Textile conservatives and fashion conservatives alike are appalled that beauty mogul Kim Kardashian donned Marilyn Monroe’s iconic Jean Louis gown for the 2022 Met Gala. Monroe’s spectacular garment rose to fame 60 years ago when the Hollywood legend wore it to sing a breathless “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy.
Kardashian, a pop culture phenomenon in her own right, became the only other person to slip into historic attire for Monday’s Met Gala, a case on the theme of “golden glamour” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. ‘The Kardashians’ star joined hundreds to toast the opening of the Costume Institute’s new exhibit, ‘In America: An Anthology of Fashion,’ which examines historical context and recounts stories of unsung heroes from early American fashion design.
“I’m frustrated because it’s rolling back what is considered professional treatment for historical costume,” says Sarah Scaturro, chief conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and former director of the Met’s Costume Institute. “In the 1980s, a group of costume professionals came together to issue a resolution that historical costume should not be worn. So I’m afraid that colleagues in historical costume collections will be pressured by important people to let them wear clothes.
Cara Varnell, a longtime freelance art restorer specializing in historical clothing, put it this way: “We just don’t carry archived historical pieces,” she says. “Obviously if you have a Charles James hanging in your grandmother’s closet and you want to wear it, fine. But something that’s archived means it has enough cultural significance for us to appreciate it. and that we wanted to save it. The dress is something very important — it’s part of our collective cultural heritage. I’m speechless about that.
The reality TV star took on the theme of dress-up party and historical context requirements by selecting Monroe’s bejeweled dress, which she described as “the original nude dress.” The ‘Some Like It Hot’ star herself must have been sewn into the room ahead of her sultry 1962 performance at a Madison Square Garden fundraiser that took place a few months prior. his death.
“The idea really came to me after the gala last September. I thought to myself, what would I have done for the American theme if it hadn’t been the Balenciaga look? What’s the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe,” Kardashian, 41, said. vogue. “For me, the most Marilyn Monroe moment is when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to JFK, it was that look.”
Monroe’s dress, the most expensive dress ever sold at auction, is made of a delicate fabric called soufflé. It is stretchy and strong when new, but becomes weaker and more brittle with age. In addition, it is embroidered with heavy beads – thousands of hand-sewn beads. “Gravity can do a lot of damage,” says Kevin Jones, FIDM museum curator at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “Every time you move, something gives way, even if you can’t see it. Under the microscope, it would show all these little slits. And over time, that would be a big deal. ”
What’s at risk, Jones adds, is more than just a dress. Clothing is a vehicle for history – “it speaks” – and the damage it sustains has cultural consequences for generations to come.
“Our job is to pass the garment on to the next generation with as little damage as possible, so that in 500 years these items will be there to speak about our history, our collective history as people, design, technology, arts and culture,” says Jones. “It all merges into one object, in this case a piece of clothing. It represents a moment in time.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Orlando loaned the dress – estimated to be worth more than $10 million – to Kardashian after she acquired it in 2016 for nearly $5 million. In a statement, Ripley’s said in a statement that it “strongly believes that this dress, with both political and pop significance, is the most famous garment in 20th century culture.” (The dress and some of Monroe and Kardashian’s accessories will be on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not Hollywood for a limited time starting Memorial Day weekend.)
“We are truly proud to be stewards of such an iconic artifact and are thrilled to be able to add to its cultural significance with Kim Kardashian, who shares the story of Marylin Monroe and her iconic career with a whole new generation,” Ripley said. Vice President of Publishing and Licensing Amanda Joiner said in a statement Monday.
It should be noted that Ripley’s Believe It or Not is not a museum. It is part of a private, for-profit “attractions corporation,” as it refers to itself, with themed locations around the world. Although Kardashian didn’t pay the company a fee to don the dress, she donated the money — Ripley’s didn’t reveal the amount — to two organizations on Ripley’s behalf.
“She will donate to two Florida-based organizations — a goodwill gesture in appreciation for allowing us to wear the dress,” Joiner said in an interview. “We don’t release their names, but these are organizations we’ve worked with in the past, and they’re geared towards young people in the arts and underserved communities.”
Kardashian, the founder of Skims shapewear, who went blonde for the event and climbed the Met’s Grand Staircase with her boyfriend, Pete Davidson, also said she didn’t initially fit into the dress. She lost 16 pounds for the occasion because she was not allowed to alter the dress and would have had to drape a fur stole over the partially closed zipper. After taking photos in the dress, Kardashian changed into a replica dress for the gala, Ripley said, noting “great care has been taken to preserve this piece of history.”
Kardashian also said armed guards and gloves were needed during her fitting.
“With the contribution of the garment [conservators], appraisers, archivists and insurance, the condition of the garment was the top priority,” Ripley’s said. “No changes were made to the dress.”
John Corcoran, director of exhibits and archives at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which is in charge of curation, added that Kardashian could only wear the dress after following the guidelines. This included no body makeup, no alterations, and only wearing the garment for the red carpet portion of the evening. “No damage occurred at last night’s event,” Corcoran said in a statement, adding that Kardashian “became a steward to — and added to — her story.”
But Scaturro says there are still unavoidable dangers: sweat, sunlight and oxygen, in addition to changes in temperature and humidity, that threaten such a fragile garment. “Putting it on a human body will damage it, no matter how careful you are,” she says.
On Wednesday, the dress will return to Ripley’s vault in Orlando, Florida, Corcoran notes. He describes the space as a dark, temperature and humidity controlled room. In order to maintain the integrity of the fabric, the dress will not be washed. It will be housed in a case, mounted on a form and covered with an acid-free cotton muslin.
“The shape helps prevent creasing and stress on the dress,” says Corcoran, “while the chiffon protects it from light, moisture, and environmental contaminants.”
How will the dress arrive in Orlando? On Kardashian’s private jet, Ripley said.
Fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, author of “Worn on This Day: The Clothes That Made History,” says the whole incident is a bit meta.
“The Met Gala is now part of apparel history — and it didn’t have to be,” she says. “I was a little confused by the whole decision to wear it because it didn’t really fit the theme of the night – and they did a full replica, so why not just wear the replica?”
If there’s any upside to the incident, some curators and restorers said, it would spark a conversation around fashion conservation. But the risks outweigh the reward, Jones says.
“If you’re wearing something, there’s stress and tension,” he says. “Once it’s damaged, it’s always damaged. You cannot go back.