Campy. It’s one of those terms that gets thrown around pretty frequently to the point that it loses its meaning. I honestly had no idea what it meant when I learned it would serve as the basis for this year’s Met Costume Gala theme, and honestly, I don’t think many outside the fashion world did either. So, what exactly is "camp" when it comes to fashion? Well, it has nothing to do with the outdoors for starters…
By definition, camp is “an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value”. We’re talking about outfits so outlandish and bad they actually become iconic references in pop culture. Think of the now famous swan dress worn by Björk at the 2001 Oscars, Flavor Flav’s giant clock chain and gold grill, or any of the colorful and shock-inducing outfits worn in the early red carpet days of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, both of whom are arguably battling for the title of “Queen of Camp”.
The 2019 theme of the Met Gala and its subsequent exhibition is entitled "Camp: Notes on Fashion". Centered on Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp”, the theme aimed to embrace all of the extravagant, tacky, playful and humorous elements of high fashion. The museum exhibit itself hosts over 250 fashion objects spanning the 1600s to present day including designs from the world's top fashion houses like Gucci and Moschino. The Björk dress I mentioned earlier? Yep, that’s on display in the collection as well, making it truly an iconic piece of fashion history.
In her original work, Sontag states that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration…Camp is esoteric -- something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques”. Interestingly enough in its earliest use, the term “camp” was used to almost exclusively describe the fashion choices and behaviors of gay men across the board. In queer communities, exaggerated personality and attire was/is celebrated and seen as a response to mainstream culture. It is the daring of one to live outside the societal norms embracing oneself completely and freely. For a better understanding look no further than black ballroom and drag culture with its focus on theatrical performance, costuming and presentation. While initially mocked by the mainstream, the style, presentation and overall flair of the drag queens and club kids have set the tone for numerous fashion and beauty trends from contouring and baking for a beat face, to taping and shaping for a snatched waist.
What was unique about this year’s Met Gala was the clear focus on, and acknowledgment of, the impact of queer culture on the notion of camp and high fashion. With that being said, queer influence was expressed through a variety of looks inspired by this particular sect of camp culture. Gender-bending designs, androgynous silhouettes, outlandish headwear and tons of fringe, leather, lace, and tulle. This impact was also evident in the choices made to the guest list that included notable LGBT icons, activists and influencers including RuPaul, Janet Mock, and Laverne Cox, while RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Aquaria and Violet Chachki also made appearances.
However, it was Lena Waithe who shut it down by reminding viewers of where “campiness” comes from. She stoically posed on the red carpet in a custom Pyer Moss suit with the phrase “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp” emboldened on the back. Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond was right by her side in his own custom design featuring a quote from the late rapper Nipsey Hussle that read “Fix Your Credit, Pool Money, Buy Back the Block”. Truly a moment for the culture.
Other standout moments include Lady Gaga’s four-part outfit transformation complete with choreographed dancers, the ruby-studded nipple detailing on Cardi B’s deep red plush gown, Lupita Nyong’o and her fluorescent feathers, and the Game of Thrones inspired looks of Florence Welch and Saorsie Ronan. In all, it was truly a night of surprises and excitement when culture and fashion collide.
View the gallery below for all of my faves from “Fashion’s Biggest Night Out”! (pictures via Getty Images)