f you searched “what is camp?” over the course of the last few weeks, you undoubtedly stumbled into a Google goldmine ready and waiting to inform you. Having done so myself, I can tell you the straightforward answer is that camp is an aesthetic description coined by a 19th-Century “cross-dresser” known as Fanny in a letter to his lover (“My campish undertakings are not at present meeting with the success they deserve”) and later explored in-depth by writer Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp.'” When it comes down to describing what camp actually describes, though, the answer becomes somewhat nebulous.
In the words of The New York Post, camp is “ironic yet sincere; glamorous yet tacky; so bad it’s good; too much and just right.” Confused? So was I, until I stood on the sidelines of the Met Gala red carpet and watched Lady Gaga undergo four outfit changes in under 15 minutes, all the while hamming it up for the cameras. It was clearly ironic (so over-the-top its viral ambitions were tangible) but at the same time, utterly sincere (she bared it all — almost literally — for this moment, and threw herself into the act so wholeheartedly the word that came to mind was “aww“). It was so bad (the pink wagon, the exaggerated facial expressions), but also so good (the pink wagon! the exaggerated facial expressions!). It was way too much (the first look would have stolen the show as is), but in the end, just right (I now can’t imagine her arriving any other way).
Though not every look attempted to compete with this level of on-theme-ness, it still set the tone for the evening in a way that shaped my appreciation for the kind of red carpet that only a camp dress code could foster — one ruled by vulnerability and self-expression instead of flattery and playing it safe. It also perfectly encapsulated how the challenge of defining “camp” (it took Sontag nearly 6,000 words to explain) is exactly the point of the aesthetic, an open-ended invitation to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.
For Billy Porter, that meant rolling up to the red carpet on top of a litter carried by six shirtless men, dressed in a bejeweled catsuit with 10-foot wings. For Janelle Monáe, it was about wearing a giant eyeball with trailing lashes on her left boob (plus a pile-up of hats for good measure). For Cara Delevingne, camp was sporting a headpiece decked out with false teeth. For Tessa Thompson, it was carrying her hair in her hands. For Cardi B, it meant wearing a dress so enormous it had to be lifted up the stairs by an entire fleet of people. For Tracee Ellis Ross, it was putting her face inside a human-sized picture frame. For Ezra Miller, it was pairing his bedazzled Burberry suit with five extra eyes painted on his face. For Katy Perry, there was no other choice than morphing into Lumière from Beauty and the Beast.
Most of the outfits were not what I would necessarily call “chic” or “fashionable,” but oh my goodness were they FUN (and fun, as you might suspect, is seriously underrated when it comes to red carpet attire). They were the kind of fun that stretches your imagination like a piece of bubblegum, reawakening it to the magical truth that clothes can be so much more than just clothes when injected with the unselfconscious freedom of experimentation. As Sontag put it: “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious… One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”
But the best looks were also, in a way, earnest — a notable differentiator of camp that sets it apart from looks that are simply exaggerated or over-the-top. The campiest looks were those that encapsulated the wearer’s naturally campy persona — celebrities who have always, to some extent, embraced the metaphor of their lives as theater. As Costume Institute Director Andrew Bolton acknowledged during yesterday’s press preview, the simultaneous absurdity and conviction of camp is why it makes such a suitable theme for this era of political and social instability: “Camp is by its very nature subversive. It reacts with and against…the status quo.”
For as much time as I spent admiring the works of art that walked the red carpet, I spent an equal amount of time wondering how the celebrities wearing them dealt with their very obvious physical impediments once inside the museum. How did they sit? How did they pee? How did they eat? How did they move at all? These questions were no doubt part of what made the corresponding parade of looks so thrilling: the outskirts of reality combining with fantasy, each making the other appear even more electric by contrast.
Now tell me, which look was your favorite?
Feature photos by Karwai Tang and Taylor Hill/FilmMagic via Getty Images.