The theme of the 2019 Met Gala is camp, and the event is a celebration of art, exaggeration, irony, and love through the lens of fashion. So who better for designer Michael Kors to invite as his guest than Bette Midler, an icon of stage, film, music, and, of course, all things camp?
Midler and Kors graciously gave the Cut a behind-the-scenes look at their Met Gala preparations. Midler was getting ready to attend as an “actual” social butterfly — in an outfit that took 1,170 hours to embroider and included beaded 3-D butterflies and a Stephen Jones top hat. Her date and daughter, Sophie von Haselberg, dressed as a campfire in a gown that took 1,700 hours to embroider (and in another Stephen Jones headpiece).
Midler and Kors also kindly spoke with the Cut ahead of the big event. The interviews below have been lightly edited and condensed for length.
The Cut: Why did you pick this dress?
Bette Midler: It picked me! It was designed for me by Michael Kors, an old, dear friend and one of the funniest people on the planet. Whenever I hear the words custom Kors, I leap! We both agreed that it had to be something that reflects my love of nature, and here we are! I flipped my lid! Or rather, Stephen Jones’s lid!
What does camp mean to you?
Camp is love of artifice, exaggeration, theatricality and the grand gesture, and a way of living life through a mocking, distorting lens. It’s also a protective device and an affected manner of speaking and presenting yourself, the original gender-bending. It has its roots in gay subculture, but I have to say, hardly anyone camps in the old-school manner anymore except drag queens. I miss it. I have one friend in L.A. who’s old-school. We go for martinis and scream for hours.
What was it like to work with Michael Kors on this?
We talked a lot about how things have changed in the last 40 to 50 years. Both of us are familiar with Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” which is fascinating because it seems to be written in a kind of code. Nowhere does she mention the words gay or homosexual; she only talks about “those in the know.”
What is the campiest thing about you?
I was way more camp when I was younger! Oh, Mary, my nerves! Because I had a lot of gay friends, I couldn’t help but experience camp firsthand. Chorus lines in Broadway shows used to be Camp City! In fact, Arthur Bell, a journalist for The Village Voice, accused me of being a woman imitating a man imitating a woman. I was indignant until I realized he might be right, and I started toning it down as soon as that dawned on me.
What do you think is the campiest film role you’ve ever taken on?
So many to choose from! I think I have to say Winifred Sanderson in Hocus Pocus, which was out to lunch on so many levels. Absurd, baroque, nutty as a fruitcake, but entirely self-aware. I loved her.
The Cut: What is it about Bette Midler that made you know she’d be a great guest?
Michael Kors: Working with Bette is always a dream. I knew she would want to go all out with her look and be totally fearless, so I was excited to work with her on coming up with a perfect look.
Did you know her before this? What were your first impressions?
I saw my first Bette Midler concert as a teenager and immediately fell in love with her. I always related to her mixture of smarts, sass, and bravado. I met her at a concert over 20 years ago and feel fortunate to have gotten to be close friends with her over the years. Bette is compassionate, smart as a whip, and full of passion, humor, and strength. The work she has done with the New York Restoration Project is so inspiring. When she sees a problem, she rolls up her sleeves, gets the job done, and makes a difference.
What does camp mean to you?
Camp to me is all about extravagance and giving everything that wink of humor and theatricality.
What is the campiest thing you’ve ever put on the runway?
Our fall runway show had a touch of camp with lots of eccentricity, glamour, and extravagance. It was a dance club at ten in the morning, complete with disco balls, glitter, and a surprise performance by Barry Manilow.
What do you think makes someone a camp icon?
A great sense of humor, an affinity for the outlandish, and a one-of-a-kind personality.
How did you ask Bette to be your date?
Officially, Bette’s date is her daughter and mine is Gigi Hadid, but we’re all sitting together. When I heard about the theme, I picked up the phone and asked Bette to come with me.
What is it about Bette’s dress that screams camp to you?
This dress turns Bette into an actual social butterfly. From the 3-D butterflies that are flying out of her gown to the Stephen Jones–designed top hat, there’s an air of playfulness and glamour. I love that in this hat she has literally flipped her lid.
See the sketches that inspired the look below plus pics of the two getting ready.