The first Monday in May. To those in the know, the date alone is enough to cause excitement and anticipation. It’s when they hold the Met Gala, the annual party in New York to raise money for the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute and to mark the opening of the year’s new fashion exhibition. This years’s event took place this week.

When the event was founded in 1948 by fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, tickets cost a mere $50 each (whereas now they are $35,000 apiece). Diana Vreeland decided to up the ante in 1972, when she became a special consultant for the Costume Institute after being fired from her post as editor of Vogue. (It is rumoured that friends of hers – including Jackie Kennedy raised enough money for her salary for two years so she could work on the event.) She made significant changes, starting by hosting the event at the Met, rather than the Waldorf Astoria or the Rainbow Rooms as previously, and making what would be in hindsight the monumental decision to start inviting celebrities.

Through Vreeland’s years, Cher, Andy Warhol and Diana Ross were in attendance, showing how far it had moved away from its first incarnation as a closed high society and fashion insider event. Notably, she also made the decision to introduce a theme – which has become a touchstone for trends to come.

Themes have since ranged from retrospectives of designers such as Alexander McQueen and Comme Des Garçons, to celebrations of Eastern designs in “China: Through the Looking Glass” to last year’s incredible “Heavenly Bodies”, treading the line between Catholicism and kitsch.

This year’s theme was “Camp: Notes on Fashion”, inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay. One of the most fun themes of recent years, the most effective costumes didn’t opt for the obvious feathers and rhinestones. Camp is the language of outsiders, not the easiest argot for celebrities and models. So instead many chose to take their cues from Sontag’s idea of the “Camp eye”, a notion that covers both what we can see and how we see it.

Sontag says: “Not only is there a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things. Camp is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behaviour of persons. There are “campy” movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings … This distinction is important. True, the Camp eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.”

The Camp Eye was taken literally. The most memorable sight was Ezra Miller’s hauntingly-uncanny seven-eyed face, but eyes emboldened guests’ dresses as well. Janelle Monáe’s Christian Sirano dress had echoes of Picasso and Fornasetti, and her bra mirrored the curve of the breast to make a three-dimensional eye, complete with motorised eyelashes.

Others took the eye as an accessory – amping up their own eyes to the extreme. When Lady Gaga entered the catwalk in the first of her series of four looks, the Vogue interviewer exclaimed “I can see her eyelashes from over here.” Billy Porter, who arrived like an Egyptian deity, carried in by six men and sporting gold wings, made his face all about his eyes. His make-up artist painstakingly glued on one jewel at a time, building his eyes into statuesque jewels of their own. Gigi Hadid surrounded her eyes in white bird feathers for eyelashes that her make-up artist Erin Parsons cut herself and then individually applied.

This year’s attendees at the Met Gala, and Sontag herself, tapped into the perennial, enduring power of the eye, a symbol that has bled through fashion over the centuries. Eye miniatures, or “Lover’s Eye” jewellery became a popular statement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The most stylish of the English aristocrats would commission miniature portraits of their lovers depicting only their eye – so as to keep their identity hidden. These would be typically painted on ivory and surrounded by pearls or jewels and made into brooches that could be worn close to the heart.

These eyes have made their way into couture as well.

The queen of surreal fashion, Elsa Schiaparelli was known for her use of uncanny objects in her clothing. In 1950 she collaborated with Jean Cocteau to produce her own eye brooch, a pin on iron painted white with pupils made from blue glass.

In recent years, eyes have been everywhere in fashion. Filip Pagowski designed a red heart with eyes inside as a logo for Comme Des Garçon’s PLAY collection in 2002, which the brand described as “a sign, a symbol, a feeling”: it made eyes romantic and whimsical.

By contrast Fendi’s yellow monster eyes – emblazoned on bags, tops, jumpers, accessories – are deeper and darker, the eyes of a demon. Kenzo’s A/W 2013 collection used not a singular eye but eyes in droves, covering the skirts and dresses more like a pattern than a symbol. Ellie Saab used embellished eyes as a romantic glittering effect in her S/S 2017 couture collection, more reminiscent of the Victorian brooches than the stark graphics of Fendi and Kenzo.

Presented with the theme of Camp, the savviest Met Gala attendees recognised a truth of modern fashion: the eyes have it.

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