The Campiest First Monday of May

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The first Monday of May hosts the biggest event on the fashion fundraising calendar, the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A host of celebrities from the realms of cinema, music, art and fashion come together to raise money for the Met’s Costume Institute – a celebration of the Met’s latest exhibition, the night is centred around its theme. This year’s theme ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ naturally opened up a stage for a myriad of flamboyant, frivolous and outlandish looks, elements which the Met Gala in itself has been a stage for since it began in 1948. This year, Anna Wintour, something of a camp icon herself, enlisted Lady Gaga, Alessandro Michele, Harry Styles and Serena Williams as co-chairs of the 71st Met Gala. Based on Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’, an exploration of the different ways in which the notion of camp has been construed since the 17th century, the theme gave expectations for a bigger, better and bolder than ever Gala. 

It’s not the first year that the Met Gala has been used as a means of making challenging cultural and historical topics accessible through the lens of fashion (last year’s theme was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination), but this year the Costume Institute sought to shed a light on the often-misunderstood meaning of camp. As anticipated, the Gala brought us some of the most sensational and spectacular looks seen on the Met’s red (or pink) carpet, with plenty of feathers, frills, butterflies and big dress energy. 

The pink carpet, lined with real pink roses, welcomed an entrance-cum-performance by Lady Gaga, who orchestrated four outfit changes in 15 minutes after her arrival in a voluminous Brandon Maxwell hot pink gown. How could we have expected anything less from Gaga, whose career itself is something like an ode to the transformative power of camp, a power which she has mastered through her distinguished theatricality and outlandishly exaggerated expressions. Co-chair Styles sported a Gucci black sheer blouse, complete with ruffles and an oversized bow. While his look may seem dull and muted compared to the extravagance and excess of his co-hosts, with Alessandro Michele in overstated pink ruffles, the addition of stereotypical feminine touches, heels and a single overhanging pearl earring, meant Styles’ look was camp in a way that blurred the lines between genders and went beyond sequins and feathers. Serena Williams, the queen of on-court OTT outfits, made camp her own, pairing her Versace floral gown with neon Nike x Off-White Air Force on trainers. 

The campiest of the red carpet looks combined the elements that characterised camp according to Sontag – excess, artifice, irony and a winking of bad taste. Speaking of bad taste, the Kardashian-Jenner family are always a favourite target for dress-code scrutiny. Criticised in previous years for failing to live up to the theme, Kendall Jenner and Kylie Jenner both took inspiration from Sontag, Kendall in shades of fiery orange and Kylie in lilac, both lined with excessive and extravagant feathers. After all, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of 3 millions feathers” (or so Sontag said). Kim Kardashian’s look took a different direction, in a latex wet-look Mugler dress, dripping in beads resembling water drops.

The mass array of outlandish and unforgettable colours, patterns and shapes makes it pretty much impossible to pick favourites, but certainly some did better than others at encapsulating campiness. It is a costume gala, after all. Lupita Nyong’o took flamboyance and playfulness to the next level in a star-print dress with rainbow wing-like shoulder details and a matching handbag, with several golden combs pinned to her overblown up-do. Zendaya succeeded in the art of theatrics and impersonation in a Cinderella-style gown complete with glass slippers for a fairytale showstopper moment. Hailee Steinfeld’s Viktor & Rolf tiered dress screamed irony with a ‘No Photos Please’ statement layered over exaggerated tulle, topped with an oversized bow headband, camera in hand. Recently married Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas arrived at the event, where they first met in 2017, coordinated with silver-detailed looks. Chopra’s silver caged crown, OTT hair-do and multicoloured feather skirt made for a campy, Mad Hatter-esque look. Billy Porter made a Cleopatra-style entrance, carried in on an Egyptian queen-worthy throne, in a custom gold bodysuit, beaded winged cape and headpiece, for perhaps the most impressive and dazzling male appearance of the evening.

Image: Billy Porter

What’s certain is that while the Met Gala itself has always been a celebration of camp, with celebrities choosing ostentatious, unwearable looks even for more traditional past themes, this year the event took the inherent campiness of fashion and an appreciation of the intersection between art and fashion to a heightened level. 

By Ruby McAuliffe.