As every year since 1972, the first Monday of May means one thing for fashion: it’s Met Gala time again.
That’s the time when A-listers are getting ready to unveil their lavish, outrageous outfits, while minor celebrities and commoners are sitting in their PJs wishing they could go to the most coveted, expensive night of the fashion year. If you’re wondering, a single ticket for those not on the 650-strong guest list is priced at $30,000.
The Met Gala celebrates the opening of the spring exhibition, one of the most popular fashion exhibits across the globe.
And this year, the LGBTI community is set to be in the spotlight more than ever before thanks to a theme — Camp: Notes on Fashion — calling directly at the queer history of costume.
How it all started
It was 1948 when fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert decided to raise money for the newly-founded Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York.
At the time, the event took place in different venues across town: the Waldorf-Astoria, Central Park, and Rainbow Room.
The fundraiser then evolved into a more glamorous affair when former Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland became consultant to the Costume Institute in 1972.
Under Vreeland, the ball moved to The Met and the theme was introduced.
2019 Met Gala
Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour is chair of the event. The 2019 Gala, taking place on 6 May, will be co-chaired by Lady Gaga, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, Harry Styles and Serena Williams. Previous co-chairs included the likes of Tom Ford, Rihanna, Katy Perry and the late Karl Lagerfeld.
Nearly 50% of the guest list comprises actors. Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lopez, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, and Bradley Cooper are all slated to walk the red carpet.
Fashion, meanwhile, represents 32 % of the 2019 Met Gala committee. Tom Ford, Donatella Versace, Miuccia Prada, Pierpaolo Piccioli and Clare Waight Keller will all be in attendance.
Those descending the stairwell are expected to conform to the theme… or to subvert the rules altogether.
The theme usually seems hard to break down for those who are not in the know. But sometimes even celebs can make a fashion faux pas: how will they do with Camp: Notes on Fashion?
What is camp?
In 1909, the word camp entered the Ware’s Dictionary of English Slang and Phrase. The entry read: ‘Actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis. Used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character.’
The word comes from the French verb se camper, meaning ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion’.
Bisexual author and philosopher Susan Sontag catapulted camp into the mainstream in her seminal, controversial essay Notes on Camp.
The 1964 essay, dedicated to camp icon Oscar Wilde, provides the framework for this year’s Met Gala theme. In the introduction, Sontag wrote: ‘To talk about Camp is… to betray it.’
She also argued that camp is the ‘love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration… style at the expense of content… the triumph of the epicene style’.
Epicene means having characteristics of both sexes or no characteristics of either sex. Costume Institute’s curator Andrew Bolton found that a similar take on gender and identity would have a lot of cultural resonance today.
High art and pop culture
At the time when Sontag wrote the essay, ‘camp was largely “a private code” and “a badge of identity” among small urban cliques, primarily in the gay community,’ explained Bolton when announcing the theme in Milan earlier this year.
Sontag, through her fifty-eight notes, changed this irrevocably. She stated that camp ‘has an affinity for certain arts rather than others,’ fashion being one of them because of its emphasis on ‘texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content’.
For Sontag, fashion as a vehicle for camp has different modes of expression. These include irony, humor, parody, pastiche, duplicity, ambiguity, theatricality, extravagance, and exaggeration.
Camp has an equalizing and democratizing effect on art, explained Bolton.
‘If you look at art through camp eyes, a Caravaggio painting has the same visual appeal as a Flash Gordon comic,’ he also said.
Gucci’s creative director and 2019’s Met Gala co-chair Alessandro Michele agrees.
For Michele, Sontag’s essay ‘perfectly expresses what camp truly means to me: the unique ability of combining high art and pop culture’.
Designers who have embraced camp
Ever since the 1970s, the Met Gala kicks off the Costume Institute’s spring fashion exhibit. This offers an unusual take on fashion, showcasing artworks and legendary gowns one can only dream to wear.
Presented in The Met Fifth Avenue’s Iris and B Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall, 2019’s exhibit is made possible by Gucci.
Who are the designers that, more than others, embraced camp?
Gucci, ça va sans dire, but also Schiaparelli, Moschino’s Jeremy Scott, and Vivienne Westwood, to name but a few on display at the show.
Expect to see Schiaparelli’s flamingo headpiece and cape and the iconic Marjan Pejoski’s swan dress Björk wore at the Oscars in 2001.
The exhibit will also include two paintings of Louis XIV and his effeminated brother Monsieur lent by the Palace of Versailles and an ensemble from Karl Lagerfeld’s Fall 1987 collection for Chanel that was inspired by Versailles.
The show will also feature dresses from Erdem’s Spring 2019 collection, inspired directly from the wardrobes of Fanny and Stella, the most famous crossdressers of Victorian England.
As for Sontag’s inspiration Oscar Wilde, the gallery will include photographs, caricatures, and original manuscripts, including Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Is Camp a controversial theme?
Is Camp: Notes on Fashion a controversial, problematic theme? In the usual Met Gala’s fashion, the theme for this year aims to shock in the best possible way.
2018’s theme Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination proved nothing is too sacred and everything can be played with. That’s exactly the point of camp.
Some, however, may argue 2019’s Camp is an attempt to appropriate something which has been a prerogative of the LGBTI community, especially of gay men, to let mainstream culture feast on it.
‘Like most four-letter words, camp invites debate,’ finally admitted Bolton.
‘But unlike most four-letter words, it evades definition. For this reason, the exhibition raises more questions than it answers. For example: “Is camp gay?” “Is camp kitsch?” “Is camp political?”. And ultimately, “What is camp?”‘
Camp is probably all of these things at once.
Bolton suggested the only answer to these questions on the nature of camp is through the words of historian Gregory Bredbeck. And, again, it’s a very camp one: ‘Only one’s hairdresser knows for sure.’
All pictures courtesy of Met Museum