Why Kim K’s Met Gala Marilyn dress has divided historians

Dress historians are left divided over Kim Kardashian donning Marilyn Monroe’s dress for the 2022 Met Gala. The crystal-encrusted Jean Louis gown cemented itself in fashion history when it was worn on stage by Marilyn Monroe for her infamously sultry performance of Happy Birthday to President Kennedy, in 1962.

This year’s fundraiser at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, in honour of the Costume Institute’s newest exhibition In America: An Anthology of Fashion, boasted the theme Gilded Glamour. With Monroe an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a period situated in the mid-20th century, it is hard to see how Kardashian’s look adhered to the late-19th century theme. Some dress historians have been left reeling over Kardashian’s decision to re-debut the gown.

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“This Met Gala was about the concept of Gilded Age, which has nothing to do with the time that Monroe was active,” says dress historian and curator Dr Veronica Isaac. “If I knew that she had consistently referenced Monroe as an inspiration within her life, then you’d think ‘Okay, I can see it as a personal link between these two people and she’s drawn to the dress as much for what it looks like and its status within the public consciousness, as for its connection to Monroe.’”

Isaac, who is course leader of MA Curation at London College of Fashion, added: “But to her, it was a dress that was strategically clever to wear. She knew there would be debate around it.”

Seemingly overruling the theme, in favour of a do-over from 2021’s bizarre all-black Balenciaga morph suit, Kardashian’s motive in choosing the gown is at the heart of many of the critiques. Kardashian seemed to show little regard for the dress code, or Monroe’s story. The newly blonde mogul told Vogue: “The idea came to me after the gala in September last year. I thought to myself what would I have done for the American theme if it had not been for the Balenciaga look? What’s the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe.”

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Popular YouTuber Laura Jane Atelier is known for her informative old Hollywood-centred content, producing in-depth analysis of pop cultural phenomena for her 105k followers. She agrees with Isaac’s opposition to the integrity of the look: “Kim deliberately wore the dress knowing that people would be upset about it, attracting the global press. She knew exactly what she was doing, and it worked.”

In preparation for her modern take on Monroe’s original look, Kardashian spend 14 hours harshly bleaching her jet black hair to match Monroe’s iconic white blonde locks. The major alterations to her appearance did not stop there, with Kardashian rapidly losing a whopping 16lbs in three weeks to fit the dress. A host of armchair commentators have subsequently clashed over what this means for feminism, body image and the message it sends to young fans.

While that is an issue for another feature, it does seem to prove Kardashian will go to extremes to grab the spotlight.

However, not all historians believe this was just about a plea for attention. Caroline Stevenson, Head of Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, explains: “Monroe’s life story has been exposed and scrutinised in recent years through various films and documentaries.”

Stevenson continues: “Although she is a cultural symbol of American glamour, she lived a complex and tormented personal life and was often criticised in quite misogynistic ways. In the same way we could view Kardashian’s decision to wear the dress as her identifying more deeply with her relationship to America and the ways in which she is vilified, but also objectified in the media.”

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The glittering gown’s first outing was back in 1962 at President Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebration. Monroe took to the stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden, to sing a sultry rendition of Happy Birthday, in what Isaac references as the “naked look dress”.

Isaac adds: “It was rebelling against the era. Monroe’s dress style is pushing towards the modernity of the 60s and really celebrating her body.”

The audience audibly gasped as Monroe peeled off a white ermine fur coat to reveal her figure-hugging dress. For decades Monroe’s relationship to Kennedy has been a form of debate, with rumours of an affair between the two.

Dr Marie McLoughlin, Senior Lecturer of Design History at University of Brighton says: “The moment has grown in significance since it has been learnt that both President Kennedy and his brother [Robert Kennedy] had affairs with Marilyn Monroe.” The serenade, which President Kennedy sarcastically noted as “sweet, wholesome”, came only ten weeks before Monroe’s mysterious death.

The tragedy that surrounds Monroe’s life makes this almost an issue of feminism to Isaac, who explains: “We see how damaged she was by her life and the world she was part of and to ignore the significance of that is rather tone deaf.”

Isaac says that by wearing the dress, Kardashian has conflated herself with Monroe, and added her own image to the iconography around it: “She has overwritten what Monroe brought to it and is not showing respect for a fellow woman, which is a big deal.”

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The gown was bought in 2016 for a record breaking $4.8million by entertainment chain Ripley’s Believe or Not. Now housed in a vault in Orlando, the piece has been preserved under temperature-controlled settings and kept on muslin cloth dress forms. These conditions have helped to preserve the gown’s fragile soufflé silk fabric, only for Kardashian to fasten the back of the dress with harsh cotton ties.

Although Kardashian has stirred up controversy with her decision to don the artefact, her look has certainly cemented a cultural tie between herself and Monroe forever.

“The dress connects both of these celebrities and cements them – and their curves – within the history of American glamour and desire,” Stevenson says.

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