The 2019 Met Gala is Wacky, Gorgeous, and Fun . . . But It Isn’t Camp

If you’re like me, you’ve spent part of your day pouring over the gorgeous photos of the 2019 Met Gala attendees decked out and draped in some of the most jaw-dropping and spectacular outfits of the year. From Katy Perry’s sparkling chandelier getup to Billy Porter’s wonderfully excessive Egyptian ensemble, complete with a litter lifted by six shirtless buff men, to Cardi B’s luxurious (and heavy-looking) red dress and train, the fashion to us mere mortals, who just get to gawk at and not attend the annual fundraiser/costume party/event of the year, is indeed marvelous to behold.

And yet, despite the fancifulness, imagination, and visual winking, sometimes literally so, that went into all the outfits this year, not a single one of the outfits technically embodies the theme of this year’s Met Gala which was “camp.” “Campy,” maybe, but not “camp,” at least not in the way that Susan Sontag describes in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” which serves as the inspiration for this year’s Gala and the Met’s upcoming blockbuster fashion exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” that opens on May 9.

It’s true that there’s never been complete agreement about what defines “camp,” and even Sontag in her 58-note essay offers multiple angles that attempt to pin down the elusive category (Is it a style? A movement? An attitude? Yes, yes, and yes.) True, it has a lot to do with being over-the-top. There’s also something gay and queer about it. Camps revels and luxuriates in excess. But the element that I think most epitomizes “camp” is what Sontag describes in note #23: “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” In other words, the unique magic of camp is that it is something that aims to be serious, but fails in doing so. Often this failure is one that happens, Sontag notes, over time; something which aspires to seriousness in one moment or age, turns into camp years later as the ways in which we judge certain styles changes (Sontag mentions Tiffany lamps and the 1933 film King Kong as such examples). “Time,” Sontag writes, in note #31, “liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility.”

This isn’t to say that all camp has to be something old that we now find “silly” or “campy” today. One of the greatest current practitioners of camp (albeit more in her earlier years than now) is Lady Gaga whose use of fashion and over-the-top performance never means, I think, to evoke guffaws, and yet, sometimes you can’t help but laugh. Just give a look at her iconic 2009 MTV VMA Awards performance of “Paparazzi” with all the fake blood and you can’t help but snigger. And we don’t have to go back even that far to see recent examples of camp. I’m not sure what director’s Dan Gilroy’s intent with the recent star-studded NetFlix movie Velvet Buzzsaw was –it’s a horror satire of the contemporary art world — but far too often during the film I found myself laughing at the silliness of the plot, when my sense was that Gilroy was trying to make a profound “statement” about money and art (not that humor and substance need be mutually exclusive).

Which brings us back to last night’s Met Gala. If a key element of camp is that what makes something “camp” is its unintended humor, then consciously dressing up in a ridiculous outfit with the intent of being camp, inherently defeats the purpose. A ball or gala in which the theme is “camp” is perhaps an impossible event; the moment in which one attempts to be camp, one has automatically and already failed. It’s true that one can be “wholly conscious” about camp as Sontag writes, but she indicates that “Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful.” In consciously trying to be camp, one very much risks failing at the challenge altogether. Then again, there is a difference between “camp” and “campy.” The former is an unintended stylistic excess gone wonderfully wrong, while “campy” could be just anything that’s knowingly and consciously over-the-top (think drag queens or Cher). Campiness is equally entertaining and just as much fun, but it lacks perhaps the sense of schadenfreude of failure that camp also contains. Personally, I can’t wait to see the Camp exhibit at the Met. Will it embody Sontag’s definition(s) of camp? Who knows, but I’m sure it will be a fun time nonetheless.

Warren Hoffman is the author of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical and The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture.

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