A nuclear green alien robot baby with his daddy’s matching lime-green hair. A morph suit dress that resembles a cross between the eponymous character from Alien and Charlie’s Green Man from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A Balenciaga sleeping bag that could be mistaken for Mugatu’s Derelicte line from Zoolander. The blanket from Roseanne‘s sofa. A horse-faced bodice. A sparkly purple crop-top and high-cut skirt, with a feathery matching purple jacket, that looks straight out of Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Wait a second…*checks notes*…What was the theme of this year’s 2021 Met Gala again? In America: A Lexicon of Fashion? You could have fooled me! With a parade of exaggerated, deranged, and ridiculous outfits plastered on actors and actresses, musicians, sports figures, and politicians that seemed to fit any number of themes (absurd being one of them), I could have sworn this was the Camp gala. What year is it?
If you will recall, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, the 2019 Met Gala, held in conjunction with the Costume Institute’s decidedly humorless exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion, displayed a blatant misunderstanding of our favorite aesthetic. At the time, I wrote in praise of its failure on the red carpet. If celebrities and high-end designers can’t figure out camp, or at the very least fork over enough money to someone who does in order to achieve an acceptable facsimile, then there must be something still inherently subversive in it, right? Right?!!
Well, this year I was proved wrong. Turns out that money can buy you camp. However, it may not always be intentional. That’s okay. Unintentional camp is camp too, according to Susan Sontag’s seminal “Notes on Camp.” In “Notes on Camp,” Sontag makes the distinction between “naïve and deliberate Camp.” Granted, Sontag, who is not always correct on all things camp (I mean, should we have to even bring up the Tiffany lamps again?), stumbles when she asserts: “Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (camping) is usually less satisfying.” Not exactly. In fact, some of the most successful outfits at this year’s Met Gala seemed to be exactly that—deliberate Camp.
Naturally, we have to start with transgression’s current Lord and Savior Lil Nas X who emerged in a royal gold Versace floor-length cape fit for a Shakespearean monarch. As if that weren’t enough to cement his status as the reigning king of camp, Lil Nas X stripped off the cloak to reveal a suit of similarly golden armor, resembling C3PO—only to take that off again to expose a jumpsuit that straddled the line between the ornate print of a matador costume and the sleazy “Viva Las Vegas” decadence of one of Elvis’s most garish and gaudy jumpsuits. Swoon. We’ve seen costume changes on the Met Gala’s carpet before, most notably Lady Gaga’s prop-reliant foursome at the 2019 Met Gala. However, Lil Nas X’s switcheroo is much more in line with camp’s, as Sontag articulated, “spirit of extravagance,” than Gaga’s overwrought and hammy hot pink telephone call.
This isn’t to say all props are camp duds. Our role model Grimes, otherwise known as c, was unquestionably the best dressed of 5021’s Met Gala in her Dune-inspired outfit. The singer, who boasted in an associated video produced by Vogue that she “wants to die on Mars,” stalked around like an ethereal yet frightening extraterrestrial in an ornate liquid silicone and silk Iris van Herpen gown. However, it was her accessories that really allowed the entire get-up to ascend into space. Grimes was the only attendee of the pandemic-era event that I spotted wearing a mask, albeit an alarming metal one, as well as the only invitee who seemed to be wielding a weapon! Clutched by her fingernails that were adorned with small orbs like alien eggs, she gripped not only a mysterious illuminated book but a strikingly large sword. While c told ET that the sword was made from “fermented guns” (huh?), it was created by MSCHF out of a melted AR-15 rifle, part of a gun buyback project “Gun2Swords.” Sign me up!
Though walking a snooty, exclusive event with an enormous and deadly weapon is undeniably camp, it is also 2021 theme-appropriate. I mean, what could say In America more than open carrying in a museum for no apparent reason? The only thing that would have been better—and more patriotic—is if she had used it!
Speaking of Americana, the attendee who understood this year’s theme the most was sneering cooler-than-cool Downtown diva Debbie Harry who transformed into a drag queen-like Ms. America courtesy of Zac Posen. Both unattainably glamorous and punk, a complex combination that Harry has consistently nailed throughout her career, Harry’s outfit began with a tight denim jacket as a bodice. Given the Americana theme, this wasn’t, of course, the only denim in the room, which included Lupita Nyong’o’s form-fitting denim dress, overshadowed only by her Simone Leigh-inspired hair.
