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Camp: The Meaning Behind 2019's Met Gala Theme


Yesterday was the first Monday of May, which means some of New York's fashion elites put on their most outrageous outfits for the Met Gala. Actor Billy Porter looked like a winged gold Egyptian god carried in on a platform by shirtless men. Singer Janelle Monet went surrealist with a giant eye for a bra and a stack of hats tumbling off her head. This year's theme was "Camp: Notes On Fashion." We are not talking about summer camp. To talk about what camp does mean today, Glen Weldon is here from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: And we also have Scarlett Newman, who wrote an article for Teen Vogue called "A Deep Dive Into Black Culture And Camp." Hi, Scarlett.


SHAPIRO: Will you both start by giving us your best quick definition of what camp is? Scarlett, you want to go first?

NEWMAN: Sure, yeah. Camp is artifice. Camp is exaggeration, boisterousness all wrapped up into a visual aesthetic. It's irreverent. It's - it has no limits.

SHAPIRO: I agree with all of that. Glen, what would you add?

WELDON: Yeah, Scarlett did it great. Susan Sontag, in her time, in 1964, tried it in an essay called "Notes On 'Camp,'" which consists of 58 separate attempts to define 58 different aspects of camp. It's a lot easier to say what it's not. It's not, if you're a straight white dude, putting on a pink shirt, James Corden...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Or throwing on some glitter or even wearing a dress. That's the privileged asserting their privilege. That's not camp. Camp is deliberately outrageous, challenging, subversive mocking. There has to be some sense of outrage in that outrageousness. It's a very considered kind of defiance - the opposite of the closet, if you're a gay guy. It's saying I'm here; I'm queer, and I'm not about to let you get used to it.

SHAPIRO: Give us an example of somebody not necessarily who was at the Met Gala last night but somebody in the public eye who you think really represents the idea of camp right now. Scarlett, who would you go to?

NEWMAN: I would say Lil' Kim. In her heyday, rapper Lil' Kim was styled by Misa Hylton. Misa was pretty much putting her in drag - chain mail bras, breasts out, butt out, everything. And then you go to Cardi B now, who - maybe not stylistically but her essence, Cardi B is a very great camp example.

SHAPIRO: You know, camp has always been this way for outsiders to comment on the mainstream, whether these are people of color or queer people. It's a way for them to mock and distort and reflect back at people with power. So when you have people with power with a lot of money appropriating that language and those looks, do you think that undermines the point, the idea of camp?

NEWMAN: Honestly, I don't think that camp is an aesthetic that can necessarily be appropriated because it's very limitless. So in my research, I haven't really thought about it appropriating in a way.

SHAPIRO: But there were definitely people last night who said, look; I'm doing camp. And they were not doing camp. They were just doing what some highly paid stylist told them to do.

WELDON: I mean, Kanye and Kim Kardashian never had a chance because...

NEWMAN: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...When they try it, it's the rich citizens in the Capitol in "The Hunger Games" dressing up. That's all it is. It's just asserting dominance.

SHAPIRO: Finally, give us one look that totally blew you away last night - gagged you, make your jaw hit the floor.

NEWMAN: Lady Gaga of course.

SHAPIRO: Of course - always.

NEWMAN: She showed up. She gave us four outfit changes. She showed up in this big, billowing parachute...

SHAPIRO: Parachute is a good word.

WELDON: (Laughter).

NEWMAN: ...Silhouetted dress. I mean, she had a huge, huge, like, 1980s brick telephone. And she was just, like - oh, call me. Call me. Is someone on the phone? Is someone on the line? I mean, that is just - she's the camp goddess extraordinaire.

WELDON: Lizzo looked amazing with pink hair, an ornate jeweled headpiece, an empire waist gown with a thigh-high slit and a fascinating pink feathered cape. But that's not what made it camp. What makes it camp is that it was a direct reference to the opening sequence of a 1964 film called "What A Way To Go."


WELDON: That's A.


WELDON: But the real thing that made it camp is that this morning at JFK, she was wearing that cape as she hopped on a plane.

NEWMAN: So good.


SHAPIRO: Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and Scarlett Newman, who writes for Teen Vogue, thank you both.

WELDON: Thank you.

NEWMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.