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Kim Kardashian vs the dress history community

It's been about two weeks now since the Met Gala and the viral outburst that has had the historic dress community (and many others) up in arms.

I've been fuming ever since I saw this image on Instagram, and haven't really been able to put my thoughts onto paper. In order for me to come to terms with what happened, I figured I'd do a piece on why the historic dress community is so upset.

Just in case you don't know, this year's Met Gala, which is an annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, provided the following theme for its ticketholders - Gilded Glamour. This theme, of which only a handful actually adhered to, relates to America from 1870 - 1900.

I didn't watch any of the Met Gala arrivals, so I'm not really even sure what the range of outfits were. I did hear that Billie Eilish's costume was on point, and a lot of others took 'gilded' to mean 'golden,' as in the golden age of film. It seems Kim interpreted the theme this way as well. Concerning her outfit, she stated: "What’s the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe.”

Yes, Kim Kardashian wore Marylin Monroe's 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' dress - not a replica. Rumors (maybe fact at this point?) have stated that she was dressed on site in a room provided by the Met, that she wore the actual dress on the red carpet, and that she then changed into a replica as soon as she painfully climbed the steps into the event.

In a way, I shouldn't be blaming Kim. She's most likely ignorant of museum ethics (a shocking realization for me when a board member at my own museum asked if I'd worn a dress from our collection the other day - I guess not everyone thinks about these things), and the overwhelmingly taboo nature of borrowing objects from museums. Instead I blame the higher ups of Ripley's, and the trickle down effect that put collections staff and conservators in such an uncomfortable position. I also blame the Met for allowing her to dress onsite, condoning her disrespect for historic dress and costume collections - the very thing they're raising money to preserve.

Before I go any further, here's some more information on this dress and why it's such a big deal that Kim wore it:

This dress was custom made for Marilyn Monroe by French designer Jean Louis (1907-1997) at the cost of $1,440 in 1962. It's made of nude soufflé silk, a material that is no longer available, and encrusted with 2500 hand sewn crystals. The nude color of the dress was dyed and/or sourced to match her skin tone, and Marilyn eschewed wearing undergarments with it as she wanted a flawless fit. It was reportedly so tight that she was sewn into the dress just before the Democratic National Committee fundraiser for John F. Kennedy. At this event, she sang her iconic rendition of 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President,' further cementing the 'naked' dress into pop, political, and material culture.

Owned by Anna Strasberg, who's husband received the majority of Marilyn's personal effects after her death in August of 1962, the dress was sold in 1999 through Christie's, and again through Julien Auctions in 2016. Ripley's Believe It or Not! purchased it for $4.8 million, with the tagline of 'World's Most Expensive Dress.' Tacky.

Besides the above, here's several other reasons why Kim wearing this dress is so problematic:

  1. Marilyn's dress is a pop and material culture icon with immense historical significance.

This is true for several reason. First, the dress was made specifically for Marilyn, so much so that it was sewn onto her for a flawless fit. Second, it sparked a trend of 'naked' dresses, which caused a public outrage over its indecency, especially at a political event. Third, Marilyn supposedly never had the dress cleaned, and so had DNA traces of Marilyn on the fabric.

2. Handling historic garments is precarious, and wearing one is even more dangerous.

Moving, handling, and wearing puts unnecessary strain on clothes, and items should be handled as little as possible. The acts of putting a dress on, walking or moving, and taking it off put so much stress on the seams, the fabric, and the closures. In this case, the dress was made for Marilyn's measurements, and in effect wouldn't fit Kim. Case in point - she not only had trouble getting into the garment, she lost 16 pounds (another issue in itself), and the dress still wouldn't close. Kim's body shape is completely different than Marilyn's, putting pressure in all the places where the dress should instead have support.

In a video released by TMZ of Kim at the initial fitting of the dress, you can see several concerning things:

- the conservators, or whoever they were, were raking their white cotton gloved hands upward in forceful motions over the crystals to try and smooth the fabric over Kim's body. Force such as this could have popped the crystals out of place, as well as caused snagging, or tears

-the dressers then began pulling the dress up around her hips. Pulling puts uneven stress on the areas where you're tugging, and I'm surprised the dress didn't just rip where they were pulling.