Harry’s denim jacket flowed into a destroyed hoop skirt, wrapped in deteriorating red and white stripes, that looked like it just came out of the Revolutionary War. You can almost see the musket burns. Unraveling into ribbons, the stripes of the American flag descend into ripped tatters behind her. Harry’s dress perfectly embodies the embattled and doomed mess that is America’s present. Ideally anyway. We should all be so lucky to be dragged all over the dirty carpet (seriously, look closely at that photograph) behind Harry! Perhaps the only outfit America deserves more is simply a Q T-shirt, or better yet, maybe this googly-eyed raccoon(?) cap:
— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) September 18, 2021
While there were other showstoppers worth mentioning such as Iman’s eye-popping Vegas showgirl number by Harris Reed with Dolce and Gabbana, I want to switch gears to talk about the other kind of camp that pervaded the Met Gala: naïve camp. In contrast to deliberate camp, naïve camp, according to Sontag, is marked by its attempted seriousness. As Sontag explains, “In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.” This failed seriousness was present in abundance at the 2021 Met Gala, most notably on outfits that were attempting some type of “radical” or “activist” political statement.
The first indication of this particular naïve camp aesthetic was the appearance of Congressional representative Carolyn B. Maloney who looks as if she stole an archive of protest banners in which to drape herself in order to celebrate the Equal Rights Amendment. With a corresponding handbag that read “ERA yes,” this technicolor try-hard made me yearn for the days of Phyllis Schlafly! Wasn’t there a way to give a nod to the suffragettes that is easier on the eyes?
My revulsion at this cringe-inducingly sincere visual violation was quickly forgotten after Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy arrived in yet another abomination by LOEWE’s Jonathan Anderson that willfully misrepresents the artistic output of David Wojnarowicz. With puffy sleeves that look as if he wrapped himself in a globe-printed fitted sheet over a polo shirt (the travesty!) and matching geography class pants, Levy’s ensemble features a central patch of two men kissing, with their bodies made out of a map. The image of two men kissing traverses a few of Wojnarowicz’s works, including a heartrending sketch on artist Peter Hujar’s AIDS diagnosis letter. The painting that is most associated with this imagery, though, is the eye-poppingly titled Fuck You Faggot Fucker, named for a found homophobic drawing scrawled on a scrap piece of paper that is embedded into the work.
At a quick glance, all this would be bad enough. But looking closer, Levy also carries a small clutch emblazoned with Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One Day This Kid…), which presents a charmingly buck-toothed childhood photograph of Wojnarowicz with a poetic evocation of the homophobia that this kid will face simply due to his desire “to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy.” For instance, Wojarowicz writes, “One day this kid will do something that causes men who wear the uniforms of priests and rabbis, men who inhabit certain stone buildings, to call for his death. One day politicians will enact legislation against this kid. One day families will give false information to their children and each child will pass that information down generationally to their families and that information will be designed to make existence intolerable for this kid.” Perfect accessory material, huh?
This isn’t the first time that Jonathan Anderson has coopted Wojnarowicz’s work. This isn’t even the first time I’ve complained about it! If you’ll remember, his JW Anderson pre-Fall 2020 collection included a nearly $1000 sweater emblazoned with Wojnarowicz’s burning house stencil and an uncanny runway show that included mannequins wearing Arthur Rimbaud masks like the one Brian Butterick and others sported while collaborating with Wojnarowicz on his Arthur Rimbaud in New York photographic series. Because of this, I don’t feel as if I need to rehash every argument I’ve used against bringing an artist who decidedly hated rich people into high fashion and the absolute amoral delinquency of an estate, held by a commercial gallery, that would approve such usage of his work. It makes me tired. And I’m sure you get it.
There is, though, something even more garish about dragging an image of David as a child around on a bag. Sure, Untitled (One Day This Kid…) has circulated in the past, often connected to the It Gets Better Project’s anti-bullying campaign. Yet, that doesn’t seem quite the same as using David’s incisive indictment of a homophobic society as a means to cozy up to radical queer politics. And I think we can certainly understand Levy’s part in this context with a glance at his unintentionally hysterical pouty, oh-so-serious face in the corresponding photographs. If he was going for David’s rage, he came off looking like a constipated toddler.
