These Met Gala looks are outrageous, but are they Camp?

It's not about who wore it best — it's about who did their homework.

It's not about who wore it best — it's about who did their homework

Camp is...Céline Dion? The Canadian superstar walks the pink carpet at the 2019 Met Gala. (Getty Images)

The rules for being "best dressed" are never a science, but in the case of the Met Gala, there's usually some kind of dress code that helps focus the stakes. This time around, the theme was Camp. And what is Camp? Well, lucky for you and a few hundred stylists, it's a theme that comes with a playbook — specifically Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, "Notes on 'Camp," a treatise that generally argues how difficult it is to define. Super helpful.

As solid catch-all's go, this statement from the intro is helpful to keep in mind: "The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration."

But at the same time, Camp is more than pure kitsch. It's grander and more fantastic than something so bad that it's good. And "pure Camp," Sontag writes, doesn't realize it's Camp at all. (So, is dressing to theme an automatic fail?)

Altogether, trying to capture Camp might seem impossible, like catching a moonbeam in your 12-inch stiletto-manicured hand.

But we're going to gawk at all the red carpet photos anyway, gobbling them up like fistfuls of Katy Perry's cheeseburger dress. And armed with a Getty Images subscription and a copy of that essay, we are definitely going to declare whether those outrageous looks are Camp with a capital C. 

CBC Arts staffers Leah Collins and Lise Hosein weighed in with their snap judgments Tuesday morning. The following is a transcript of their conversation.

Camp is every other guest walking around in a dress (and/or cape) made of three million feathers. (Getty Images)

Leah: OK, Lise. Let's do this! But before we really get into things, let's pay a very special tribute to the many (many, many) stylists who took a line from "Notes on 'Camp'" as a literal memo. Namely, "camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers."

Lise: Bless their hearts. I mean, it's a pretty clear instruction if you're trying to same-day your outfit.

Leah: Naomi Campbell, Kylie Jenner, Kendall Jenner, Lizzo, Winnie Harlow, Amber Valetta, Joan Collins (!!!), Hamish Bowles, Anna Wintour, Janet Mock, Rosie Huntington-Whitely: thank you for your service. E for effort.

Say a prayer for three million dead emus, it's time to move on. Who do you want to pull up first?

Lise: Let's start with Gaga since she was at least partly responsible for what's about to happen.

Leah: Ha! Right, she was one of the co-chairs of this year's event. Should we establish some ground rules for her? I'd argue that was more of a performance than a look — or looks, rather. She went through four costume changes over the course of something like 15 minutes. (The clothes, for what it's worth, were custom made by Brandon Maxwell.)

Lady Gaga. (Getty Images)
Also Lady Gaga. (Getty Images)
Still Lady Gaga. (Getty Images)
Gagz. (Getty Images)

Lise: I am here for her. Was she doing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane set at the plantation from Gone with the Wind? Then Cruella De Vil, to Material Girl, to Liza Minnelli during her BDSM days?

Leah: Are you talking about Cabaret or is there a Liza era that I should never, ever Google?

Lise: I think I'm talking about Cabaret but I'm already confused. But yeah, definitely Camp. Good job, Lady.

Leah: We're talking about a pop star who's staked her entire brand on Camp, so the challenge here is how does she level up from a celebrity persona that's already "too much"? Seems to me that the strategy here was to just do more of the same and multiply it by four. But hey, top marks. Nothing quite swallowed up the pink carpet like Gaga's look. It's oversized, it's full of fantasy and theatre. Plus it clowns with loads of nostalgic Hollywood glamour and archetypes. (I'm a nerd, so I'm gonna quote the essay right now: "The relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.") Solid A. Professor Lise, what kind of comment would you give a student who needs to grow beyond what she's read in the textbooks, and maybe show a little more independent thinking?

Lise: Bigger bows. Honestly, I think it's tempting to be hard on Lady Gaga because she set the bar for Camp. But for me, she pulled it off — facial expressions alone.

Leah: This was absolutely no surprise, but pop stars were definitely the folks who embraced the theme most. If pop stars had LinkedIn pages, "a love of the unnatural" would be the No. 1 skill listed. Can we talk about Katy Perry in a dress that was obviously made for Sia?

Katy Perry. (Getty Images)

Lise: And didn't she change into a cheeseburger later on?

Leah: Pics or it didn't happen.

Lise: Pièce de resistance.

Leah: How that is easier to sit in, I have no idea. Both were Moschino by Jeremy Scott.

Lise: I understand why the candles were not real fire but honestly, for the sake of Camp, they should have been real fire.

Leah: But Camp loves the artificial! Fire is too REAL, Lise.

