If Charles Ludlam thought Susan Sontag did a number on camp, I can’t imagine what he would have thought witnessing the camp tragedy that occurred on the pink carpet (pink being, apparently, the color of camp) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday. Whew! Mary! It was a camp catastrophe, a camp calamity, a regular old camp cataclysm.
Of course, I’m talking about the Met Gala, celebrating the opening of Camp: Notes on Fashion at the Met’s Costume Institute. The Gala seemed to do nothing but confirm that famous wealthy people and their stylists are completely baffled by the aesthetic term, lost in the wilderness of camp as a style. They fucked up camp royally! So much so that their poor attempt became almost camp in and of itself. And frankly, I could not be happier. Thank you, Mary full of Grace!
If you remember, a few months ago when I learned the stodgy Met was attempting to usurp camp, I clutched my nonexistent pearls and gasped: Were they finally going to ruin camp for all of us? Would it survive this cooptation? Would it endure? In particular, I was concerned that the exhibition would result in a hardening of the term, a creation of a camp canon, so to speak, which would make it less fun and certainly less subversive. One of the best aspects of camp is that it remains a semi-underground language. If you don’t get it, or need a strict definition (This is why all the ill-informed mainstream publications writing primers on camp have all miserably failed, as well), then camp isn’t for you! Try another aesthetic.
Well, if Monday night is any indication, camp is going to be just fine. Camp apparently slipped through Anna Wintour’s fingers like Kim Kardashian’s wet-looking dress. The missteps started just with the décor. Granted, the Met really tried to step out of their crusty Upper East Side shells, mounting giant odes to pink flamingos, which the event planners seemed to decide was the icon of camp. But, to me, other than the film by our preeminent filth elder John Waters, pink flamingoes are tacky kitsch, not camp. Now, if the Met wanted to go all Pink Flamingos, they should have had a performance by the Singing Asshole and served rats on a platter like in Desperate Living.
As shown by all the decidedly not-camp outfits and the general bafflement by camp, camp isn’t quite as easy to perfect as these institutional assimilationists would like. And it’s not for lack of trying. In fact, the try-hards provided some of the most cringe-worthy fashion moments on the pink carpet. Yes, I’m talking about Lady Gaga and her multiple outfits. I’m sorry, baby, but talking on the phone isn’t camp, it’s just insufferable. Gaga reminded me of a drunk bride-to-be at her bachelorette party sucking all of the air out of the room during a drag brunch. She could have even swung from Katy Perry, the chandelier. Her fellow Gala host Harry Styles, in contrast, seemed to do the least, by asserting that a sheer flouncy blouse is camp. Wow, he wore nail polish?! How genderqueer and radical!
There were also some egregious misunderstandings of camp. Words mean things, people! Jared Leto dragging around his own disembodied head like an attention-whoring John the Baptist is uncanny, but it’s not camp. Barbie dolls and Disney princesses aren’t necessarily camp either unless you do like performer Carina Borealis and sing The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World,” while stapling money to your nearly naked body. Chew on that one, Zendaya, who looked like any Cinderella you’d run into at a Disney theme park. And even then, they might be more camp as they got tired of dealing with Disney’s corporate exploitation and became all wild-eyed and surly to eager children. Same goes for Kacey Musgraves’s hot pink Barbie look. The only way Barbie would be camp is if she became a has-been shut-in inhabiting her increasingly deteriorating Barbie Dream House, transforming into a Norma Desmond-like character slinking down the crumbling stairs in an ill-fitting gown ready for her close-up.
Largely, though, the outfits at the Met Gala looked as if the stylists and fashion mavens didn’t even attempt camp out of fear that the celebs might not look conventionally pretty. They panicked–pulling anything pink, fluffy or sparkly off the rack, and hoping it somehow fit the bill. It didn’t. And what was with all the men in dreary black suits? For shame. Even the actors who played Elton John and Freddie Mercury couldn’t turn it up for camp. You’re telling me, Rami, couldn’t put on one of his ridiculous jumpsuits from Bohemian Rhapsody? Frankly, he could have just worn Freddie’s teeth and won the evening.
And in case you’re wondering, I don’t lump Frank Ocean or Kanye West’s “I-woke-up-like-this” jacket-driven outfits into the boring menswear. In their outright refusal to play along, West and Ocean managed to emphasize a decidedly anti-camp stance, looking as if they came from their job patrolling an upscale mall on a Segway. Kanye’s jacket was apparently only a $43 Dickie’s jacket, which is definitely a statement against the evening’s extravagance. In fact, it seems quite camp! In a sea of camp, be anti-camp. It’s certainly better than doing camp 101 like Michael Urie’s yawn-inspiring Victor/Victoria look. It may have been the “right” aesthetic, but it doesn’t make it any more interesting. Camp’s never been about being correct anyway.
Now, admittedly, it’s no surprise these celebrities and their stylists failed. One problem is camp, as Charles Ludlam says, “is rage,” and what do most of these people have to be mad about? Not much! Camp has always been humor wielded as a survival method in the face of a society built against you. And well, most of these folks have nothing to survive and also have no sense of humor! Honestly, if they wanted true camp as rage, someone should have taken the Met and their nauseating donors to task. Make a dress out of Koch Plaza plaques! Wander wasted into the Sackler wing, pop pills and overdose!
