The joy of camp: Decoding the next Met Gala theme

Posted by
Moya Lothian-McLean

Next year’s Met Gala will be inspired by Notes on Camp, a landmark essay by Susan Sontag. But what will that actually mean for the outfits?

Outside of the various fashion weeks and Oscars season, the Met Gala – the annual fundraising party for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – is one of the biggest events on the cross-cultural calendar. Chaired by Vogue doyenne Anna Wintour since 1995 and beloved by fashion aficionados and celebrity watchers alike, the ball has achieved the status of a full-blown social media event.

On the first Monday in May, everyone gathers around their phones and laptops to see how the stars will attempt to tackle Wintour’s famously tricky themes. Who will take it seriously? Who will pull it off? Who will ignore both theme and fashion in favour of a plain slip dress? The answers to the first two of those questions, at least, is almost always ‘Rihanna’.

Rihanna arrives at the 2018 Met Gala.

And the 2019 Met Gala looks set to be even bigger and better than previous years’. Announced on 9 October, the theme – which will also form the basis of a year-long exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – is inspired by Notes on Camp, a seminal 1964 essay by writer Susan Sontag.

The announcement has sent those familiar with Sontag’s work into paroxysms of glee, boosted further by the news of Wintour’s four celebrity co-chairs for 2019: Serena Williams, Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Alessandro Michele, creative director at Gucci.

But why has this particular theme drummed up so much anticipation? No fear: we’ve broken it all down below. Hold onto your feather boas…

What was Notes on Camp?

In short: a big bloody deal.

In long: a 1964 essay penned by Susan Sontag for the Partisan Review, a cultural commentary magazine. The piece dealt with the idea of ‘camp’ – explained through 58 separate points – which Sontag defined as an aesthetic sensibility made distinct by its ‘love of the unnatural’.

She was the first person to describe and systematically explain the ideas that make up the concept of ‘camp’ as we recognise the word today: a style of outlandishly exaggerated expression that brings together highbrow and pop culture. Sontag’s essay – and the subsequent plaudits it received – dragged camp kicking and kiki-ing from being an unspecified understanding of expression that existed within queer cultures, to a flamboyant way of living we celebrate today. 

Who was Susan Sontag?

Susan Sontag was one of the most influential essayists of the 20th century. 

An extremely influential essayist and critic whose work focused on culture and the interpretation of it. She was born in 1933, died in 2004 and in between those two bookends, established herself as one of the foremost thinkers of the modern era. If you’re looking to introduce yourself to Sontag, start with Camp, then mosey onto 1966’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays

What sort of outfits can we expect to see from the theme?  

Vanessa Paradis wearing Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s Snoopy Coat backstage at the 1989 runway show

Outlandish ones. Camp is all about reveling in the ostentatious, frivolous and absurd. Yes, RuPaul’s Drag Race is camp but so is Donald Trump, an individual cited as a figure of “political camp” by Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, where the gala and exhibition alike will be held.

“We are going through an extreme camp moment, and it felt very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures,” Bolton said in a New York Times interview.

“Whether it’s pop camp, queer camp, high camp or political camp — Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely.”

Camp is all about exaggeration and overblown sensibilities. Think a 1989 Jean-Charles de Castelbajac coat made from stuffed Snoopy toys, the sister of a piece that will appear in the final exhibit. Or a superhero costume decked entirely in sequins. This is camp. And this is what the celebrities will be wearing. Well… at least the ones who stick to the theme.

Images: Getty 


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is Stylist’s editorial assistant where she spends her time inventing ways to shoehorn Robbie Williams into pieces. A reoffending dancefloor menace, a weekend finds her taking up too much space at disco nights around the city and subsequently recovering with dark sunglasses and late brunch the next day. 

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