What Does the 2019 Met Gala Theme, "Camp," Actually Mean?
In anticipation of the this year's fashion prom, we're breaking down what the exhibit's theme really means and what you can expect to see on the red carpet
Every year on the First Monday in May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts the Costume Institute Gala to kick off the opening of its popular fashion exhibit at The Costume Institute. The Met Gala’s dress code always honors the exhibit’s theme. Whether paying homage to a designer like Alexander McQueen in 2011’s “Savage Beauty,” or tackling broader themes like 2018’s “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” most stars take the dress code very seriously on the red carpet. And this year, we expect it to be no different, especially because the theme leaves much room for playful, exaggerated interpretation.
The 2019 theme is, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” which, no, isn’t a reference to the outdoor activity that involves pitching a tent, but rather a nod to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Notes on “Camp,” which begins by defining the term as “its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration.” Noting that with camp, it’s not about talking in “terms of beauty” but rather “in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”
In the essay Sontag breaks down the sensibility of camp in 58 bullet points and begins by explaining that not everything can be camp, but many things, ideas and objects can be considered “campy.” She noted that songs, movies, buildings, furniture, novels, people and, of course, clothes, all can encompass camp. In fact, Sontag gives her own examples of “campy” things which included Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, King Kong and Flash Gordon comics.
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“Whether it’s pop camp, queer camp, high camp or political camp — Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely,” the curator of the institute, Andrew Bolton, told the New York Times about his choice. “Much of high camp is a reaction to something.”
Another reason this is a fitting theme for the night is that designers are embracing camp in collections and runway shows now more than ever before.
Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele, who’s serving as a co-chair at this year’s gala, regularly embraces camp themes whether it’s with his gender-bending suits (beloved by Cate Blanchett and Harry Styles) or exaggerated theatrics at his shows (remember when he sent models down the catwalk carrying replicas of their own heads?).
Another main component of camp is its preference to “seeing everything in quotation marks.” And one designer who embraces that sensibility is Virgil Abloh, who has been placing quotation marks on pieces throughout his Off-White line the last few seasons.
Viktor & Rolf is another brand that perfectly embodies the theme thanks to the fall 2019 collection that featured exaggerated tiered tulle gowns with cheeky phrases like “Less Is More” and “I’m Not Shy I Just Don’t Like You” in the center of the gown. As Sontag put it in her essay, the “hallmark” or Camp is “the spirit of extravagance.”
According to Sontag, “the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mix of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”
She explains that when something is bad, not camp, it was “too mediocre in its ambition.” The seriousness in Moschino’s candy-colored Babie-esque dresses can be seen as camp, like in 2016 when paper doll dresses were sent down the runway.
So which stars are likely to embrace the over-the-top exuberance of camp? Most likely the celebrities who regularly go over-the-top (we’re looking at you, Rihanna, who wore a papal headpiece last year).