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Met Gala: What does 'camp' mean in 2019?
Kira Garcia is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, New York magazine, Bon Appetit and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own.
If you've ever felt the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art takes itself a bit too seriously, you may want to pay attention to "Camp: Notes on Fashion," the Costume Institute's upcoming spring exhibition. According to the museum, the exhibition, inspired by Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," will examine "how the elements of irony, humor, parody, pastiche, artifice, theatricality, and exaggeration are expressed in fashion."
It also provides the theme for the 2019 Met Gala on May 6. Chaired by Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele (the brand is an event sponsor), Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Serena Williams, this year's benefit will give celebrity attendees a chance to break free from the bland, predictable gowns we usually see on the red carpet, and embrace the intentionally absurd.
And given that 2018's Catholic theme inspired Liberace-level excess, it would come as no surprise if this year's looks resembled a luxury version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Since the theme was announced last in October, A-list invitees and their stylists have no doubt been asking themselves the question: What exactly is camp? Definitions of the term vary by generation, but everyone seems to agree that if isn't fun, it isn't camp. Camp is teasing, impractical and fun-loving. Camp is catchy, a little obnoxious and flirts with (but refuses to be depressed by) tackiness.
And let's not forget, of course, that camp is queer to the bone. With roots in the rich culture of drag, camp rejects good taste, exclusivity and the authority of the fashion industry in favor of freedom, joy, color, and humor.
Sontag tried to pin down a more precise definition in her essay, writing that "the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." At the time, that included America's mid-century love affair with things like Cool Whip, Dacron shirts and drop ceilings, but also, according to Sontag, the Art Nouveau entryways to the Paris Metro, women's clothes of the 1920's and "much of Mozart." (She was a tough critic.)
But Sontag's 55-year-old essay can't define camp in the present day. She admits herself that time changes our interpretations of this slippery notion, saying "time contracts the sphere of banality" -- in other words, we're less critical of old stuff.
As a child of the '80s, even my own camp benchmarks -- the hysterical excess of Pee-wee Herman, Jane Fonda's relentlessly perky workout videos, and the cult classic film "Back to the Beach" -- seem woefully out of date.
So, what's camp in 2019? In fashion, the possibilities abound: the (seemingly) overpriced irony of Balenciaga, the eclectic decadence of Michele's Gucci, the low-culture high fashion of Jeremy Scott. But also over-the-top plastic jewels, chunky dad sneakers and the inevitable return of the much-reviled low-rise jean. These pieces play tricks on the viewer, and the wearer, for pure fun.
Beyond the malls and catwalks, you can find camp in "RuPaul's Drag Race," the "Bachelor" franchise, Amy Sedaris' entire body of work, celebrity appearances on "Sesame Street," unicorn-flavored seltzer and pumpkin spice-flavored everything. And of course over-the-top performers like Cardi B, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars -- as well as hosts Harry Styles and Lady Gaga -- warm our hearts with tongues firmly in cheek.
But in general, we've cast our winking Britneys aside for unblinking Kendalls. Our current moment is sadly lacking Spice Girls-style grins, Austin Powers-level buffoonery and the bizarro brilliance of John Waters.
It may be tempting to say that our American political moment is defined by camp, given our leader's cotton candy hair, Scotch-Taped tie and carnival barker rhetoric. But there's something missing from the Trump era that makes it decidedly un-camp: joy. Artifice and coarse aesthetic choices abound, but so do pettiness, misery and bad humor.
Speaking at a Milan press conference in February, curator Andrew Bolton said, "When you look at the times when camp comes to the forefront of culture, it is at moments of polarization. The 1980s of Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's America was one such time, and now is another. It seems to me that this is because camp is a powerful language for the marginalized."
As disturbing headlines pile up by the minute, we need the life-affirming power of humor more than ever. Maybe a little bad taste in a rich place will remind us that we have more freedom than we think.