"Camp is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization," stresses Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” the catalyst behind The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s spring 2019?exhibition, and the jumping off point for the looks that are sure—make that guaranteed—to get have eyes popping and get tongues wagging in their brazenness at the 2019 Met Gala on Monday.
But it won't just be the gowns, suits, and every imaginable frock in between that embody the campiness Sontag writes about. Above unbridled costumery—the "c" in camp unofficially stands for head-to-toe commitment, one might say—there will be hair and makeup looks that run the gamut from unabashedly extraordinary to simply not of this world. In that spirit, it's only right to pay homage to the colorful trailblazers that have paved the way throughout history. They won't just offer visual inspiration for fashion's A-list, but will also inspire them to carry off the extravagant spirit and bravado it takes to not just wear, but pull off the acute "artifice and exaggeration," Sontag zeroes in on.
One of the foremost administers of camp is the one and only Mae West. While West's vaudevillian attitude was practically a genetic predisposition by nature of her husky contralto voice and charisma, Sontag argues that West knew how to play to her audience—and her hyper-feminine beauty is evidence of just that. With her white-hot peroxide coif and perpetually crimson lips, she catapulted herself to an unprecedented bombshell status and created the blueprint for future icons of the same ilk. (Ahem, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna.) As for West's predecessors, there's Josephine Baker, who shimmied into the summer of 1926 with glossy finger waves and a rubber banana skirt that revealed her standing ovation-worthy stems, as well as over-the-top, Cupid's bow-lipped Betty Boop, a caricature of the Jazz Age flappers, who, like Baker, bucked tradition and set the stage for pure liberated beauty.
But it's not just in cartoonish femininity that camp thrives. Marlene Dietrich, name-checked by Sontag in reference to the "outrageous aestheticism" of director Josef von Sternberg's six films starring the German-American actress, may have been impossibly glamorous. Her overdrawn lips. Those pencil-thin brows. That bone structure as sharp as glass. She certainly looked the part of a femme fatale, but she was peak camp when she was radically subverting that ideal—and the male gaze—with her gender-bending get-ups. As Sontag points out: "What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine." And as far as the former is concerned, it was the male rock stars of the '70s and '80s that really worshiped at the alter of camp.
There was T.Rex's Marc Bolan megawatt glitter gaze, framed by a halo of soft brown ringlets, while The Rolling Stones' frontman Mick Jagger flamboyantly decorated his face with neon-bright shadow on the lids and sequins strewn about the cheeks. And let's not forget the prolific Brian Eno and his rainbow-streaked mane during his Roxy Music years. But in a league all his own was David Bowie, whose renegade streak began at 17—when he fought for his right to shaggy lengths during a special BBC Tonight segment—and continued throughout his career, from studying kabuki makeup with Bando Tamasaburo V to transcending gender (and galaxies!) as Ziggy Stardust with a celestial glow, shaved brows, and a flame-hued mullet.
By nature of the more-is-more decade, virtually every man on the Top 40 charts in the '80s was getting in on the action, with The Cure's Robert Smith and the Purple Majesty himself, Prince, sporting full faces of makeup, often punctuated by thick rimmings of eyeliner on the waterlines. And as far as color is concerned, no one could hold a candle to Boy George with draped cheeks, a graphic Technicolor gaze, and vibrant berry lips bursting out from below his signature top hats. But it wasn't just the men getting their kicks during the golden decades of camp peacocking—not by a long shot. Cher inspired awe with her groovy hip-grazing hair, spidery mink lashes, and bright long talons, always a fitting complement to her glittering Bob Mackie gowns. Comparatively fierce and directional was Grace Jones, whose androgynous flat top fade and fantastical disco makeup were a perfect anomaly as she held court onstage and at Studio 54.
Since the rise of '90s minimalism, camp isn't quite what it used to be. But between the influx of modern beauty disruptors like Rihanna and Zendaya, and the 2019 Met Gala bringing the ethos of camp back into the collective conscious, here's hoping it's primed for a ravishing comeback.