Even if you don’t care about fashion, you should still care about the Met Gala.
Unlike how, say, the Grammy Awards loves to refer to itself as “music’s biggest night,” the Met Gala actually is fashion’s biggest night. It’s the one event wherein the most famous people in the world — reclusive pop stars, Oscar-winning actors, and literal royalty, all personally invited by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour — gather at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the most extravagant, intensely planned outfits we’ll see them in all year.
Here, celebrities receive no points for seeming low-maintenance or too cool for it all. No one is too cool for the Met Gala, because the Met Gala is also essentially a costume party. Its primary raison d’être is to celebrate the opening of the Met’s annual Costume Institute exhibition, whose theme doubles as that of the gala.
Previous exhibitions include “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” at which roughly three-quarters of guests wore halo headpieces; “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” where everybody pretty much just dressed like a robot; and “China: Through the Looking Glass,” where some celebrities attempted, with varying degrees of success, to tiptoe around and through cultural appropriation.
Unlike most Met Gala themes, this year’s happens to come with a rather instructive seminal essay explaining precisely what the theme is. But that doesn’t make it any easier to dress for. The exhibition, “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” pulls largely from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” and includes garments like an Andy Warhol-designed shift dress covered in Campbell’s Soup labels and those Balenciaga platform Crocs.
But camp itself is nearly impossible to define, and the problem with having a party where everyone is supposed to dress camp belies the paradox that to be self-aware of one’s own campiness is to no longer be camp.
This problem is made worse by the fact that celebrities already pay stylists many thousands of dollars to achieve a desired look for normal events, which is to say nothing of the kind of time, labor, and money that a Met Gala ensemble requires. As Sontag notes, pure camp must be naive of its ridiculousness. “Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying,” she writes.
The second paradox of choosing camp as the theme of the most glamorous and exclusive event in America is the fact that camp has long been a tool of queer and marginalized people to challenge cultural norms (drag is inherently campy, for instance). So when the Met Gala — historically attended by largely white and extraordinarily wealthy elites — adopts it as its theme, its significance to other communities becomes secondary. A few celebrities incorporated this idea into their looks, however — Lena Waithe, for instance, wore a pinstripe blazer with the words “Black drag queens invented camp” on the back.
So what, then, did celebrities make of a theme that plays against all the most foundational rules of dressing as a famous person? By virtue of attempting a pure camp look, you’ve already failed at it — particularly if you’ve succeeded.
This is all very confusing, of course, but the question is also part of what makes the Met Gala so fun to watch. The Met Gala is the one night each year that celebrity fashion is at its artiest and its most academic. Though we didn’t have the undisputed queen of the Met Gala in attendance this year, we did have a great many interpretations of a fraught and complicated postmodern concept that even the people who helped define can’t really do so anymore. What other red carpet offers anything even close to that?
However complicated and perhaps uncapturable the meaning of camp in this context, there were a bunch of celebrities who fully committed to the theme and succeeded at conjuring the spirit of the aesthetic, even while others fell flat (or substituted long trains or architectural silhouettes for true camp). Below, some of the biggest trends on the pink carpet.
Who absolutely nailed it
Lady Gaga was already a camp icon; this is a woman who is responsible for introducing the term “meat dress” to the cultural lexicon and showed up to an awards show in a giant egg, after all. But her performance at this year’s Met Gala is unlike anything that’s ever happened on a red carpet.
Gaga showed up in a hot pink parachute gown with a 25-foot train, surrounded by its designer Brandon Maxwell, her glam squad, and a cabal of tuxedoed backup dancers, who performed a perfectly choreographed series of fawning movements around her, which included umbrellas (it was not raining, and the Met Gala red carpet is tented).
It already would have been in keeping with the theme, but of course, Gaga didn’t stop there. Instead, she began removing layer after layer in a series of four dramatic transformations. Like a burlesque performance, it ended with Gaga in a sparkling bra and underwear, all the while pulling a pink wagon full of Maxwell’s rosé, hairspray, and clear purses. Gaga won the red carpet not simply because of the way she looked but because of the way she perfectly married fashion with a show.
Another un-shocking red-carpet winner was Billy Porter, the star of FX’s Pose, whose entrance involved being carried in by six gold-swathed Broadway actors in an Egyptian-inspired look, which, according to E!, borrowed partly from the (very campy) Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor. There were also wings.