And look, I won’t fault Levy entirely for feeling like he was doing something important by showcasing David’s work to a wider audience or as he wrote on Instagram, celebrating “queer love and visibility.” But, he may have wanted to spell David’s name correctly in his gushing Instagram post, which, in turn, inspired countless publications to write about “David Wojnarovicz,” including Today, Out Magazine, and CBS News. Come on, people.
For their part, PPOW Gallery, which controls David’s Estate, is downright giddy about the opportunity, as is Visual AIDS which received a hefty donation from LOEWE in conjunction with the gala. Unsurprisingly. What is shocking, however, is that PPOW’s glee translated into an Instagram post with the caption: “This is for the faggot fuckers out there.” Excuse me? Just as I can’t imagine David calling anyone a “faggot fucker” on social media had he survived, I also can’t imagine he, as someone who existed as a near-perpetual outsider for his life and career, would have been thrilled to have the legacy son of a famous actor who stars in Citi credit card commercials sporting his work in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Despite the risk of a rage-induced stroke, if you set aside the anger and nausea, it’s hard to not chuckle at the entire get-up’s sheer ridiculousness, from the heinous aesthetics of the fluffy shoulders to the shitkicker boots stuffed with flowers in their laces to the vacuous utilization of Wojnarowicz’s work. In particular, the outfit fails at its attempted seriousness and sincerity, leaving it a hilarious example of the desperation of actors, fashion designers, and other celebrities to seem relevant politically and artistically, as well as an art world that would sell out an artist to the highest bidder to cozy up to that level of fame. It is, as Philip Core states of camp, “the lie that tells the truth.”
Said another way, Levy’s outfit is an example of, what I would call, bad progressive camp. In filmmaker Bruce LaBruce’s “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” LaBruce argues that because camp has become so prevalent in our culture, we need a new understanding of camp to include “a variety of subcategories.” He writes, “Sontag’s camp manifesto of camp was published almost fifty years ago, and it’s clear that it is no longer adequate to lump together all styles and modes of camp. Distinctions must be made, and the evolution or devolution of the sensibility, its movement through (accelerated) history, must be taken into consideration.” In response, LaBruce poses categories of camp such as bad straight camp, bad gay camp, liberal camp, conservative camp, reactionary camp, and more with relevant examples related to each one.
Much of the last five years, ever since Trump and his tacky aesthetic brethren came to power, have been marked by the domination of conservative camp, which is certainly not going anywhere if Marjorie Taylor Greene’s gun-toting, explosive ad is any indication. Rapidly red-pilled Nicki Minaj, with her days-long testicular anti-vax Twitter commentary, including insults lobbed at Joy Reid and praise heaped on Tucker Carlson like the new Candace Owens, should probably be understood as an emerging star of conservative camp as well. But, on the other side of the aisle, an alternate camp aesthetic has appeared and while I’ve largely ignored it because it’s frankly just not as fun, it’s nonetheless visible and on the rise in our culture.
Particularly after last year’s protests in response to George Floyd’s murder, many on the left, from anonymous and verified Twitter users alike to, strangely enough, major corporations, have been bent on seeming like, or at least branding themselves as, the most radical in the room, typically by trying to figure out how to look as if they’re doing the most by really doing the least to assuage some sort of sneaking suspicion that they aren’t a “good” person. Working to change pervasive systemic social problems is not only difficult but time-consuming and slow-moving. It’s also certainly not at all glitzy or showy. Who wants that?! Instead, what has developed is a fetishized aesthetic of progressive radicality that is almost entirely devoid of real meaning or action, aimed at quelling any sort of doubt, either from the outside or the self, that you aren’t, in fact, all that revolutionary. Now, why is this camp? To me, it is such an exaggerated, not to mention amusing, form of artifice that it can’t be understood as anything else. All style, no substance.
