by Denzel Nyathi
Tonight, New York is glittering more than usual as The Met Gala is underway and the biggest names in every business are making their way downtown to showcase their best, campiest selves as the world watches.
The Met Gala started in 1948 as a fundraising event for the then newly-established Costume Institute section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In its earlier stages, it was marketed exclusively towards high fashion influencers of the scene. With time, it opened its invites more and more to celebrities and icons. Today, with the advent of technology, the Met Gala’s celebration of fashion as art is accessible to people all across the world. Last year, the Met Museum’s official Instagram page raked in over 67k followers. While the Met Gala is constantly changing up themes, it remains one thing: political.
How could it not be? Fashion (and art as the greater form) can be very political. Of course, as is the case with all art: it is not obligated to be political. Fashion and art can exist therapeutically, recreationally, thoughtlessly, practically and in any space it chooses to. But the Met has never shied away from making its themes resemble current political climates. Last year’s theme of Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Image did a stellar job of shaking the table.
This year’s theme is sure to do the same: Camp: Notes on Fashion. “Camp”, in itself, has a deep history. The theme was inspired by American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag’s essay, Notes on “Camp”. Sontag states that Camp is “a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the "off," of things-being-what-they-are-not.” From this alone, you know that there is no place for the classic sexy black dress with a leg-slit, nor the horse-who-can-take-no-more-beatings common black tux.
The word is deeply rooted in queer culture. Someone can be described as camp, which would typically mean that they are more on the flamboyant end of the self-presentation spectrum. One Urban Dictionary user defines camp as follows: “Effeminate way of being Gay. One can be camp without being gay. Floppy wrists. Think Elton John and Jack from Will & Grace.” Crude definition? Perhaps (but the rejection of the stereotype is a bit commendable, considering that it was posted in 2003). But this goes to show that camp can seldom be removed from queer and gender studies. Sontag herself recognises that camp is androgynous. It is the rejection of absolutes, and celebrates the freedom in the grays of life.
Of course the theme enjoys frivolous and extravagant style, but it definitely holds relevance to the present. In a time where Caster Samenya’s sex is constantly under unnecessary and unsolicited scrutiny in courts of law, Camp’s attempt to challenge the understandings of how things typically are or ought to be is needed now more than ever. If anyone is fit to challenge these oppressive understandings of sex, sport and life in general, it’s Serena Williams, who happens to be one of the chair members for this year’s Met Gala. Both Serena and Caster have experienced the difficulties of being black, women and – above all – unparalleled in their spheres. Nothing seems to upset people more than this extraordinary combination. Nothing could be more necessary.
Met Museum’s curator-in-charge, Andrew Bolton, expressed to the New York Times the importance of Camp. “[Camp] is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can actually be a very powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures”. Camp is, therefore, so much more than just the flashy, theatrical, “how does she even walk in that?” pieces that are sure to emerge in the night.
This year’s Met Gala is offering a platform for artists, designers and athletes alike to all do as stars should: shine. Shine not just for themselves, and their struggles, but the stars who are no longer with us who walked, ran and strutted into the darkest, most oppressive rooms.
Keep a look out for a post-gala review!