And so to the question of Monday’s night’s Met Gala in New York City: Could anyone top Rihanna’s appearance last year as the Pope, complete with bejeweled robe and miter, when it comes to red carpet camp?
As if you had to ask. The night largely seemed to be a game of entrance-making one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes of sartorial absurdity higher and higher until the point of it got lost somewhere under a thousand acres of taffeta and a couple of severed heads.
What is camp, by this definition? It is dress gone so far into the realm of costume that it may never find its way home. It is an unabashed attempt to break the internet. The dress code may have been “studied triviality,” but its expression was most often “extravagant literalism.”
Seriously: Katy Perry came as a Moschino crystal chandelier. She lit up the night.
Susan Sontag wrote in the essay that started it all that camp was a “woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Great! They’ll give us feathers! In fact, feathered outerwear may have been the trend of the night.
It started with Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and a co-host, doing a relatively subtle impression of a pink flamingo (there was a lot of pink, to match the carpet) in a Chanel cape, and got bigger and brighter from there. Amber Valletta wore neon green Saint Laurent feathers over a black bodysuit; Yara Shahidi, a black Prada feathered coat over a sparkly onesie; Lizzo, multicolored Marc Jacobs plumes; and Kendall and Kylie Jenner orange and purple feather-festooned Versace, so they looked sort of like the cabaret versions of the mean stepsisters in Disney’s “Cinderella.”
Right on cue, Zendaya showed up in an actual light-up Cinderella frock, courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger, to join the club.
Speaking of feathers, however, Billy Porter trumped them all (pun intended) when he was carried in on a litter born by six shirtless gold-trousered men. A golden Cleopatra Folies Bergère cap on his head, he then emerged from his position to display a sparking bodysuit dripping in more gold and unfurl enormous golden wings from The Blonds: Liberace liberated.
And so it went.
Mr. Porter’s only real competition in the theater of arrivals was Lady Gaga, a co-host, whose Brandon Maxwell-designed four-in-one striptease from giant fuchsia gown to black silver screen sheath to hot pink lady to undies covered in 7,200 Swarovski crystals, was, ironically, one of the subtler and more subversive takes on camp of the night — a takedown of the act of costume dressing itself, and the expectations now attached to this particular event.
But subtlety was in short supply, really, a few guests aside: Danai Gurira, in top hat, cane (there were a lot of canes) and plunging jumpsuit by Gabriela Hearst; Zoë Kravitz in a black Saint Laurent with a completely cutout heart at the bodice. Harry Styles, another co-host, in his Guccified embrace of the contrapposto stance, sheer lace-trimmed shirt, corset and black trousers serving as a relatively quieter contrast to the pink ruffled fantasia of his fellow co-host, the Gucci designer Alessandro Michele.
Instead, there were trains! The bigger and longer the better (see: Nicki Minaj-as-Marie Antoinette). There were a lot of headdresses. The best was Cara Delevingne’s bananas-meets-chattering-teeth-meets-candy eyeballs confection, atop an LGBTQ rainbow-striped Dior message. Sorry, playsuit and matching tights.
There were also heads: Jared Leto, in long red Gucci silk, carried a copy of his own, the way models had on the Gucci runway last year; Ezra Miller, in crystal harness and dandy pinstripes, toted a mask on a stick, playing peekaboo with the seven eyes batting their eyelashes on his face. Blink and you couldn’t miss them. Or Janelle Monáe, and her winking Christian Siriano-designed hats-off ode to Surrealism.
What else? Capes: lots of them (Hamish Bowles of Vogue in Maison Margiela Artisanal wins this one). Bows: big ones. Fringe (hello, Celine Dion in Oscar de la Renta). And characters.
Priscilla Presley was a popular one, thanks to Lily Collins and Dua Lipa (the thinking being, presumably camp = Vegas Elvis = Priscilla).
Mermaids and fairy princesses popped up, too. Saoirse Ronan came as Hot Wheels, the Gucci version, and actually looked pretty great. Kacey Musgraves did Barbie. Kim Kardashian West came as rain, in custom Manfred Thierry Mugler (kudos to her for picking one of the original designers of modern camp). Cardi B came … as … viscera? In a pool of blood-red Thom Browne, with 30,000 burned and dyed coque feathers and 44-carat Stefere ruby nipples.
Trying to keep track of it all started to be exhausting.
In any other gathering, Emily Blunt’s 24-karat Michael Kors Goldfinger floral frock would have qualified as over-the-top, but in this crowd, it looked positively normal. And as for those who seemed to have opted out, like Gisele Bündchen in pleated lamé, and Gwyneth Paltrow in some sort of Chloé nightie, not to mention the men who just wore the usual tux — they barely registered. How dare they disappoint us! cried the internet.Is that what this was for?
Increasingly, it seems as though the answer is yes: Once inside, presumably all the guests in their crazy get-ups stripped off into relatively normal clothes so they could sit and eat and not face-plant over each other’s trains. The back of Lena Waithe’s Pyer Moss zoot suit had a message — “Black drag queens invented camp” — and though the Met’s exhibition pretty much argues otherwise (it traces camp back to pre-Versailles), whatever the potential politics of this whole venture, they were completely swamped by the excess.
It’s supposed to be “fun,” Ms. Wintour said at the start of the evening, talking about the theme and maybe the event itself, and there’s no question, it was fun to watch it all unfurl. Or rather, it was, more often than not, funny: celebrities turned into caricatures of a parody of an idea.
Were we laughing with them, or at them? My guess is the latter, at least most of the time. They were sacrificing themselves for our own poisonous pleasure, and the associate clickbait that will allow different brands to claim they — not the people involved — won the night.
The Met has turned party dressing into a competitive event. Camp as an expression of self has power and substance, but this was mostly camp as an expression of commerce and fame.
Despite all the clothes, camp denuded.
Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman
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