Camp also adores the decorative arts, and she dressed as an actual decorative object — for absolutely no apparent reason. I refuse to search for any metaphorical meaning behind this look. Camp is style over content, right? This is such a completely random and empty image. She is literally just a bright and shiny object.

Lise: I think it's a great example of Camp. It has absolutely no reason that I can think of, it requires unnaturally symmetrical posture, it probably hurts and later SHE CHANGED INTO A CHEESEBURGER. Bravo, Katy Perry.

Leah: We're just handing out A's to everyone! Is it time for some CanCon?

Céline Dion. (Getty Images)

Lise: I honestly am not even sure what to say about Céline Dion other than she wins. I keep thinking of Disney on Ice plus a tasselled vest my aunt wore once and an albino peacock. I get that this won't ring true for everybody.

Leah: I want to meet your aunt.

I think Céline's people must have been going over that essay with highlighters and Post-Its for months. There's a laundry list of items that Sontag declares as "Camp" — old Aubrey Beardsley drawings and clothing from the '20s, stuff like "feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses." Yeah, this custom Oscar de la Renta hits the mark. But really, Céline didn't even have to try this hard. C is for Camp and Céline. She'd wear this thing to René Jr.'s hockey practice and it would be as natural to her as hitting a high E.

I feel like we have some responsibility to mention that there were, in fact, other Canadians there. Here's pop star Alessia Cara, wearing a few million deconstructed loofas and some sweet, Comme des Garçons platform Nikes.

Alessia Cara. (Getty Images)

Lise: Tulle is dreamy and there was a ton of it on the Met pink carpet. But this one kind of missed the mark for me, just slightly!

Leah: It's perfect for prom night in Brampton, but is it Camp?

Lise: This dress is cut oddly and takes up kind of weird space, but it didn't feel like it had a sense of humour. It's gorgeous, but gorgeous is not Camp.

Leah: Right. Like Sontag writes, "Camp is the love of the exaggerated, the 'off.'" But defining "off" as an "asymmetrical hem" will not cut it. C-.

Lise: Sorry, Alessia. Just a side note: Lana Condor won for tulle at the Met Gala. It was a strange combination of '70s sitcom boudoir wear, a dress for a doll you made yourself and something I really want to see at a Satanic wedding. Camp.

Leah: Tulle is not enough! Lupita Nyong'o knows it.

Lupita Nyong'o. (Getty Images)

Lise: She wins. What even is happening? This is a dress somebody made in a nightmare in space or at least on the top of a hill.

Leah: Is that where you'd find the House of Versace? Good to know.

Lise: You know how Camp is not easy to define? (Please see the many thinkpieces trying to define it.) This is it.

Leah: It hits so many items on the checklist. Everything is exaggerated, but without literally taking up 100 times more space than anyone else on the carpet. I'm talking about the rainbow-sherbet colour scheme, the clashing but super-luxe textures, the pancake makeup, the half dozen (or more?) hair picks, a fan?! The sense of humour is more oversized than those sleeves, but in a seriously glam way. Definitely Camp.

We have not talked about any of the men. This must be corrected. But generally speaking, capes seemed to be everyone's favourite way to go. We had Ryan Murphy paying homage to Liberace in a Christian Siriano cape. Dude could've worn a toga made of old Glee DVDs, and he'd have nailed the brief.

Ryan Murphy. (Getty Images)

And this guy, Broadway theatre owner Jordan Roth, who's wearing Iris Van Herpen. An OTT theatrical look that lets him play dress-up as an actual theatre? Camp.

Jordan Roth. (Getty Images)

Lise: Capes scare predators away.

Leah: Does carrying a severed head around make you a predator? And more importantly, is it Camp?

Jared Leto and Jared Leto's head. (Getty Images)

Lise: Say what you will, I know we've seen this look before, but this is close to an A for me. You know that he was staring at Albrecht Durer's self-portraits for three hours in the mirror before he left the house. And I know he is still wearing this as we write, including the head. No element of this ensemble is particularly Camp. He's like a Byzantine icon at an autopsy viewing who's wearing a silk dress your mom has kept in a closet for 57 years. But it's kind of hilarious and you can't deny that it's over the top.

Leah: I am happy that he is happy, but as wonderfully outrageous as this whole look is, it feels a bit lazily kiss-ass to me — which is especially easy to do when you have a spare set of lips that's being carried around at hip level. Gucci's Alessandro Michele was one of the event's co-chairs, and this look is ripped from the runway. For their Fall 2018 collection, models walked the runway with their heads, too.

Lise: Everything you just said was a bit gross, Leah. Calm down.

Leah: I stand by it! But I'd also defend this as Camp! There's an element of the androgynous going on. That's one important aspect of Camp. And sure, he didn't come up with the idea of carrying his face around like a bearded purse, but that is a bold choice — one that's playful and vulgar and right on the line of being too out there to work. B.