- they're wearing cotton gloves. The current school of thought is clean hands or nitrile gloves. Cotton collects dust and dirt, which could then scratch or break the fibers, not to mention that however they're washed, the gloves may retain some of the chemicals from the cleaning agents (solvents), which then could transfer to the garment. Plus, cotton gloves provide less dexterity than nitrile or bare hands.

Kim could barely walk up the steps at the museum, and this only accentuates the irresponsibility of letting Kim wear the dress. The careful movements don't matter if she was stepping all over the hem, or if her leg was positioned wrong, putting stress on the seams of the dress.

Courtesy of Taylor Hill / Getty Images

3. Kim at one point on the red carpet professed to not wearing 'her usual body makeup' when she wore this dress. I'm glad for this, but it still doesn't matter. Natural body oils and sweat cause just as much damage to garments regardless of whether you're active or not. Humans create natural oils through their skin, and this is why museum professions wear gloves when handling things. Both of these stain, and in many cases washing garments won't remove these items. Ever have a white shirt that even when you clean it, it still has staining to the color or under the sleeves? That's from our natural body composition, and in some cases, your body oils react to something you might be wearing, like deodorant.

4. Lights and camera flashes from the red carpet are also extremely problematic. Although it was 15 minutes on the carpet, the damage from the visible and UV lights has been done. I was looking very briefly at a camera flash lux, and without getting into too much camera jargon, it looks like the light power a camera flash over 1 square meter turns out to be 1.4 MILLION lumens. Light levels for close should be no higher than 50 lux. Some damage was definitely done, although it's not visible damage, just in that 15 minutes the dress sauntered down the carpet. Light damage results in fading of colors and weakened fibers, essentially making the garment brittle before shattering into dust. A very real concern where conservation is concerned. Light damage is irreversible, and once it has happened, there's no coming back from it.

5. The pop culture significance has now been rewritten (even Ripley's has acknowledged this on their interpretive panel for the dress), which for me is somewhat upsetting. Yes, Kim is pop culture icon for today's society, but her actions in losing 16 pounds over the course of a week just to fit into a dress that was made for someone else's body type sets a horrible example for teenagers, young adults, and individuals with eating disorders or body dysmorphia. Additionally, Marilyn was the last to wear this dress, and supposedly it was never washed. It was Marilyn's dress, and that can't really be said for it anymore. As Janet Arnold, probably the most respected costume historian of all time, once stated, "when a garment has been cleaned or conserved, it can cease to be a historic document." There's no cleaning Marilyn's dress, and Kim wearing it has altered the piece's history.

Finally, Kim's ask and the steps that followed have established a precedent that now anyone with money and influence can wear, borrow, use, insert whatever term you'd like here, for a price. THIS IS NOT HOW MUSEUMS WORK, NOR HOW THEY SHOULD WORK.

I guess what it really boils down to though, is that Ripley's isn't actually a museum.

As a museum professional - and for all of the reasons identified above - I don't agree with anyone wearing antique or historic garments - especially for those relating to museum collections, and I loathe the idea of celebrities being able to throw a bunch of money at something and they'll get their way - it makes me feel as my chosen profession is a joke.

As a side note - private collections and indigenous ceremonial collections are a different story, and those people I know who wear vintage take the most loving care of their items. I'm mainly focused on museum collections. Pieces are in a museum for a reason, not so they can be a celebrity's personal closet so they can play dress up.

Thankfully, on May 9, 2022, ICOM Costume, or the international committee for museums and collections of costume, issued a statement in direct response to Kim wearing Marilyn's dress:

This discussion shouldn't have even happened though, since ICOM in their 1980s guidelines on costume collections very clearly state 'Objects intended for preservation must not be worn.'

This brings into question whether or not Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum identifies this piece as something that should be preserved. For $5 million, I would certainly hope they would have the best interest of this dress in mind, yet they allowed Kim to wear it.

I'll get off my soapbox now. But I will say this - in the end, Kim and Ripley's got what they wanted: attention.

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