MET GALA 2019

The Campiest Red Carpet Looks of All Time Ahead of the 2019 Met Gala

Jim Smeal

The “Camp” theme of Monday’s upcoming Met Gala has reportedly left some celebrities and their stylists clueless as to how to dress. Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Notes on Camp” offers some pointers, but even the late writer admited that camp is hard to define. It’s a sensibility, not a concrete idea. Like beauty, camp is also often in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to intentionally be camp, and sometimes the best example of camp didn’t set out to be camp at all. When it comes to being camp, we’ll quote Gypsy Rose Lee: “You either got it, or you ain’t.” And when it comes to identifying camp, we’ll quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.” Which is all to say, maybe the best way to describe camp isn’t in words, but rather by way of examples. Here, some of the campiest red carpet looks of all time, from Björk’s infamous Swan Dress to a Bette Davis classic.

1
Björk at the 73rd Academy Awards

Björk’s sensibilities as a whole can be better classified as “avant garde” (she’s a serious artist and musician, after all), but when Björk showed up to the 73rd Academy Awards after being nominated for best song from her film *Dancer in the Dark* (though, as many would argue, snubbed in the best actress category) in a gown meant to resemble a swan, it was a moment of pure camp. The dress alone, designed by Marjan Pejoski, would have been camp just hanging on a rack, but a figure like Björk wearing it to, of all places, the Oscars—in a year that was dominated by the film *Gladiator*—truly just kicked it into another level. It also provides an important distinction in how to appreciate something from a camp point of view. Camp is not the “Oh, my God, what the hell is that weird dress she is wearing?” jokes that followed. Camp is thinking the moment was so bizarre and perfect that you can’t imagine Björk wearing anything else for the moment, and regarding her as a hero all these years later for having done so.

2
Elton John at His 50th Birthday Party

The actual Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit will attempt to draw comparisons to the over-the-top stylings of Louis XIV of France, aka the Sun King, but Louis himself was not quite was camp as Elton John dressing up as him for his notoriously glamorous 50th birthday party.

3
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake at the 2001 American Music Awards

Sure, there’s something inherently camp in constructing a matching gown and tuxedo out of denim, but this could have easily been dismissed as Worst Dress list fodder at the time. And yet, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake’s 2001 American Music Awards look has only grown campier with time.

4
Detox at the RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5 Finale

No roundup of recent camp fashion would be complete without a nod to *RuPaul’s Drag Race*, a show that runs on so many levels and layers of camp that not even Susan Sontag herself could attempt to parse it. But for our money there’s been no more savvy example of camp fashion (at least of the intentional kind) than Detox’s look from the Season 5 finale. Not only does it succeed on the “things-being-what-they-are-not” level of camp by bringing black-and-white photography to light, but Detox also recalls a classic film noir femme fatale archetype, and, just for good measure, her suit is actually vintage Thierry Mugler.

5
Mamie Van Doren at the 44th Thaliens Annual Ball

Mamie Van Doren started her acting career in 1951, and knowingly patterned her public persona after Marilyn Monroe (along with Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, some consider Van Doren as part of a group known as the “Three M’s”). Even into her eighties she has never decided to change it up, and still struts the red carpet like a ’50s bombshell.

6
Elena Lenina at the 68th Cannes Film Festival

Elena Lenina is a Russian-born, France-based media personality whose leading contribution to world culture appears to be showing up on the Cannes Film Festival red carpet year after year in a series of outlandish gowns topped off by what can only be called “hair sculptures.” This is camp.

7
Celia Cruz at the 3rd Annual Latin Grammy Awards

Only someone with as big a spirit, voice, and personality can pull off the big stylistic choices that Cuban singer Celia Cruz made in both her onstage wardrobe and her music.

8
Cher at the 58th Academy Awards

Cher would actually take home the best actress trophy the year after this Oscars, but her Bob Mackie gown from 1986 remains not only her most famous Oscar dress but one of her most famous outfits of all time. Being the most memorable thing Cher has ever worn? That’s inherently camp.

9
Macy Gray at the 2001 MTV VMAs

The red carpet exists so celebrities can be photographed to generate publicity for their careers, and their outfits are often chosen carefully to garner the right kind of attention. Why not just turn the whole thing on its head by wearing an outfit that actually outright promotes your upcoming project?

10
Olly Alexander at the 2018 British GQ Men of the Year Awards

Sontag references the concept of the androgyne as an example of classic camp, and though in today’s time androgynous fashion’s subtext is meant to convey things more serious than frivolous, it can be still be pulled off with a sense of stylish fun. While he has some notable competition, put Olly Alexander of British pop band Years & Years as one of current masters of this particular species of red carpet moment.

11
Billy Porter at the 24th Annual Critics’ Choice Award

Meanwhile, Billy Porter has mastered a more mature and sophisticated take on the idea, and if every man attending the Met Gala on Monday didn’t reach out to him for some pointers they fail to at their own risk.

12
Phoebe Price at the 2005 AFI Fest

Phoebe Price’s dress isn’t camp on its own, but her whole thing here is. An actress with a short IMDb page, Price took advantage of the fact that the post-Paris Hilton Internet gave everyone full access to every picture taken on any red carpet and managed to show up on just about any red carpet that would have her (there are currently 5,333 photos of Price on Getty, more than many more well-known celebrities). The fact that she managed to play at the idea of being an in-demand VIP without technically being one made her something of an underground camp icon during the heyday of “Oh no they didn’t” and “Go fug yourself.”

13
Grace Jones at the 1983 Grammy Awards

Lady Gaga is rightfully hosting Monday’s Met Gala, but you can’t talk about pop stars successfully burnishing their image with the help of outré fashion without starting with Grace Jones.

14
Celine Dion at the 71st Annual Academy Awards

Yes, it’s a backwards tuxedo that hints at the androgyne and being slightly off, two tenets of camp, but what truly made this moment camp was Dion’s commitment to posing in it on the red carpet backwards. It would take a few more decades for Dion to let her full fashion freak flag fly, but frankly we should have seen it coming.

15
Amanda Lepore at the 2017 Life Ball

The New York City nightlife icon has patterned herself after the campy icons of classic cinema, and she hits it out of the park every time.

16
Nicole Kidman at the 23rd Annual SAG Awards

Most celebrities’ looks for Monday’s Met Gala have long been chosen, but imagine for a second you’re a celebrity stylist trying to make a last minute decision for your client that hints at the theme but isn’t too risky. You couldn’t go wrong with something like this Gucci dress that Nicole Kidman wore to the 2017 SAG awards. Parrot heads as statement shoulders is always going to be a camp.

17
Zendaya at The Greatest Showman Australian Premiere

…or perhaps the Moschino butterfly dress Zendaya wore.

18
Bette Davis at the 6th Annual American Cinema Awards

But in reality, you’re either camp or your not, and sometimes it’s best not to force it.