What Is Camp? The 2019 Met Gala Theme Explained in 10 Pop Culture Images

“Camp is esoteric — a private code or badge of identity,” wrote Susan Sontag in “Notes on ‘Camp,'” the 1964 seminal essay upon which the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has based its upcoming exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.”

The idea may be top of mind with Monday’s Met Gala — but it’s far from new. The upcoming exhibition will start with a look at the fashion of Versailles as one of the origins of the camp movement. Referred to as a “camp Eden,” the French palace was all about se camper (“to posture boldly”), and the the royal courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV were notorious for their fast-evolving fashion trends, where more was definitely more.

From there, the exhibition will explore the idea of the dandy and venture into the queer subcultures of Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But after that, camp became more mainstream, and it’s through images in film, art, music and fashion, dating back to around the 1930’s, that camp’s growing presence in pop culture can start to be understood — even if it can’t ever be fully explained. “To talk about camp is therefore to betray it,” Sontag also wrote in her essay. If words can’t fully articulate it, perhaps these 10 pop culture images through the decades can help.

1. RuPaul and Joan Rivers, 1993

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RuPaul with Joan Rivers, appearing on the comedian’s TV show in 1993 to perform songs from his debut album, “Supermodel of the World.” The 58-year-old actor is considered America’s most commercially successful drag queen and through his reality competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has raised the subculture’s mass appeal and acceptance.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

2. Elton John, 1974

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Elton John performing on “The Russell Harty Show” in 1974. The singer had some of the most flamboyant performance looks of the decade, donning sky-high platforms with his equally ostentatious sparkly sunglasses.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

3. Lady Gaga, 2010

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Lady Gaga in her meat dress at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. The dress was instantly iconic and fulfilled Sontag’s camp definitions of artifice, exaggeration and unnaturalness. During her first years of fame, the music artist experimented with lots of campy outfits, including a Kermit the Frog jacket, a nun habit with a sheer latex dress and much, much more.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

4. Cher at the Oscars, 1986

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Cher in a Bob Mackie gown and headdress at the 1986 Oscars. The singer and actress has been called the “Queen of Camp” for her dramatic costumes and fashion risk taking.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

5. Naomi Campbell, 1997

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Naomi Campbell in Alexander McQueen’s mythical-themed collection for Givenchy in 1997. The British designer’s early collections were a mixture of controversial and campy.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

6. Divine in “Pink Flamingos,” 1972

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Harris Glenn Milstead, more popularly known as the drag queen Divine, shown here in John Waters’ 1972 film “Pink Flamingos.” Waters’ transgressive films are at the forefront of 20th-century cult camp.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

7. Jayne Mansfield, 1957

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Jayne Mansfield in 1957. Sontag points to the “corny flamboyant female-ness” of pinup stars like Mansfield and Gina Lollobrigida as examples of an exaggeration of sexuality and mannerisms characteristic of camp personas.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

8. Drag queens at the Palladium Party, 1985

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Attendees in drag at a the Palladium Party in 1985. The infamous party was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, and designer Azzedine Alaïa designed the wardrobe for the staff.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

9. Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita,” 1960

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Anita Ekberg in “La Dolce Vita” in 1960. Sontag points to the actress’s parody of herself for the iconic film as an example of indirect camp.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

10. Rollerena at Studio 54, 1978

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Rollerena, one of Studio 54’s frequent guests, known for his rollerskates and wacky ensembles, which included flowing bridal-like white gowns, retro accessories and, of course, his mobile footwear.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

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