“Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” —Susan Sontag, Notes On “Camp”
Unlike many of the previous Met Gala themes, Camp is not a time, a place, a person, or an institution. It is a concept, one that often begins with an earnest effort and ends with a spectacular and beautiful failure. “I am strongly drawn to Camp,” Sontag wrote, “and almost as strongly offended by it.” How to dress in a way that walks that line was the puzzle of the evening. Usually balancing acts involve subtlety and compromise, but one can do neither with Camp. One should do neither. To do so would be to fail, and not in the glorious way that has resulted in so much of the best of Camp. But last night on the Met Gala’s pink carpet, we saw a fair amount of compromise.
When the announcement was made that the theme of this year’s exhibit, as well as the gala honoring its opening, would be centered on Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes On ‘Camp’,” the news was met with excitement and wariness in equal measure by those in the fashion industry and media. In recent years, the looks worn to the gala have featured a few highs, a handful of lows, and a gathering in the middle of looks interested in only lightly referencing the theme of the night. Sometimes that middle settles on a color, like last year when the stairs that lead to the main entrance of the Metropolitan Museum Of Art were awash in relic gold, cardinal red, and Marian blue. Other years, like 2013’s affair celebrating the opening of Punk: From Chaos To Couture, it’s the hair and makeup that get thrown in our path to convince us that this isn’t simply a look one could have also worn to any number of summer movie premieres. In the years where a single designer is the focus, like 2017’s celebration of the innovative work of Rei Kawakubo or 2011’s tribute to the then recently deceased Alexander McQueen, a different problem arises. Not everyone wants to wear McQueen. Not everyone can wear McQueen. No other design house is McQueen.
Rihanna, who has spent recent years honoring the theme to the max, represents a high-water mark upon which we often judge the looks of all others in attendance, but we shouldn’t expect them to be her. Nor can they be Beyoncé or the woman orchestrating the night’s proceedings, Anna Wintour, who both hold enough power to do as they like year after year with only a passing care to follow what has been mandated for others.
Celebrities have their brands to craft or manage. Designers have the same, and it is often their dollars at stake. So if nothing superhero-esque plays well with your style or if the house with which you have signed a very lucrative contract deals in neutrals and would never consider a Schiaparelli pink, then there might not seem much to do but skirt the rules as best you can.
“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp.’”
To dress in a way that is tied up with failure takes verve and, as Sontag puts it, a type of naivete. It is a Camp that, for lack of a less cliché way to put it, comes from the heart and possibly from the soul. One might look to the Wachowski sisters’ Jupiter Ascending, a film where planets are farmed for human lives, the main villain lives on Jupiter, and bees are able to detect whether one has royal blood, as a recent example. The film is big and too much and a wolf-man zooms around on rocket boots, but it is not joking. It is serious throughout and would not be a perfect example of Pure Camp, as Sontag terms it, if everyone involved had seen the project as anything but that.
But celebrities are anything but naive, and Pure Camp as defined by Sontag can only come when Camp is not the goal from the beginning. So this type of glamorous, burning failure was an impossibility on a night like this one. Instead, what we saw not nearly enough of was Camping.
“Considered a little less strictly, Camp is either completely naïve or wholly conscious.”
Camping is the latter, and Sontag believed it to be generally lacking in comparison to its pure counterpart, but on this night, it gave us some of the best. Earnestness and purity gets tossed aside and trampled when the rules of the evening are clearly stamped on the invitation. But you can still give us a hearty wink, an understanding of the fun of the night, and a delight in the sartorial freedom that Camp affords when you push aside the fear that you might fall on your face.
“What is extravagant in an inconsistent or unpassionate way is not Camp. Neither can anything be Camp that does not spring from an irrepressible, a virtually uncontrolled sensibility. Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp–what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.”
And it is here in the realm of pseudo-Camp where one finds the middle that so often exists at this event. “Why even come if you’re not going to try either bravely or with a wink?” is a question that one might ask of everyone in this group. The answer is simply that the event has become too important. People who have voiced their disdain for the circus-like atmosphere of the night and vowed never to return have quietly reentered the fold soon after. A rising star or an emerging brand might feel like there is too much at stake to take the chance at ridicule. Better to be boring yet lovely than to wear something that draws the eye to it almost as strongly as it offends.
But that middle, the pretty or handsome yet boring, the extravagance for extravagance’s sake, feels like even more of a disappointment than it has in other years. The Met Gala can be more: more adventurous, more thrilling, more fun and loud and grand than all of the other red carpet events because of the art it’s shining a light on. And here was a gift of a theme, one that could have allowed for all of those things to happen, preferably all at once.
“Camp turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment.”
Every red carpet is about money, as are the various events that they are held in service of, but that is not where we’re supposed to focus our gaze. The Oscars are ostensibly a celebration of the best in film. The Grammys are the same, but for music. And the Met Gala is a celebration of fashion as art. But the night is foremost about shoring up the financial health of the museum through ticket and table sales as well as loudly trumpeting the opening, with the assistance of the glitz and glamour that emanates from what has become one of the most exclusive parties of the year, of an exhibit that is a mighty draw for visitors. And as with every red carpet, the one set upon those iconic stairs plays the usual role of advertising venue for all manner of luxury brands.
Why talk about the money at all? This has long been the truth of the matter, the final advertising piece more and more each year. But this year’s theme presented more of a challenge when it came to the delicate balance between what the event is about on its face and the foundation it is built on.
The fact that for the most part the attendees and the designers dressing them didn’t take advantage of the chance offered them last night—throwing on an elaborate headdress here or an embellished dinner jacket there instead—points to the fact that the Met Gala has possibly become like all of the other red carpets we see throughout the year. There are now too many of all of those other concerns, the money and the branding and the immensity of the moment, for that turning away and acceptance, even for one night, of a different set of standards. The lights that now shine on the event have in some ways dimmed it.