There are a few celebrities who have earned the right to eschew the Met Ball’s theme: Rihanna, although she never does, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, because it’s her party and Beyoncé because, well, she’s Beyoncé. Anyone who falls below the highest rung of the fame ladder (influencers, models, socialites) is derided and mocked for daring to veer even slightly from the dress code. But one star teeters along the edge of this very thin line: Kim Kardashian.
In 2013, the reality star wore a floral gloved gown for the Punk: Chaos to Couture event and last year she wore a black bodysuit from Spanish house Balenciaga to an evening celebrating the best of US fashion. She’s often made fun of for her choices, but rarely is Kardashian skewered simply for failing to match the gala’s theme and she’s praised for bringing some interest to what can be quite an underwhelming evening, sartorially speaking.
On Monday, Kardashian walked the carpet and famous Met steps in the exact dress Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang “happy birthday” to President John F Kennedy in 1962. The most expensive dress ever sold at auction at $4.8m (Monroe paid designer Jean-Louis $1,448 at the time) now belongs to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, and it has not been worn by anyone since the president’s 45th birthday. It is usually kept in pristine condition on a muslin dress-form in a dark vault kept at 20 degrees at 40-50 per cent humidity. Fashion historians were shocked and dismayed to see it in public.
“The Met and Vogue celebrating putting a museum artifact on Kim Kardashian is a new low,” tweeted former Head Conservator of the Costume Institute at the museum (the very organisation the Met raises money for), Sarah Scaturro. Dr Veronica Isaac added: “Cannot believe this. Irreparable damage will have resulted. This is the exact opposite of curation. So many creative ways this effect could have been achieved. Devastating.”
But why? “It’s really unethical,” explains Vanessa Jones, Curator of Clothes at Leeds Museums and Galleries. “Until quite recently, clothing has been considered as quite a superficial thing to be interested in. Kim wearing this dress undermines the really important work that curators and conservators put into their collections. It makes our work look frivolous.”
A dress becomes an artefact when it is accepted into a museum’s collection, Jones argues, and dismisses the idea that just because Monroe’s gown is 60 years old, rather than hundreds that it is any less culturally valuable.
“Museums aren’t just historic sites. We collect contemporary objects too, but we treat them as if they are just as fragile as something from the 18th century.”
Anna Wintour approves all the attendee’s outfits prior to the event and works closely with the museum to put on the exhibition the gala serves to open, so it’s surprising to Jones that the Met would allow such a stunt.
“This piece has its own social and cultural context and carries huge meaning and significance for so many people. It will put pressure on other institutions to loan out garments for people to wear. ‘You wouldn’t go to a gallery and say, hi, please, can I borrow an artwork?’
“Now this dress is going to be remembered as the dress that Kim Kardashian wore to the Met Gala. The original reason the dress was collected in the first place is almost redundant. Its biography has been changed.”
Questions about how Kardashian got hold of the dress are inevitable and, as usual when it comes to celebrities, the answer comes down to who you know. “I’m a big fan of auctions and I own several JFK pieces so I know the owner of Julien’s [the auctioneers who originally sold the dress],” Kardashian revealed to Vogue. “He was able to connect me [with Ripley’s] and that’s how the conversation started.”
While fashion gatekeepers are up in arms about Ripley’s decision, they may find some comfort in the museum’s wariness in lending Kardashian the dress. She wasn’t allowed to try it on until she had proved she could fit into an exact replica, but when she flew down to Orlando, Florida for the fitting the copy version wouldn’t close (Monroe herself had to be sewn into the dress).
Dedicated to her vision, Kardashian went on a strict diet and lost 16lbs to make the dress fit – news that doesn’t track with the body-positivity movement’s idea that Monroe was plus-size and still considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. “I always thought she was extremely curvy,” admitted Kardashian.
In the end, Ripley’s allowed Kardashian to wear the dress for a few minutes while she walked the red carpet. Without her usual red carpet body make-up on, she got dressed in a changing room next to the steps, helped by a specialist conservator wearing white gloves. As soon as she reached the top of the stairs (which she had to practise walking up – both she and Monroe had restricted movement in the dress), she changed into the replica.
But that doesn’t make much of a difference, and the constant changing may even add to the stress put on the garment, argues Jones.
“Imagine if her finger went through the fabric. Textiles are one of the most fugitive objects that you can kind of look after. Light, relative humidity, any changes to kind of temperature really affect the material. If you have oil or grease or even sweat on your hands that can transfer on to the textile Every time we handle a garment we do everything we can not to touch it – we wear gloves and use acid free tissue paper. The fact that she has this dress literally touching her entire body is shocking.”
To play devil’s advocate, is there not a good side to Kardashian’s public parade of Monroe’s dress? After all, it was simply sitting in a vault, unseen and uncelebrated.
“That’s a non-argument,” says Jones. “I think the fact that [Ripley’s] had it means that they were doing it a favour saving it from going into a private collection, where literally no one would be able to see it. There are loads of reasons why they might not be able to put it on display – capacity, lack of staff. But to choose to put it on a living body over a mannequin within a controlled environment is crazy.”