The annual Oscars of Fashion was held, as always, on the first Monday in May. Darlings of the entertainment, sport, fashion and art world flocked to the invite-only, $30,000-ticket Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The themes are always incredible, and the event is a veritable playground for designers and their muses. That was truer than ever this year, with the official theme Camp: Notes on Fashion providing plenty of inspiration.
High Society Raising Funds
The Met Gala was established in 1948 by Eleanor Lambert, a publicist trying to encourage the well heeled to make donations to the Costume Institute. The theme is always the same as the Institute’s latest exhibition, and marks the opening of the new collection. In the past it has included provocative ideas such as China: Through the Looking Glass; Manus x Machina, and Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Anna Wintour, indomitable editor-in-chief of US Vogue, has chaired the event since 1995. Headliners such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, Amal Clooney and Taylor Swift have served as co-chairs in the past; this year that honour went to Harry Styles, Serena Williams, Lady Gaga and Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele.
A Night of Opulence
The event reportedly costs more than $3,5 million to stage, and some say individual tickets can run to $50,000. Tables fetch between $275,000 and $500,000, which is before the cost of the outfits has even begun to be calculated. This really is an extravaganza for the highest echelons of society only. To date the Gala has raised well over $100 million – which could have arguably been used to improve education, healthcare or dozens of other causes that are at least as worthy as the beloved – and hardly struggling – Costume Institute. But let’s not nit-pick. This is the party of the year, and the lucky ones who made it onto Wintour’s handpicked guest list went all-out, just as they have done in the past. Who could forget Rihanna’s ornate yellow gown, trimmed with fur and weighing 55lbs, for 2015’s China: Through the Looking Glass? Or Cher’s naked dress, donned in 1974 for “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design,” which was groundbreaking at the time? Certainly not us, and that’s not even counting the cloud of butterflies that Frances McDormand wore as a headdress to last year’s Heavenly Bodies Ball, or the huge embellished train that Zoe Saldana wore at the 2017 event honouring designer Rei Kawakubo.
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Exploring the Concept of Camp
This year might have been the most extravagant Met ever, and the one where the theme most closely matched the general attitude towards the Ball. Was life imitating art or was art imitating life? Which way around does that ever go? Such philosophical conundrums are always difficult to answer! Jokes aside, the full inspiration for the theme came from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”, which has proven so seminal in the more than 5 decades since it was written. Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton said he felt Sontag’s words were very timely for current cultural and political climes. The essay considers the different ways in which “camp” can be construed, ultimately concluding that the concept means a love of exaggeration and artifice, and values style far above substance. Anything visual, from performances to paintings, clothes and décor can be camp; Sontag found it in Swan Lake, Mae West, the Art Nouveau movement and other, equally diverse sources. The word has been used in a derogatory sense in the past, especially about describing eccentrics on the fringes of society. Over time it has been claimed back, and is now celebrated as a kind of gutsy love of life and a person’s ability to embrace who they really are. As Gloria Gaynor famously belted out, until you can shout “I am what I am” your life is indeed a sham. Bolton says “camp” encompasses elements of humour, irony, pastiche, parody, nostalgia, excess, humour and theatricality – and this year’s Met attendees gave nods to all of this. Lady Gaga gave a performance where she changed her outfit 4 times before even walking up the famous museum steps, while Harry Styles channelled New Romanticism and the Victorian era in an oversized bow at and a sheer frilled blouse. On the – naturally – pink carpet, the co-chair confirmed his status as a raging metrosexual. Celine Dion also garnered attention in her Vegas style showgirl getup; Billy King blew minds by arriving on a chair carried by buff men dressed as Egyptians, Ru Paul thrilled in an avant-garde pink and black zebra striped suit, and Zendaya dressed like Cinderella in a gown that slowly lit up.
Not everyone dressed up – or at least, not in a “camp” way. Gwyneth Paltrow for example, looked like her usual ethereal, demure self in a tasteful Chloé gown. But Kylie and Kendall Jenner appeared in feathered Versace gowns of purple and orange, Cher performed, and really, that’s what we were there for. The Met Ball is all about decadence, so if you’re going you might as well embrace that concept, in all its glory.