After a few years of easy-to-interpret themes—China, Catholicism, robots—the Met Gala went for something a bit more slippery in 2019: camp. Made famous by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” the winking, over-the-top sensibility has a strong valence in queer art-making but is notoriously hard to pin down, much less sew into a dress. This week, just about every news outlet that does fashion criticism published some version of a “What Is Camp?” blog post, gunning for that sweet, sweet heterosexual search traffic.
Accordingly, during Monday night’s gala, Twitter was abuzz with people signaling that they can, in fact, recognize camp when they see it. But trying to classify the gala attendees’ looks as camp, non-camp, failed camp, or unintentionally camp quickly became tiresome. For one thing, most celebrities are both too un-self-aware and too aware of their own beauty to ever successfully pull off camp. And anyway, policing the adherence of a crowd of mostly straight people to a theme grounded in queer culture is a surefire way to ruin the fun of a bunch of truly phenomenal outfits.
It turned out that the elusive nature of the theme gave gala attendees license to try out garments that were even more outlandish, colorful, and deeply weird than the stuff they’d wear to the Met Gala any other year. There were a few repeating motifs on the pink carpet: feathers, headdresses, asymmetry, text, elaborate beading. Many drew inspiration from the conventions of drag. But the looks were far less predictable than those of any recent year, which made the whole scene a lot more entertaining.
Cardi B and Lady Gaga both showed up in dresses with trains that covered the entire staircase—a Met Gala go-to for the biggest stars. Cardi was dressed as a giant, quilted menstrual clot, and it absolutely worked. Gaga traveled with an entourage of several suited attendants with umbrellas, who peeled off the first three of her four outfits—four! nested inside each other!—one by one, with studied choreography. She transformed into a different character with each one, miming modesty as she became increasingly unclothed.
Billy Porter made even more of an entrance, covered entirely in gold beading and carried aloft by a team of topless, gold-clad aides. When he dismounted, he revealed a set of wings, which he wielded with grace and sensuality—an angelic and extraordinarily gay performance that would have been just as suited for last year’s “Heavenly Bodies” theme.
The first truly camp moment of the evening came from host committee member Serena Williams, who wore Nike sneakers with a zip-tied tag still attached. Her ostentatious commitment to repping the brand that pays her in her sports life plus the nod to the capitalist underpinnings of the whole thing was a subtly brilliant take on the theme.
Many others went bigger. Kacey Musgraves did a full head-to-toe Moschino Barbie look, complete with a pink hair dryer for a purse. Bee Carrozzini trailed her very own red carpet along the pink carpet. Nichapat Suphap’s rainbow confection made a parody of itself. The little bits of labia poking out of Amber Valletta’s bodysuit could star in their own John Waters film. And the Hilfigers, who already verge on WASP camp in their everyday lives, decided to kick their American flag shtick up to ice-dancing level.
My favorite looks of the night appeared to make a mockery of the human form. Bella Hadid’s hipbone, chintzy jewels, and devious stare were very Death Becomes Her. Caroline Trentini dressed her bag of bones in a cleaner and glitzier bag of bones. As usual, Kim Kardashian West looked like an alien’s caricature of a female body. When paired with her exaggerated proportions, the jewels dripping off her body had an uncanny effect, creating something just short of an optical illusion. Ezra Miller took a similar tack with makeup—their face was painted with several eyes, making it look as if viewed through a prism—for one of the gala’s most striking ensembles. A removable plainfaced mask and hot-rollered hair hit on the performative aspects of camp.
There were a few other truly inspired full-on costumes: Tessa Thompson’s prairie girl dominatrix, complete with a braid-turned-whip; Celine Dion, the Vegas showgirl, dressed as a Vegas showgirl; Natasha Lyonne, looking like the leader of an outer-space color guard; Janelle Monae in a hat hat and blinking boob; Gigi Hadid in heavy metals with a delicate husk of a glove.
And then there were the delightful details, in which the best camp often resides. There was Kris Jenner, who wore a blond wig for no apparent aesthetic or symbolic purpose. There was Hamish Bowles’ exaggerated basting stitch and Jared Leto’s mock-up of his own head. If there is any justice in this world, Priyanka Chopra’s caged bodice was an intentional tribute to Cher. And I’m pretty sure the reflection of G-d herself is visible in the little metal crescent glued to Laverne Cox’s lower lip.
Rami Malek and Taron Egerton deserve a bit of side eye for arriving in studiously masculine dress wear after most recently starring in biopics of two of the most flamboyant male pop stars of all time: Freddie Mercury and Elton John, respectively. Still, I don’t hate the sparkles.
Lena Waithe always prefers a firm nudge to a knowing wink—at last year’s Catholic-themed gala, she showed up wearing a Pride flag as a cape in protest of the Church’s discrimination against LGBTQ people. This year, she followed it up with a suit jacket that read “black drag queens invented camp” across the back. It was too earnest to be camp, for sure. But it sounded a welcome note of protest in a procession far more concerned with the glamour of queer culture than its inherently political substance.
The camp fashion prompt lent itself to a few tongue-in-cheek accessories. Hailey Bieber did an early-2000s-exposed-thong-but-make-it-fashion thing, while Charli XCX wore the tassels of a particularly elegant curtain. Frank Ocean took photos of the photographers. James Charles clutched what looked like a Ziploc bag designed by Alexander Wang. Elle Fanning wore a Met Gala–themed necklace that was more kitschy than campy, but when she stood in front of a profoundly uncomfortable Michael Bloomberg, the entire tableau became camp as all get out.
There were a few other unexpected, surely inadvertent moments of camp: Ryan Murphy (notably and exasperatingly not a fan of the term) looking hopelessly stodgy and uncomfortable in an absurdly tall collar and a jazz dance recital vest. This Riverdale actress mouthing “WOW” in slow motion so someone could get a photo. This unintentional burn of a tweet that said, “We hardly recognize @mindykaling at the #MetGala tonight – and we’re here for it!” Leslie Grossman’s facial expression in every photo, plus her entire career. But the official camp queen was the ecstatic man who attended Gaga’s entrance via FaceTime, held in the hand of a beaming Bee Carrozzini, ending up in all the fancy wire photos while watching Gaga writhe around on the stairs through the screen of his phone.