Perhaps that notion of camp as a survival tactic for marginalized folks is why the handful of outfits that were actual camp were worn almost exclusively by Black attendees, from Lupita Nyong’o’s Divine-inspired shock of eye makeup and pick-covered hair, to Tiffany Haddish’s wonderfully and outlandishly trashy striped pimp suit that looked like something right out of Katt Williams’s closet, to perhaps the closest to historical camp–Danai Gurira’s dapper Oscar Wilde-influenced look.
And of course, the King of Camp and the Belle of the Ball was Billy Porter. Was there ever any competition really? Give Billy the opportunity to make an entrance and he will, as we saw in his awe-inspiring gown at the Oscars. And he didn’t disappoint being carried in like Cleopatra in a bodysuit by a throng of shirtless hunks in gold shorts. I started whispering Amanda Lear’s “Gold” to myself out of pure reverence.
However, I’d argue that Billy mastered camp, not by just wearing the right gilded outfit, but by being camp himself. Camp isn’t a costume that can be worn for a night, and then removed. You don’t dress up as camp; you are camp. Camp isn’t fashion, it’s a (life)style. It has more to do with embodiment and attitude than simply wardrobe choices. This is why the most camp couple seemed to be Kim Kardashian and Kanye West because they themselves are camp. From Kanye’s recent turn as Jim Jones in Yeezys to Kim’s exaggerated body in that dripping Mugler dress like a bionic woman dragged out of a river, they just had to exist and they represented the theme.
Now, this speaks to the possibility that part of the problem with the Met’s (bad) camp was the guest list. Why were some of these people there? There’s nothing camp about Emma Roberts. And some of the people who could possibly have rocked camp in the past biffed it. I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus. How did the same woman who made a five-foot art bong out of tchotchkes like someone who went on a bender inside Party City just decide to wear a sparkly cocktail dress? I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. Similarly, some of the outfits that could have been camp would have been better suited for campier personalities. Lily Collins in her Priscilla Presley dress was a snooze, but worn by Lana Del Rey, who has already drawn on Priscilla’s aesthetic earlier in her career? Transcendent. Not that Lana could be bothered to stop going on picnics with her rich white lady influencer friends in LA to even think about attending the Met Gala.
Let’s be honest, the guests should have primarily been drag queens (ok, ones that weren’t going to wear Dita Von Teese cosplay like Violet Chachki), drag kings, professional wrestler, has-been reality television stars, and filth elders. I mean, where was Tiffany Pollard? Where were all the living Dreamlanders? Where was Azealia Banks roaming the red carpet with a megaphone, selling her butthole-bleaching Bussy Boy soap? And where were Elon Musk and Grimes, my favorite couple who shined bright at last year’s Gala looking like the Goth couple sniffing glue behind your high school’s dumpster?
And if we really want to honor the stars of camp in 2019, the entire Trump administration should have been invited. Sarah Huckabee Sanders could be stomping down the carpet looking like a pissed-off toad, while Kellyanne waltzes by in her pinup fur coat. I want to know what gown Grand Dame Lindsey Graham would wear as he hysterically shouts at the other attendees!
But ultimately, besides the mishandled guest list, the Met’s grand camp mistake is thrilling. Camp isn’t just an expensive gown that looks ridiculous. While camp, of course, has upper class, royal roots, with Mark Booth placing its origins at Versailles (though it also thrives in the gutter), you can’t merely buy camp in order to co-opt it.
What has always protected camp as a coded language is its amorphousness and indefinability, the effects of this ever-changing definition of camp were thoroughly on display at the Met in the celebrity confusion over its meaning. In Esther Newton’s Mother Camp, an ethnography of drag queens and a study of camp that isn’t by Sontag (please expand your reading list, people!), she explores how camp’s evolving flexibility and fluidity has always been its strength. She writes, “Informants stressed that even between individuals there is very little agreement on what is camp because camp is in the eye of the beholder, that is, different homosexuals like different things, and because of the spontaneity and individuality of camp, camp taste is always changing. This has been the advantage, recognized by some informants, that a clear division can always be maintained between homosexual and ‘straight’ taste.” What is camp today may not be camp tomorrow, and we can change it to avoid anyone who would want to assimilate.
Not only did the Met’s failure to be camp reveal how camp’s radicality isn’t completely donzo, but it also proves un-camp party pooper Jack Halberstam wrong when he asserted that camp has completely lost its edge in a recent discussion on camp in The New York Times (Was nobody else available?). Jack said, “At the point that it becomes a show at the Met sponsored by Gucci, let’s be clear that we are not in open rebellion. At that point, whoever defines themselves as camp has entered the mainstream with a flourish.” Instead, the Met Gala showed how the mainstream desperately wants to declare themselves as camp, but they can’t. As Newton continues, “An informant said Susan Sontag was wrong about camp’s being a cult, and the moment it becomes a cult, you watch the queens stop it. Because if it becomes the squares, it doesn’t belong to them anymore. And what will be ‘camp art,’ no queen will own.” Suck it, squares! You can’t have our camp!