What is camp? In the days leading up to the 2019 Met Gala in New York, every news outlet had been almost frantically asking this question.
“That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization,” wrote Susan Sontag in her 1964 “Notes on Camp,” the essay upon which this year’s theme was based. “The ultimate Camp statement: It’s good because it’s awful.”
In other words, this year’s theme upended the usual red carpet goal to look conventionally beautiful — that wasn’t the point of last night’s “pink carpet.” Instead, it was about trying to achieve that esoteric mix of artifice, exaggeration and the unnatural, and all without taking oneself too seriously, which is key to any camp look.
So who did their homework? Lady Gaga got it. But then again, camp has always been an integral part of her public persona, from the meat dress and Kermit coat to her Super Bowl performance, even the way in which she melodramatically posed with her Golden Globe and Oscar awards this year on the red carpet. It was a relief to see her in a playful mode, embracing the historical meaning of camp as if she were Mae West herself.
The actress and music artist did four outfit changes, with her former stylist and friend Brandon Maxwell at her side, having designed all of her looks, down to the pink wagon filled with strange handbag cases filled with Champagne. Gaga’s performance aspect of the red carpet arrival had all the pantomime movements and vaudeville undertones that one would expect from her (the sprawling across the steps, the 10-inch fetish platforms, the holding of a giant cellphone). “What Camp taste responds to is ‘instant character,'” wrote Sontag. Gaga has it.
But Gaga wasn’t the only one who did this on the pink carpet. Actor Billy Porter arrived on a bed (or a litter, pharaoh-style), carried by six shirtless men, all of whom were decked out in gold jewelry and face coverings. Porter’s own look was Egyptian sun god-turned-butterfly, complete with custom bedazzled Giuseppe Zanotti boots.
It was the second act, so to speak, for Porter, who also turned heads this year at the Oscars dressed in a velvet tuxedo gown custom made for him by Christian Siriano. The actor’s Met Gala performance walk highlighted an important distinction between gender fluidity and actual camp: They are not one and the same, and for the latter to actually be achieved, it needs to be over-the-top and in a vision of life as theater. Gender fluidity, on the other, hand, can be an everyday, nontheatrical way of self-expression.
Camp also does not rely on gender fluidity — take the over-the-top, corny femininity of Joan Collins, a longtime camp icon for her role as Alexis in the ’80’s TV show “Dynasty.” The 85-year-old actress went back to the character for this year’s Met Gala, walking the red carpet in an Alexis-inspired custom Valentino gown decked out with the most diamonds of the night.
“Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious,” wrote Sontag. “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.” While stars like J-Lo, Cardi B, Céline Dion and Lupita Nyong’o played the intentional, others won the game with a slight twist of intention and attitude. Take Kylie Jenner, who, in her purple custom Atelier Versace feathered gown, was completely serious about her look. The exaggeration and artifice combined with her general sense of naiveté (at least on the surface) are what make Jenner one of the campiest pop culture figures today, and she embodied that on the red carpet, too.
Click through to see all of the night’s best dressed and most campy looks on the pink carpet.
Exclusive: Chloe Gosselin Shares the Design Story Behind Céline Dion’s Met Gala Heels
There Were Five Chers at the 2019 Met Gala
Katy Perry Commits to Her Hamburger Met Gala Look With Burger Sneakers