No one can completely agree on what the aesthetic sensibility of “camp” means, but at this year’s camp-themed Met Gala, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: Camp is pink.
The pinkening started from the top. Every year, the Met Gala takes its theme from the annual show put on by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and in 2019, that show is “Camp: Notes on Fashion” — a nod to Susan Sontag’s famous essay on an aesthetic she described as “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” And the Met made it clear that the way to advertise an exhibit on camp is with pink. The exhibit’s poster features the title superimposed on a pink background, next to a mannequin wearing a pink flamingo mask and a pink shirt printed with more pink flamingos.
At the gala itself, the red carpet was pink, surrounded by pink roses. The Twitter hashtag #MetGala came with a little pink flamingo emoji attached. Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief and the host of the event, wore pink feathers. Lady Gaga wore two pink dresses (plus a black one and some sparkly lingerie). Vogue declared pink “the color that won the 2019 Met Gala,” noting, “What else but a penchant for pink could link Louis XVI and Barbie?”
How did this happen? When and why did fashion’s elite decide that our biggest cultural signifier of camp is just … pink?
Camp loves to play at the boundaries of gender. That makes pink an exciting partner.
Before we dive into the history of camp, it’s worth noting that there’s one very simple explanation for the Met Gala’s embrace of pink. Pink is just very hot this year: It was a huge runway look, and one of the biggest trends on the Oscars red carpet. If you’re a fashion person in 2019, you need no excuse to go pink.
But everyone involved in the Met Gala seemed to be thinking of pink as a camp hue. Wintour even noted that she was changing the red carpet color specifically to match the theme. So to try to figure out why the forces behind the Met Gala seemed to view pink as not only on trend but also self-evidently camp, I called up Pamela Wojcik, a film scholar and the author of Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna.
Traditionally, to the extent that there was ever any particular color associated with camp, it was lavender, says Wojcik. (“They even lavendered my book cover,” she noted.) That’s mostly because lavender codes queer, and camp is associated with queer culture.
Still, camp has also had an affinity with pink for a long time. In the highly camp 1957 movie Funny Face, there’s an entire musical number devoted to a woman’s magazine editor ordering the women of the world to “think pink!” while pink-clad dancers frolic around her, unscrolling bolts of bright pink fabric and posing in bright pink doorways.
“Feels so gay, feels so bright, makes your day, makes your night,” they sing. “Pink is now the color to which you gotta switch!”
Wojcik notes that a lot of what makes “Think Pink!” camp has nothing to do with the color itself. “It’s the insanity of the excess of pink and deciding this is all we care about right now,” she says. “It’s the randomness of dictates of fashion.”
But, she adds, “Think Pink!” is also camp because of the pink of it all: Pink is camp in part because pink is associated with girliness, and one way of doing camp is to burlesque gender. “Pink is stereotypically associated with hyperbolic femininity,” Wojcik says. “So camp is theatricalizing that, taking the stereotype of pink, reappropriating it and pushing it to an extreme of gender parody.”
Camp, says Wojcik, tends to live at the borders of gender: at the extremes, where gender becomes so hyperbolic as to seem artificial, and in the middle, where gender boundaries become ambiguous and androgyny reigns.
That means camp can also be hypermasculine. Wojcik points to the 1950s Hollywood leading man Victor Mature — whom the film critic David Thomson once described as “an incredible concoction of beef steak, husky voice, and brilliantine” — and to Arnold Schwarzenegger as examples of masculine camp: Their personas are all muscle and sinew, masculinity as nothing but dudes punching other dudes.
At this year’s Met Gala, we saw masculine camp in the shirtless muscle men who carried a gold-clad Billy Porter to the pink carpet. The move referenced Mae West’s Vegas act, which opened with West being carried in by a pack of shirtless muscle men, thereby “drawing attention to their hyperbolic masculinity at the same time as her performance of femininity,” explains Wojcik.
But on the whole, masculine camp seems to be much rarer at events like the Met Ball than feminine and queer camp. In part, says Wojcik, that’s because it’s unusual to see anyone intentionally creating masculine camp: While West was deliberately, winkingly campy about her femininity, Schwarzenegger has always seemed to take his masculinity extremely seriously. It’s what Sontag would call naive camp. It’s an accident.
But straight masculinity is also harder to intentionally camp than femininity or queerness, because we tend to consider straight masculinity to be neutral — the default setting against which everything else is an aberration. So while we can easily indicate that we are going overboard with femininity or queerness by draping ourselves in swaths of pink or lavender, there’s no real equivalent for masculinity; swaths of blue wouldn’t have quite the same effect. There’s no color in our culture that universally means “straight dude” because as long as straight dudes are assumed to be the default, they don’t need a color.
The result is that when we talk about camp, and when we use camp to play with gender, we generally assume we’ll be playing with queerness, with androgyny, with hyperbolic femininity — with lavender and pink. And since we’ve already learned that pink is extremely now, that means that in 2019, thinking camp means thinking pink.