Singer Janelle Monáe, actor Billy Porter and current RuPaul's Drag Race winner Aquaria. Credit: Doug Peters/EMPICS; Doug Peters/starmaxinc.com; Jennifer Graylock/Press Association; Francesca Roh/Xtra
How Queer Is It?
5 min

How queer is the 2019 Met Gala?

The Met Gala, a RuPaul’s Drag Race runway session rendered on a massive scale, is one of the most curious events of every fashion year. Celebrities are called upon by Vogue editrix Anna Wintour to attend her museum party dressed to impress. She even gives them a theme — a category, if we’re still talking in drag and ballroom terms. It’s the job of the chosen celebrities to turn a show, while we at home judge harshly.

If it sounds a little bitter, perhaps it is. But the Met Gala is actually a blast, a celebration of excessive fashion and the beautiful people wearing them. This kind of gay fantasia — a mixture of eleganza and judgment — used to be much more common in the days of Fashion Police and “Who Wore It Best?” sections in tabloids. Nowadays, celebrities are lashing out against fashion critics with abandon, and the tradition of simply judging the clothes of the rich and famous can feel out of step with the culture. But the Met Gala is the exception to the rule.

This year’s theme was “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” and some celebrities had difficulty sussing out exactly what that meant. Camp is mostly defined by taste level. The idea is to go against what is in good taste when dressing to a camp theme — you’re going for irony. Simple, right? Well, not quite. Because taste is subjective, you’ve got a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about what “camp” really is. But there were some true triumphs — including some from queer attendees.

Who got the theme right?

My personal favourite was country singer Kacey Musgraves, who arrived to the event dressed as Barbie, complete with a pink Dream car. Musgraves turned the whole day into part of her performance, posting Barbie accessories on her social media. She even brought a hair dryer bag! She held her hands perfectly straight like a doll! It’s a bizarre look, but more than that, it’s a full idea. Coming dressed for a high-fashion event like a Barbie is an off-kilter choice that could only work for this particular theme. It would even seem like too much on Halloween; that is true camp.

The man behind the look is Moschino’s Jeremy Scott, who deserves major kudos, but I have to bow down here to Musgraves most of all. Whether she’s on RuPaul’s Drag Race, stepping out at the Met Gala, or even performing Selena at the Houston Rodeo, she makes an effort not just to show up in spaces that she doesn’t naturally belong to, but to really add something of her own. She’s an engaged participant in culture, even as she makes culture herself.

Kacey Musgraves at the 2019 Met Gala. Credit: Doug Peters/starmaxinc.com

Other highlights included Tiffany Haddish, who elevated a solid outfit with her own supply of fried chicken (as fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo noted, truly high camp), Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne and Teen Spirit star Elle Fanning. The latter two didn’t have the biggest looks of the night, but that’s because, like with Musgraves, camp isn’t necessarily about size. It’s about the impact, and Lyonne’s hair and Fanning’s nails are both super high-impact.

The god-tier looks, though, belonged to Janelle Monáe (her breast transformed into an eye that actually blinked), Billy Porter (an exuberant bird-of-prey look that would make Bob Mackie himself gasp), Lupita Nyong’o (neon camp realness), host Lady Gaga (four looks in one, with a full reveal), and Celine Dion (total ice goddess). Dion gets extra points for thinking the theme was about sleepaway camp. That’s especially campy.

Who got the theme wrong?

There were a couple of misses from celebrities who had the theme right, but didn’t really take it far enough — Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke, Jared Leto — or who ignored the theme in favour of something just striking or beautiful, like Cardi B and Serena Williams. (Cardi’s look got a ton of press, and I do think there’s a lot to recommend to it, but I think its impact is in its silhouette, not its camp value.) All of them get a pass, though, in comparison to the boys who thought they could just show up in a slightly embellished suit and call it a day. Richard Madden and Taron Egerton, you two are the stars of an upcoming Elton John biopic! This is unacceptable! Elton would never!

Cardi B at the Met Gala. Credit: Jennifer Graylock/Press Association

Gaga’s fellow host Harry Styles came a little closer, with a sheer top, block heels and his ears newly pierced for the occasion, but could have taken his look even further. Project Runway host Karlie Kloss is my worst-dressed of the night, showing up without even trying the theme — and looking rough to boot.

What did queer celebrities wear to the event?

I’ll give the Gala a lot of credit: This year’s event was well-stacked with queer folks. Not all of them held up their end of the bargain, though; Porter and Monáe proved to be a bit of an anomaly. Both nailed the whimsy and the fun in their looks, entertaining us as much as themselves. Seriously, look at photos of Porter — he is performing his look, not simply wearing it. Some other LGBTQ2 attendees didn’t do enough to match them.

Drag Race winners Aquaria and Violet Chachki made history as the first drag queens to walk the Met Gala red carpet, but didn’t do much to stand out. Yes, Aquaria wore a backwards ponytail headpiece, and Violet’s was a glove dress. But these are subtle touches that only glance at the idea of camp, not the high-impact pieces that others brought. RuPaul himself didn’t even bother to show up in drag, which felt like a total waste. I know he only does so when he’s getting paid, but you’d think the Met Gala could be an exception.

Lena Waithe at the Met Gala. Credit: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

I do want to highlight two queer standouts, though: First, actor Michael Urie, who embodied the full spirit of camp by coming in half-drag. His was the most down-the-plate pitch for drag I can imagine, and he hit it out of the park. But on an entirely different note, there was Lena Waithe, who so memorably wore a Pride flag-themed look to last year’s Met Gala. This time, she opted for something even blunter: a jacket that reads on the back, “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp.” Spilling tea, even if it offends the mostly-white tastemakers of the event? I’d say that’s camp as hell.

So: how queer was the Met Gala?

I’m not sure I could make a great argument for queer — nor campy, for that matter. There were too many misunderstandings of the assignment (especially from LGBTQ2 people) for either of those. What it was, instead, was fascinating: scores of celebrities working hard to come up with something interesting to wear, even if they didn’t totally get camp right.