Textile conservators have expressed outrage that Kim Kardashian wore Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress up the steps to the Met Gala on Monday, May 2. Monroe donned the dress while performing her iconic rendition of the song in 1962 at Madison Square Garden for John F. Kennedy, with whom she’s long thought to have had an affair. She died only a few months later.
Kardashian borrowed the dress from the collection of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in Orlando. John Corcoran, director of exhibits and archives for the company, told Hyperallergic that Ripley’s is a “privately-owned attractions company with the goal of inspiring and entertaining guests of all ages in unconventional ways.” It is not an accredited museum.
Ripley’s purchased the dress at auction in 2016 for $4.8 million, the highest price ever paid for a dress.
The gown, based on a sketch by Bob Mackie for Hollywood costume designer Jean-Louis, contains thousands of crystals hand-sewn onto thin silk fabric. Kardashian is the only other person besides Monroe who has worn the dress. According to a press release, Kardashian changed into a replica before entering the gala and no alterations were made to the real dress.
“Wearing historic clothing damages it. Full stop,” read an Instagram post from the former head of conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Sarah Scaturro. She outlined how lotions and perfumes as well as walking on the hem and other missteps can cause damage to a garment. Her profile has since gone private, but the statement was reposted by Madelief Hohé, curator of fashion and costume at the Dutch Kunst Museum in the Hague.
“When I was the head of the Costume Institute’s conservation lab I had to swat off requests by people (including Anna Wintour) to have irreplaceable objects in the collection be worn by models and celebrities,” Scaturro’s post said. “Now fashion conservators, collection managers, and curators are going to suffer under pressure from fancy powerful rich people who think they should be able to wear objects in costume collections since after all ‘it’s just a dress’ rather than irreplaceable fragile material culture.”
In an interview with Vogue, Kardashian said that she was “extremely respectful to the dress and what it means to American history,” adding that she “would never want to sit in it or eat in it or have any risk of any damage.”
In 1986, the Costume Society of America passed a resolution that prohibited wearing objects in collections.
“Whenever you move, something is giving way, even if you can’t see it,” Kevin Jones, curator of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising’s museum, told the Los Angeles Times. “Under a microscope it would show all these little splits. And over time that would be a big problem.”
Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, is the primary organizer of the Met Gala. Vogue and the head of the Met’s Costume Institute decide the themed dress code for the annual fete. This year, it was “gilded glamour,” a vague phrase many celebrities interpreted as a reference to the Gilded Age. The correlating Met exhibit is titled In America: An Anthology of Fashion and opens this Saturday, May 7.
Monroe had to be sewn into the skin-tight dress. Kardashian said that in order to fit into the garment, she’d lost 16 pounds in three weeks — a comment that was attacked in viral Tweets and articles for the unrealistic and unhealthy message it sent to young fans.
Corcoran of Ripley’s told Hyperallergic that Kardashian’s treatment of the dress had made her “a steward — and added to — its history.” Whereas accession into a museum usually freezes an object in time, Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 dress continues to make a statement.
Editor’s note 5/5/22 2:30pm EDT: A previous version of this article referred to John F. Kennedy, Jr. The article has been corrected.