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John Galliano AW03
John Galliano AW03

The best camp beauty looks to get you in the mood for the Met Ball

It's that most wonderful time of the year, the first Monday in May is almost here

Trying to fully grasp the meaning of camp, in the Susan Sontag sense, of course, is a bit like – as groups of singing nuns are wont to say – trying to catch a cloud and pin it down.

The essence of camp is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Nothing found in nature can be camp. Camp is about theatricality and impersonation, about the performance of roles and identity – and about drawing attention to that performance and artifice. “It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp,” not a woman, but a “woman,”” Sontag writes. “To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.”

Genderbending, gender exaggerating, and androgyny are all noted as camp because they all bring attention to and illuminate the inherent constructedness of cultural assumptions of gender. Both Mae West’s exaggerated femininity and Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo's androgyny, therefore, fall under camp. Divine in John Waters' films is high-camp as is Liberace and Elton John’s glittering, over-the-top costumes. The film But I’m a Cheerleader, Britney and Justin in their full denim ensembles, Madonna’s cone tits, EUROVISION, Lady Gaga in the music video for “Telephone” and in her meat dress, Alexis Neiers having a breakdown in Nancy Jo’s voicemails, Virgil Abloh’s “For Walking” boots, Gucci under Alessandro Michele, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Cardi B in Mugler’s Birth of Venus dress, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and Viktor and Rolf’s meme couture collection for SS19 are all also examples of camp.

Camp is playful and uninhibited, extravagant and outlandish. “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,” Sontag writes. Camp is anti-serious, or, more precisely, “Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious." One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious."

As we look forward to Monday’s Met Ball – the annual fundraiser hosted by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to raise money for its Costume Institute – and speculate about what wildly imaginative (or as is more likely, disappointingly mundane) looks we’ll be seeing from the likes of Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Rihanna, we’ve rounded up the best in camp beauty for your viewing pleasure.

Dior AW00 Couture

“The soundest starting point seems to be the late 17th and early 18th century, because of that period's extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry.” – Susan Sontag, Notes on "Camp"

Andrew Bolton, head curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, has traced the origins of the camp sensibility back to the flamboyant posturing of the French court under Louis XIV where, as Hamish Bowles put it in Vogue, “everything was pose and performance.”

The lavish ensembles of the glittering courtiers of 18th century Versailles have inspired countless designers from Vivienne Westwood to Rei Kawakubo, Alexander McQueen and, of course, John Galliano. For his AW 2000 couture collection at Dior, Galliano indulged his love of costume, sending bridal parties, showgirls in gorilla masks, and a bleeding Marie Antoinette, among others, down the runway.

Trixie Mattel

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman." To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

Describing her look as “a caricature of a caricature of a woman,” Trixie Mattel’s exaggerated, high-camp style made her stand out even amongst the contestants of camper-than-camp spectacle, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Mattel takes femininity and brings it to its furthest possible conclusion.

Valentino AW18 Couture

“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated.”

A collection that piled references as varied as Greek Mythology, Versailles, Ziggy Stardust and medieval armour on top of each other was accompanied by magnificent, heavens-high bouffants by Guido Palau.

Dolly Parton

“All Camp objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice. Nothing in nature can be campy.”

Say no more.

Valentino SS19

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.”

With a rare appearance from Naomi Campbell on the catwalk and Céline Dion moved to tears, Valentino’s SS19 couture show was eventful. A collection full of romantic femininity was accompanied by enchanting beauty looks as models walked the runway with eyes framed by feathers courtesy of Pat McGrath.

Annie Lennox in drag

“Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one's sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”

In 1984, androgynous icon Annie Lennox performed at the Grammys in full male drag with a dark suit, Elvis wig, faux mutton chops and lower, huskier voice.

John Galliano AW03

“...a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.”

John Galliano loves nothing more than a bit of camp delight and there is any number of other shows under his own label and Dior that we could have included here. For his AW03 show, it was all about the supersized brows which were thick, bold, block and stuck on, inspired by none other than Joan Crawford. Complementing this was oversized beauty spots decorating the face as well as a boatload of blush and drag-inspired lips.

Greta Garbo

“The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo.”

Movie star from the 1920s and 30s, Greta Garbo has been called the first androgynous style icon thanks to her penchant for wearing trench coats, cigarette pants and men’s shirts during a time when women were much more likely to be seen in a gown.

Maison Margiela AW19

“Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp [include] … Swan Lake.”

John Galliano collection for Margiela this season was an antidote to digital overload. With beauty legends Pat McGrath and Eugene Souleiman in charge, models walked the runway with paint streaked hair, feathers (in reference to Swan Lake, of course) and kohl-rimmed eyes.

John Waters films

“The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating.”

Pushing ideas of respectability and taste to their limits, the films of “the Pope of Trash” John Waters are romps of the highest-camp. From the iconic sky-high brows and flaming hair Divine sports in Pink Flamingos, to the exaggerated 1960s looks of characters like Tracy Turnblad and Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray, Waters's films can offer a smorgasbord of inspiration for any celeb in need of some ideas come Monday.