, excavates the etymology of the word, locating its first use in a work of Moliere’s: The Impostures of Scapin. “Camp about on one leg,” Scapin tells another character, and indeed we can see examples of this posture throughout the exhibit: from the poses of Louis XIV to the bronze statue of Belvedere Antinous in the entryway. Pinpointing the origins of camp in 17th century French comedy certainly frames its modern use. It’s a word that connotes theatricality, performativity, excess and decadence — perhaps with a wink.
But it is a loss that the exhibit, appropriately called “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” focuses so heavily on Sontag’s work and on classical European art. For while Sontag claimed “camp sensibility” as “disengaged, depoliticized — or at least apolitical,” it is, in fact, highly politically charged. It often manifests as the framing of artifice, often around gender, which is in itself political. Bolton agrees with me, telling Vogue:
When you look in history, there are moments when camp is really the defining aesthetic of its time: the ’60s, the ’80s, now. I think it’s always in times where there are radical political and cultural shifts, so I do think that camp does respond and reflect the zeitgeist. I think it’s very much connected to politics.
I believe that, at its core, camp is best found in counterculture. It is frequently associated with the queer community, in particular with the art of drag. Sontag mostly discusses white art in her treatise, but it is equally indelible to Black and brown communities. In her breezy, thoughtful explainer on Buzzfeed, Jane Jackson identifies camp in the aesthetics of Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, Nicki Minaj and B*A*P*S*, despite their collective omission from the Met’s vision. Certainly camp exists in non-Western cultures: Chinese opera, for example, very much centers on artifice and excess.
At an event celebrating elements of counterculture, the pillars of popular culture are bound to make a sartorial misstep or two. As Bolton confessed to Vogue:
…one of the defining elements of camp are the lists that people keep providing… The endless list is, finally, the definite mark of camp.
It is in that spirit that I present my lists — of high, low, Beau and no camp from Met Gala:
In 1954, Christopher Isherwood defined “high camp” as “the whole emotional basis of the ballet, for example, and of course of baroque art…the ballet is camp about love.” I take a more liberal look at high camp. Of course, it does still include ballet, opera and other Baroque arts earnest in their expression. However, I think high camp now includes a sophisticated, self-referential version of expression as well.
Consider, for example, actress Joan Collins, who attended in a white feathered Valentino haute couture gown, complete with tiara. The look itself was exorbitant and flashy, with a ball-style silhouette. What elevated the look was its visual similarity to her costumes on the 1980s TV show Dynasty. In a video posted by Valentino, Collins introduces herself as her character on the show, Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan, and announces the designer she’s wearing to the Met ball. The metatheatricality of all this — attending the event as a fictional character one has played in real life — reads as high camp to me: life imitating art imitating life imitating art. You have to be in on the joke to get the joke, and boy was there a joke:
The look of Lena Waithe, best known for Netflix’s Master of None, meanwhile, was high camp, if not camp-y. Her Pyer Moss suit referenced zoot suits in its silhouette and pinstripes, which were actually comprised of popular drag songs. The back of the suit was emblazoned with the words “Black drag queens inventend camp,” and the front was adorned with custom buttons, each sculpted in the image of a famous Black drag queen.
What makes the above high camp to me is the exceptional level of detail and artistry, alongside its earnest political message.
And then there was Billy Porter, who also completed the assignment correctly, arriving on a chaise lounge with Isis wings:
Porter’s take on Egyptian-inspired beauty involved lots of gold lame and makeup, complete with a gold headdress. The look was in conversation with Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic portrayal of Cleopatra and, indeed, even the Met’s own content: much of the evening was spent on the steps of the Temple of Dendur, which originally came from the west bank of the Nile River. To reference not only a camp icon but the institution in which the event was held is, to me, high camp.
Isherwood defined “low camp” as, among other things, “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa pretending to be Marlene Dietrich.” The Met gala was rife with such looks, including that of recent Album-of-the-Year Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves, who attended in a Barbie-inspired Moschino look. She arrived, it should be noted, in a pink Corvette — extra credit for themed transportation. The look was certainly extravagant, over-the-top and borderline tacky, all camp signifiers. As it was not sophisticated in its reference, however I put it in the “low” category.
Ditto actor Ezra Miller, who swept into the event in a pinstriped Burberry suit with a long train and bedazzled corset. But the real camp was on his face: makeup artist Mimi Choi painted five eyes onto his forehead and cheeks, then rouged his lips to a cherry red. He also carried a mask of his face, which he lifted to reveal the artistry underneath. The overall effect was startling, over-the-top and a little grotesque — perfect for “low.”
The Met exhibition includes a concept of the “Beau Ideal,” a 19th-century concept of male beauty. In this category, we have an entry from Harry Styles, who wore a sheer black Gucci jumpsuit. Reportedly, he even pierced his ear for the evening, wearing a dangling pearl from his right earlobe. I do think this look would be exquisite on any red carpet, and Styles does look very much the Beau Ideal. But is Beau Ideal Beau Camp? No.
Then there were any number of attendees whose attire did not approach camp in the slightest. My favorite of these was Frank Ocean, who showed up wearing a Prada hoodie and tie.
Yet the highest scorer in the “missed opportunity” category was unquestionably Miley Cyrus, who attended in a sequined dress and a straight blonde coiffure with bangs. Her hairstyle harkened back to her long-running Disney Channel character, Hannah Montana, who sported a long blonde wig with bangs. However, there was nothing exaggerated about her look, no artifice to speak of: what I thought at first was a wig was, I think, her natural (if dyed) hair. Had Cyrus gone a few steps further, this look could have been camp. It lives in the land of a miss for me.
Other “no camp” outfits included those seen on almost every straight man at the gala — save, perhaps, Darren Criss. Since these looks did not do the bare minimum homework, I will refrain from embedding them here, but you can search them out if you would like.
Just know that I have notes.