What both Porter and Gaga succeeded in was satirizing and exploding red-carpet culture in general — it’s always choreographed, of course, but most of the time, we’re not meant to notice the precision of each movement. Porter and Gaga, however, made their performance center stage.
It isn’t all that surprising that the celebrities who nailed the theme were already regarded as camp icons, and Céline Dion is no exception. The reigning queen of Las Vegas dressed as a couture showgirl, complete with bejeweled fringe and a feather headpiece. Like Sontag wrote, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.”
An animatronic feathered eyelash covering a breast? That’s camp, baby. No one was shocked that Janelle Monáe, the inventor of vagina pants, nailed the theme, particularly when paired up with designer Christian Siriano. Also included: a tower of sun hats.
Is Frank Ocean in a big Prada parka taking pictures of the photographers with a digital camera actually the most camp celebrity at the Met Gala? It’s certainly possible!
Tiffany Haddish’s sequined zebra-print suit and feathered fedora was pitch-perfect black camp — as fashion podcaster Shelby Ivey Christie tweeted, Haddish’s self-described “pimperella” look recalled the exaggerated displays of peacockish masculinity seen in old-school pimp films.
The only thing Katy Perry could have come as that was campier than a chandelier would be if she came as a plastic bag.
Tracee Ellis Ross used the picture frame that was attached to her dress as an accessory to enhance her posing.
A couple of celebrities showed up in Barbie cosplay, but yeehaw icon Kacey Musgraves in Moschino went for it the hardest. Not only did she show up in a pink convertible, but she carried a matching pink hair dryer as a purse.
There were also a lot of exaggerated trains on the red carpet, but Cardi B’s was, if anything, definitely the one you’d be most likely to curl up on and take a nap. It’s no Birth of Venus dress, but Cardi’s Thom Browne gown and headpiece were just too grandiose not to be camp.
The campiest of the many fairy princess looks was certainly Zendaya, who showed up in a near-exact replica of Disney’s Cinderella gown (that lit up!), while her stylist Law Roach, dressed as her fairy godmother, cast a magical spell. She also left a clear shoe — it’s unclear whether it was actually glass, but let’s hope not — on the Met staircase.
Who equated “camp” with the ’80s and shoulder pads
Shoulder pads, at least in the actual ’80s, could absolutely land in camp territory, and plenty of celebrities incorporated them into their Met Gala looks. Natasha Lyonne wore a blue-and-white crisscross jumpsuit with exaggerated shoulders and eye makeup to match, while others used wigs and architectural silhouettes to achieve the look.
Is it technically camp? Maybe not exactly, considering the ’80s are already kind of cool right now — most of these looks feel perfectly modern, even minus the Met Gala’s theme, but their wearers’ attitudes helped elevate them.
Who pulled a Cher
Then there were the starlets who went back two decades further. Elle Fanning combined this aesthetic with an I Dream of Jeannie ponytail, while Emily Ratajkowski went with a stomach-baring see-through gown and headpiece. Kendall and Kylie Jenner also incorporated Cher’s iconic showgirl looks, to mixed reviews.
Who showed up in Gucci
It was the most obvious designer to wear — the brand’s creative director Alessandro Michele is on the host committee of this year’s Gala, and his aesthetic is pretty campy to begin with. There was Jared Leto, who borrowed from the brand’s fall 2018 runway show by carrying a replica of his own head; and Harry Styles, who wore an elegant high-waisted chiffon jumpsuit.
The best iteration, however, was Ashley Graham, who was technically dressed by Dapper Dan, the Harlem-based fashion designer known for creating designs that riffed on the Gucci logo in the ’80s and ’90s and who is now an official collaborator.
Who did Game of Thrones
Maybe it’s just the cultural zeitgeist, but “warrior chic” was a big theme at the Met Gala this year, with celebrities like Saoirse Ronan, Florence Welch, Halsey, and Jordan Roth wearing looks that wouldn’t be too out of place in the HBO costume closet. To be fair, though, what’s campier than a big-budget fantasy series that’s actually mostly about clandestine sex and wigs?
For the most part, this year’s Met Gala attendees did a solid job of grappling with a notoriously difficult theme. The good thing about camp, it turns out, is that being a little bit undefinable makes it arguably harder to fail at the red carpet, at least when you actually commit.
But even if everyone had failed spectacularly, it still would have been the most interesting red carpet of the year — the Met Gala almost always is.
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