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what the met gala's celeb guests need to get right about camp

In 2019, where every look is going to be dissected across social media, the celebrities who can usually skate by in a tasteful black dress with a tokenistic nod to the theme aren’t going to cut it.

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02 May 2019, 8:00am

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When the theme of camp for the Met Gala was announced back in October, the response could be described as a mix of excitement and puzzlement. Where in previous years exhibition themes have erred towards the literal -- 2018’s deep dive into the Catholic imagination, or 2015’s examination of the cross-cultural dialogue between China and the west -- the arcane notion of camp is defined by its very indefinability, with countless column inches required simply to explain what the exhibition was even about.

Much of the confusion stems from camp’s most famous celebrant, Susan Sontag, whose 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” sits as the exhibition’s central touchstone: the problem being that Sontag’s 58 tenets for what constitutes camp are full of complexities and contradictions. In Sontag’s world, camp lies somewhere between the “not necessarily bad” and that which is “too good to be Camp”; while at the same time representing something that is “good because it’s awful”. Camp is a “sensibility” but also an “aesthetic experience of the world”, a “mode of enjoyment” and a “kind of love...for human nature”. “To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it,” Sontag says loftily at the beginning of her text -- the winking high-mindedness of her writing being a deliciously camp conceit in itself.

Whether celebrating the history of punk or dissecting the influence of a fashion titan like Rei Kawakubo, previous exhibitions could be more easily united under a single aesthetic umbrella. Camp, on the other hand, contains multitudes: in the popular consciousness, it’s understood as an expression of flamboyance and fabulousness, but in truth it’s more of an attitude or a philosophy. Camp is exaggeration, irony, affectation and pastiche: everything from Virgil Abloh’s Off-White air quotes to the deconstructed tulle frocks of Viktor & Rolf can be argued as sitting under its rubric. Imagine, then, the head-scratching going on behind the scenes as the teams of stylists prepare their A-list clients to walk the red carpet at the Met Gala, the exhibition’s starry opening night, next Monday.

Here’s the rub: while the curators have undoubtedly spent months and years poring over the various definitions of camp and the chapters in its history that extend all the way back to the court of Versailles, I’m not sure celebrities are used to getting dressed for a red carpet steeped in something quite this academic. Of course, you can stick a few feathers and rhinestones on a gown and call it camp: but in 2019, where every look is going to be dissected across social media, the celebrities who can usually skate by in a tasteful black dress with a tokenistic nod to the theme aren’t going to cut it this year. If there’s one rule that could sum up how to do camp on the red carpet, it’s go big or go home.

Even more worryingly, unlike most red carpets where the aim is to look as good as possible, dressing in the camp mode is about forgoing vanity -- a concept we imagine is foreign to many Met Gala attendees. If you were forced to pick out one of the more common threads that run through Sontag’s text, it could be her notion of a “failed seriousness”: a kind of naive attempt to create a work of utter grandeur that ends up being gloriously absurd. It’s not as if the kind of celebrities attending the Met Gala don’t do this already -- just look at all of the memes produced every year in the event’s wake parodying the extreme outfits -- but whether they’re willing to consciously commit to going overboard to the point of potential embarrassment is another matter entirely.

There are some shining examples to look to: most obviously, one of the event’s co-chairs, Lady Gaga, who is arguably our most famous flag bearer for camp today, from her Jean-Charles de Castelbajac Kermit the Frog coat, to the time she arrived at the Grammys in 2011 in a giant Hussein Chalayan egg, which hatched on stage, of course. The utmost seriousness with which Gaga approaches these bonkers moments is the perfect expression of Sontag’s insistence that the greatest works of camp are those which are produced naively; even if Gaga is aware of the ridiculousness of all her bombast, she’d never admit it.

There’s also the tricky fact of camp’s intimate and symbiotic relationship with queerness: its ultimate paragon is Oscar Wilde, and the inheritors of its spirit today are figures like Elton John and RuPaul (whose Vogue feature this month makes him a shoo-in to show up on the red carpet next week). At a time when outward displays of queerness were policed and punished, underground clubs provided a safe haven for expressions of camp, from 80s ball culture to the 90s club kids of Downtown Manhattan, and its most memorable manifestations in the realm of high fashion have trickled up from these countercultural scenes. To do a half-assed job is to offend the marginalised people from whom the entire theme originated.

The celebrities attending the Met Gala need to offend, but in a very different way: to offend my eyes. I want them to pull out all the stops and deliver a garish carnival that will do camp’s progenitors proud. I want to see Harry Styles arriving in a Swarovski-encrusted Gucci gown with a ten-metre long train. I want Jay-Z in drag as Beyoncé, and vice versa. I want Rihanna arriving in a sedan chair, wearing full Louis XIV finery and carried by footmen with pompadour wigs. I want Anna Wintour in a Leigh Bowery-style latex gimp mask.

“I am strongly drawn to Camp,” writes Sontag at the beginning of her essay, “and almost as strongly offended by it.” If the celebrities and stylists are able to grasp the theme and be brave enough to embrace it, come Monday, we could be in for the most thrilling red carpet of all time. To those on the guest list -- all of whom I imagine are all reading this, of course -- don’t let me down.