What is bad progressive camp? Organizations posting pages-long jargon-filled accountability documents to social media and their website after minor transgressions (try not to laugh when reading one). A CBS reality show, The Activist (Why-oh why-are they retooling it?). Mash-up videos of celebrities singing “Imagine” or taking responsibility for white supremacy. People claiming to be anti-capitalist while sending you their Venmo handle or asking you to subscribe to their Patreon. Corporate diversity seminars, like the ones that birthed public figures such as White Fragility’s Robin DiAngelo, that ask white women to leave the room to cry (I mean…hilarious). Anti-Rainbow Capitalism T-shirts. Anything unironically using the word “woke,” such as a library shelf full of suggestions to “Read woke” or the children’s book Woke Baby. All the free-thinkers on social media posting the same viral Leftist memes at the same time while using widely acknowledged predatory tech companies to do so. David Wojnarowicz branded Met Gala fashions. A dress at the Met Gala reading “Tax the Rich.”
Yes, we’re going there.
Of course, many (too many) think pieces have been published on the subject of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress, designed by Aurora James, contextualizing it either as a finger in the eye of those wealthy Met Gala attendees or vilifying her as a hypocritical sellout for even daring to attend. As always in these dogged partisan battles, neither side seems particularly correct or grounded in reality. AOC’s appearance at the Gala isn’t wrong per se—she’s a public figure and a New York politician. However, doing so while attempting to make some over-the-top statement is nothing but stylish theater aka bad progressive camp.
The biggest issue with AOC’s dress is that it’s comically hideous, resembling a cheap Midwestern David’s Bridal gown, which admittedly does fully fit with the In America theme. With its vibrant red lettering on a stark white dress, the gown unavoidably suggests comparisons to a Chick-fil-A bag. I don’t think homophobic chicken is what she or Aurora James were going for. However, I probably would have liked the dress much more if it had said: “Eat Mor Chikin.” Or if she went with this political statement:
Dream Pink Flamingos dresses aside (I want one that says “Kill Everyone Now!”), AOC’s dress achieves the exact same aesthetic goals as all bad progressive camp, which is nothing, other than making the people who uphold the status quo feel better about themselves. Now, I believe AOC when she says she and James thought hard about how to bring a critique to the event. As she explains it: “We really started having a conversation about what it means to be working-class women of color at the Met, and we said, ‘We can’t just play along, but we need to break the fourth wall and challenge some of the institutions’…And while the Met is known for its spectacle, we should have a conversation about it.”
The problem that AOC and James bumped up against is that this bad progressive camp aesthetic is so dominant that we’re barely able to think up other ways of challenging institutions. There is, of course, going so far to be thrown out of them entirely, which is what I would suggest, but that doesn’t get you more invites or reelected to office. Because the truth is, wealthy people eat this aesthetic up! It’s not as if a dress suggesting higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans offends the largely Democratic population of invitees at the Met Gala. Instead, they can take selfies with AOC to look like “ethical” people while feeling safe in the knowledge that the plodding stalemate in Congress will never pass any significant sweeping policy change.
Ultimately, it boils down to the fallacy of critiquing institutions from the inside, which, we should know by now, simply doesn’t work. You can’t exhibit “radical” art in an institution funded by Jeffrey Epstein BFFs and Mar-A-Lago members and expect to enact change, just as you can’t advocate for tax reform via a dress while strolling through the Koch Plaza.
What can you do? Well, perhaps it’s turning away from aesthetics for a just moment—the horror, I know!—and focusing on smaller incremental changes. For instance, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton purchased a table at the Met Gala and invited a group of three emerging Black designers–Kenneth Nicholson, Theophilio, and Jason Rembert– to join him. As he told W, “It’s important to me to uplift and celebrate Black people and our culture and with the year’s Met theme, I thought it was a great way to further express this.” To me, this provides a stark juxtaposition with so much of the purely superficial activism on display, by giving up-and-coming Black designers an opportunity and a seat at the table, quite literally.
Or if all else fails and that seems like too much of a downer to not be the center of attention, say, “Fuck it,” and go full Cara Delevingne. Steal an artist’s “Peg the Patriarchy” slogan, plaster it on a bullet-proof vest, and sit back with a drink and wait for the overeducated masses on Twitter to analyze it in terms of rape culture, homophobia, transphobia, and countless other crimes of bad taste. What could be more fun, or camp, for that matter?