Would a face purse have been overkill for Janelle Monáe? (Is there such a thing as overkill when the dress code is Camp?)

Lise: Wait, she didn't have a face purse?

Janelle Monae. (Getty Images)

Leah: She WAS the face purse. Or the face. Just the face. A face with a blinking bra!

Lise: It's decorative, it has moving parts, it makes little sense. It's a character, I think, but I wouldn't know who it is, and it conveys literally nothing to me except a sort of detached vague joy. Camp. (Can you tell I'm referring to my Susan Sontag notes right now?)

Leah: Is there room for another pop star on the honour roll? Can Zendaya get an A? And is bringing a fairy godmother as your +1 considered cheating? I think there's something great about reducing the red carpet fantasy to the broadest girlish archetype: an actual Disney princess.

Zendaya. (Getty Images)

Lise: I'm using the caveat that Camp is in the eye of the beholder, but this didn't make the mark for me. Dressing up is too cosplay to be Camp. This didn't scream "I tried" to me.

Leah: I appreciate how it embraces the superficial to a straight-up cartoonish degree, and that it nods to her Disney roots. Camp's about larger-than-life character. But yeah, it lacks in scale. To quote the essay: "When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it's too mediocre in its ambition." Grade?

Lise: Please forgive me, but it's a slightly minus B from me.

Leah: They can't all be overachievers. The award for the night's top slacker? Kanye West wearing a Dickies jacket he probably borrowed from the valet.

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala. (Getty Images)

Leah: But Kim Kardashian! Never has she belonged at the Met Gala more than on this night. Nothing is more important to her brand than sheer surface, and she takes it damned seriously. Pure Camp with a K. It just shows how you can land the theme without being an obvious riot of rainbow tulle.

Lise: This is her actual belonging place. She makes so much sense here and it is only as a result of her showing up like this at 300,000 other places. It was all leading up to this night.

Leah: But she wouldn't show up just anywhere in a look like this! Someone was taking notes. Camp is vulgar. Quote time! It has "a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics" — you know, like a wet T-shirt contest turned couture.

Lise: Don't you feel like this look is a composite drawing of every time you've ever seen Kim Kardashian and now it all makes sense? If Kim Kardashian robbed a bank and somebody had to describe her to a police artist, this is the drawing that would come out. It's perfect.

Leah: Yeah, or like a composite drawing of every magazine shoot she's ever done — including her new cover of Vogue, where she's also drip drying in the most extra way possible. It's an ouroboros of a sales pitch, for absolutely nothing but glamour.

Lise: Also, what is this dress made of? How many layers is it? Is she real? Is she okay? I have so many questions.

Leah: It's by Thierry Mugler, and apparently it's inspired by Sophia Loren in Boy On a Dolphin. Again, someone was taking way too many notes on that essay, and that gets her extra credit for embracing Camp's love of nostalgia, plus the whole "wet dress" effect doubles down on Camp's love of the artificial. Crystals as water drops! Can this look count towards her LSAT score?

Lise: No. No, it can't.

Leah: Fine. Here is a picture of Ezra Miller re-creating how I felt when Kim Kardashian arrived on the steps.

Ezra Miller. (Getty Images)

Leah: Is it Camp? And did our girl Alex Garant do his makeup?

Lise: This is a tough one! Yes, it is. I think. But it seems more surreal than Camp. And that's maybe a tough distinction to make in this context.

So let's go through the notes: artificial? I hope so. Exaggerated? Definitely. Decorative? Check. Fantastical? Um, yes. Something Ezra Miller is not? I can't speak to that. Androgynous, not serious, detached, playful — it's perfect. Also blurry.

Leah: This one should have been filed under "capes," which are not mentioned in "Notes on 'Camp,'" but should probably be added if there's ever a revised version.

Here's one more star we should have mentioned earlier, but now that we're close to wrapping up, let's just pretend we meant to take this thing full circle all along. Feathers! Cardi B! More feathers!

Cardi B. at the Met Gala. (Getty Images)

Leah: Please note that the feathers are both inside and out. That train is quilted, like a glorious duvet.

Lise: She wins the night. It's ridiculously good. And glamorous. And why am I getting a little bit of this?

Leah: What is that?

Lise: That is replica armour from Bram Stoker's Dracula, Leah. Everybody knows that.

Leah: Take it up with designer Thom Browne. If you'll remember, Cardi was pregnant at last year's Met Gala, and personally, I am getting major nesting vibes from this one. Bird nests, internal lady parts that also function something a little like a nest. It's unsettling but fabulous. Clearly, she passed. Grade?

Lise: A.

Want more photos? You want more photos. Here's CBC News' coverage of the Met Gala fashion extravaganza.