The bar for party dressing this summer just got pretty high. Billy Porter arrived at the Met Gala in a catsuit with gold wings, reclining on a chaise longue carried by six shirtless men – part Icarus, part Cher-by-Bob-Mackie, part Liz Taylor in Cleopatra. Lady Gaga made not one entrance, but four, dressed like a Russian doll in three ballgowns on top of each other for a red-carpet striptease of fuschia and black taffeta. Jared Leto accessorised his look with a replica of his own head, with which he later played catch over the dinner table with Shawn Mendes.
But the craziest part about the camp-themed red carpet is that for all its silliness, it has a serious point to make. I appreciate this is going to sound a counterintuitive thing to say about a night in which Katy Perry arrived as a fully functioning chandelier and later changed into a cheeseburger costume – complete with mustard splodges, and sesame seeds embroidered on to the bun – but camp is an interesting, culturally challenging dress code that makes some important and timely points about the world in 2019.
But we’ll come to that in a moment, because first we need to talk about how a dress code united Anna Wintour with Cardi B in feathers, and Celine Dion with Cara Delevingne in headdresses. Susan Sontag, whose 1964 essay Notes on Camp inspired the Metropolitan Museum exhibition to which the Met Gala is the opening night, gave a “canon of Camp”, which included Paris Metro signs, Oscar Wilde and Swan Lake, but also General de Gaulle and Caravaggio; Mozart, but not jazz; Greta Garbo, but also Jayne Mansfield. Her essay doesn’t have much to say about clothes, as it happens, but she did pronounce that camp was “a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers”, and the A-list certainly got that memo.
Cardi B out-omeletted Rihanna’s legendary look from 2015 in a blood-red quilted train edged with 30,000 coque feathers by designer Thom Browne, whose partner, Andrew Bolton, is the curator of this exhibition. Wintour had a pale-pink feathered Chanel cape which, she revealed, Karl Lagerfeld himself had begun work on before his death. Joan Collins channelled her own Dynasty alter-ego Alexis Colby in ivory Valentino feathers with a diamond tiara and satin gloves. (Dynasty is very camp, as is referencing yourself.) Naomi Campbell in Valentino, and Lizzo in Marc Jacobs also wore pink feathers. There was lots of pink, since the colour itself is camp: see Kacey Musgraves, who arrived dressed as Barbie in a pink convertible Corvette to match her outfit. (Convertibles are also camp.) Headdresses were confirmed as camp – see Perry in Moschino, but also Delevingne in Christian Dior, Celine Dion in Oscar de la Renta, and Gemma Chan in Tom Ford.
Porter’s flamboyantly camp arrival was hard to beat, but I loved Harry Styles, who had his ear pierced especially for the occasion so as to wear one Gucci pearl drop. The boy in the pearl earring wore a new romantic sheer, frilled black blouse with elegant black tailored trousers. The coquettish prettiness of Styles’ look – like the unexpected icy elegance of Gigi Hadid, dressed as an androgynous angel in silver Michael Kors – spoke to what makes camp subversive, and baffling to the mainstream. This is where camp has a serious point to make. Camp is a celebration of beauty that is absolutely not about – is indeed a direct challenge to – what heterosexual men think is attractive. The male gaze has so imposed itself on culture that it has been internalised by women, who appraise other women through the prism of sexual attractiveness, even without realising they are doing so. The mainstream, which is used to consuming visual culture through that lens, finds camp confusing.
The screenwriter, producer and actress Lena Waithe wore a jacket with the words “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp” on the back, while Delevingne’s rainbow-striped Dior look was an homage to the Pride flag. At the Milan fashion week press conference where he spoke about the exhibition, Bolton acknowledged the complications involved in putting interpretations of camp, which he said “began as a private code in the gay community”, in the hands of the social media megastars whose looks will, inevitably, be the most-viewed from this event. The jury is out on whether Kim Kardashian’s wet-look, nude-look dress, complete with trompe l’oeil raindrops, is truly camp (although its designer Thierry Mugler was certainly camp in his 90s heyday) but that didn’t stop it surpassing three million Instagram likes on her account, on the first night.
Sontag once said that if homosexuals had not invented camp, someone else would have. Her phrasing is a little gauche to the cultural appropriation sensitivities of 2019, but let’s take her point as being that camp has relevance to anyone who believes in representation of points of view other than the mainstream. At the press conference, Bolton also talked about the intrinsic “generosity” of camp as a visual language that has welcomed outsiders from many different points of the cultural compass. What was refreshing about this Met Gala was that in contrast to the tropes of Victoria’s Secret models “winning” red carpets, this was a celebration of everything fashion can be about beyond being most-shaggable.
Camp is both silly and subtly serious. The Costume Institute’s annual Met Gala, too, is both silly and serious: its seriously extra red carpet has launched a thousand memes, but last year’s Costume Institute show, Heavenly Bodies, became the most-visited exhibition in the history of the Metropolitan Museum, with 1.6 million visitors eclipsing even the 1.3 million who saw the Treasures of Tutankhamun in 1978. This is fashion as art, fashion as entertainment – and fashion as a platform for an alternative perspective. “Camp is often used as a pejorative,” Porter told Vogue. “What I love about having it at the Met Gala, and contextualising camp, is that it brings honour to a word and genre that can very often be discounted.” The camp carpet was undeniably fabulous. And it was also – and this is important – a whole lot of fun.
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