What Does This Year’s Met Gala Theme Really Mean?

With a history of controversy, the Met Gala’s theme sets the tone for the red carpet. Vic Parsons explores what Camp: Notes on Fashion means for 2019

katy perry rihanna met gala camp

by Grazia |

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance,” wrote Susan Sontag in her seminal 1964 essay, Notes on “Camp”. “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.”

Sontag’s essay is the inspiration for this year’s Met Gala theme, Camp: Notes on Fashion, which could give us the most outrageous and over-the-top red carpet yet – though even Rihanna might struggle to wear three million feathers.

The Met Gala, held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the grand opening of the annual fashion exhibition at the Met Museum’s Costume Institute. It’s one of the biggest fashion fundraisers of the year, and the theme is the starting point for the red-carpet look of those on the exclusive guest list. Last year, the event courted controversy with Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, as the theme’s exploration of the relationship between fashion and Catholicism came at a time when the Catholic Church was in the spotlight for child sex-abuse scandals. And it wasn’t the first time that the Met Gala’s theme has provoked tension: China: Through the Looking Glass, in 2015, was criticised for condensing a diverse culture into some offensive stereotypes, seen on the red carpet through a proliferation of dragons, chopsticks, braids and kimonos. Rihanna was one of the few people actually dressed by a Chinese designer – she won the red carpet with Guo Pei’s infamous canary-yellow creation, which subsequently inspired thousands of memes.

rihanna met gala 2015 dress
Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015 wearing a dress designed by Guo Pei

When Sontag’s essay was first published, some in the LGBTQ+ community were critical. It was 1964, before the modern gay-rights movement began – pre-Stonewall uprising, when homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder and long before equal marriage was recognised in the UK – and the relationship between camp and marginalised LGBTQ+ people was such that bringing it to public attention and making it mainstream felt, to some, like a violation. Arguably, it doesn’t get more public and mainstream than the Met Gala. So, with camp and queerness being so intrinsically linked, will this year’s theme be as controversial as the last?

Harris Reed, the queer designer-turned-model who started attracting attention last year for collaborating with Harry Styles, and who recently walked for Gucci’s 2019 Cruise show, doesn’t think so. “I think the theme this year, and the people hosting [of which Styles is one], is really going to make a big and impactful change for the LGBTQIA community,” he says.

“This year’s theme could not be more relevant, it could not be more important, at a time when we have people like Donald Trump banishing transgender individuals from the US military, when you have the Sultan of Brunei now legally allowing LGBTQIA people to be stoned to death.”

Sontag wrote that “homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard -- and the most articulate audience -- of Camp”. And it is the way the Met Gala will highlight this relationship that Reed says is so important.

“Camp is a really deep word and I think that’s amazing, because anything that has that kind of subtext to it, that is so multifaceted, can really open people up to have a conversation – what is this year’s theme? What is camp? What is camp culture? Where did this come from? I think camp is a great window to open people up to queerness and queer culture and what that stands for,” he says.

While the Met Gala is one night only, the Costume Institute’s exhibition will run all summer. It follows the evolution of the camp aesthetic from queer subculture to important influence on mainstream culture. The exhibition will feature 175 objects and will open with the 17th-century court of Versailles positioned as a “camp Eden”, looking at the concept of se camper, or “to posture boldly”, in the royal courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV.

William Dill-Russell – a designer who cites queer history as an inspiration and who used Fanny and Stella, two 18th-century crossdressers, as inspiration for their first collection – has three garments in the exhibition.

“As a queer designer who identifies as non-binary, it is seemingly rare to have such incredible opportunities gifted to you,” they say. “To then also be representing a part of the exhibition that reflects on the history of campness and queer culture is such an honour.”

This year’s theme presents an opportunity, too: “I’d love to see people really explore the history of camp and queer pioneers, and if that means them wearing an homage to someone – then great! There are so many incredible people who have paved paths, not just for queer folk, but also for creatives. So it would be interesting to see who relates to certain historical figures and stories.”

“It’s obviously also very important to show how valid LGBTQ+ identities and history are in a world where LGBTQ+ individuals are still being marginalised by governments and bigoted people.”

Camp, Sontag wrote, is the “attempt to do something extraordinary”. And, if it succeeds in having fun while giving a platform to queer designers and showcasing queer history, it looks like this year’s Met Gala could be on to a winner. Camp is joyous, generous and glamorous – a fitting theme for fashion’s biggest fundraiser. The 700-strong guestlist is, though, a closely kept secret – the big names attending will be revealed on Monday’s red carpet, along with their outfits.

“I would, however, love it if Cher attended. Vintage Bob Mackie?!” says Dill-Russell. Amen to that

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Amal Clooney

Gala co-chair Amal Clooney was one of the first to arrive, wearing a rose print design by Richard Quinn (whose LFW show was recently attended by none other than Her Majesty the Queen, FYI)

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