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Rihanna on the 2018 Met Gala red carpet
Hector Retamal/Getty Images

The Met Gala is like the Olympics for the celebs, models and other unnaturally attractive, fashion-y people who attend it. They prepare for months, undergoing grueling beauty treatments and working with their stylists in order to go for the gold at the main event: the red carpet. 

But the starlets can’t just turn up in any pretty party dress; they have to abide by the theme. You know, “Manus x Machina” in 2016, for which Taylor Swift showed up in Louis Vuitton armor; or "Punk: Chaos to Couture," when we got Miley Cyrus rocking a fishnet dress with a spiky ’do to match. And who could forget “Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century,” when supermodel Amber Valletta showed up as Marie Antoinette (casual)? The theme, in case you were wondering, is selected by Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s chief curator, and then approved by top brass at the museum, including Anna Wintour.

The sartorial stakes are even higher in 2019 thanks to this year’s theme, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” If you’re confused about this one, well, same. But it helps to think about it in the context of Susan Sontag’s totally worth-a-read 1964 essay, Notes on “Camp.”

“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” Sontag surmised in the bulleted piece. She noted that the theory can be traced back to the French court under Louis XIV but also called out that camp is more than just extravagance or over-the-top flair. In fact, there’s usually a cultural identity or social code in play. Think John Waters’s Pink Flamingos. Or Tim Curry in pearls in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Sontag’s most salient observation: “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious.”

Frances McDormand at the 2018 Met Gala

Looking for solid, physical examples of “camp” in fashion? It’s Frances McDormand striking a dramatic pose in a voluminous, teal Valentino cape with a fluttering headpiece at last year’s Met Gala. Or the absolutely ridiculously tiny Jacquemus bags that went from runway to internet sensation and can maybe fit one Tic Tac. Or Björk parading around in a Swan Dress at the Oscars in 2001. In fact, that exact design will be on display in the coordinating Costume Institute exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will run from May 9 through September 8, 2019.

“Basically, we go from sun kings to drag queens,” Wintour explained about the carefully curated “Camp” show, comprised of around 175 items.

If the theme still sounds confusing, don’t worry; that’s because it is. And I suspect it will be more a “you know it when you see it” situation come May 6. 

Surely, some clueless stars will misinterpret the theme, showing up in actual camping gear and cargo pants (hey, at least utility gear is trending). Others are likely to skim the surface, opting for a frock that’s simply kitschy or headline-grabbing. “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish,” Sontag pointed out.  

It’s all but certain that Rihanna—always one to relish in her own artifice—will get the theme right. You can base that wager on her impeccable Met Gala track record, including last year, when she dressed as a blinged-out pope for the “Heavenly Bodies” theme. But also consider the time she dressed up as a blunt-smoking version of Marie Antoinette for the cover of CR Fashion Book or the time she wore a $22K heart-shaped fur coat from Saint Laurent…to stroll around NYC at 7 a.m.

Lady Gaga at the 2016 Met Gala
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

The hosts for the evening, Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, Harry Styles and Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, are also pretty much guaranteed to arrive on the carpet in sartorial home runs.

Personally, I’d like to see a wave of vintage at the Gala, turning the carpet into a blast from the past. Among my wish list of campy dresses are: the Viktor & Rolf duvet cover gown that’s accessorized with a pillow (it’s calling for a DIY bedhead moment), any iconic design from Alexander McQueen’s early years (including the ones that were accessorized with unicorn horns and antlers) and some of Jeremy Scott’s best hits at Moschino (including a draped homage to Budwiser and caution tape couture, hard hat included).

But regardless of whether our favorite stars end up on the best or worst dressed lists, they should keep the closing line from Sontag’s famous essay in mind: “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment.”

Let the Gala games begin.

RELATED: The 17 Most Dramatic Dresses From the 2018 Met Gala

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