Conservators ‘speechless’ that Kim Kardashian wore Monroe dress

Textile conservators and fashion curators are appalled that beauty mogul Kim Kardashian donned Marilyn Monroe’s iconic Jean Louis gown for the 2022 Met Gala. Monroe’s show-stopping garment became famous 60 years ago when the Hollywood legend wore it to a breathless “Happy.” Birthday” to then President John F. Kennedy.

A pop culture phenomenon in his own right, Kardashian became the only other person to don the historic garment for Monday’s Met Gala, a “gilded glamour” themed affair at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The star of “The Kardashians” joined hundreds of toasts at the opening of the Costume Institute’s latest exhibit, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” which celebrates historical context and tells stories of unsung heroes in early America. fashion design.

“I’m frustrated because it detracts from the professional treatment of period costumes,” said Sarah Scaturro, chief curator of the Cleveland Museum of Art and former head of the Met’s Costume Institute. “In the 1980s, a bunch of costume professionals got together to decide that period costume shouldn’t be worn. So my concern is that colleagues in historical costume collections are now being pressured by important people to let them wear clothes.”

Cara Varnell, a longtime independent art curator who specializes in period clothing, puts it this way: “We just don’t carry archived historical pieces,” she says. ‘Of course, if you have a Charles James in your grandmother’s closet and you want to wear it, fine. But something archived means it has enough cultural significance that we value it and want to preserve it. The dress represents something very important – it is part of our collective cultural heritage. I am speechless.”

The reality TV star took on the tailor’s theme and historical context requirements by selecting Monroe’s bejeweled dress, which she described as “the original naked dress.” The “Some Like It Hot” star herself had to be sewn into the piece prior to her sensuous performance in 1962 at a Madison Square Garden fundraiser that took place a few months before her untimely 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 for the Balenciaga look? What is the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe,” Kardashian, 41, told Vogue. “For me, the most Marilyn Monroe moment was when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to JFK. It was that look.”

In this May 19, 1962 photo provided by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, actress Marilyn Monroe wears the iconic dress she wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, during a reception in New York City.

(Cecil Stoughton / White House Photos / John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum / Associated Press)

Monroe’s dress, the most expensive dress ever sold at auction, is made of a delicate fabric called a souffle. It is stretchy and resilient when new, but becomes weaker and more brittle with age. In addition, it is embroidered with heavy beadwork – thousands of hand-sewn beads. “Gravity can do a lot of damage,” said Kevin Jones, curator of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “Every time you move, something breaks, even if you can’t see it. Under a microscope, it would show all these tiny slits. And in the long run, that would become a big problem. †

What’s in danger, Jones adds, is more than just a dress. The garment is a vehicle that channels history – “it speaks” – and damage to it has cultural ramifications for future generations.

“Our job is to take the garment to the next generation with as little damage as possible, so that in 500 years these objects will be around to talk about our history, our collective history as people, design, technology, art and culture.” ,” Jones says. “All of that is fused into a single object, in this case a piece of clothing. It represents a moment in time.”

Ripley’s believe it or not! in Orlando lent the dress — believed to be now worth more than $10 million — to Kardashian after purchasing it for nearly $5 million in 2016. In a statement, Ripley’s said it “strongly believes that this dress, with both political and pop-cultural significance, is the most famous piece of twentieth-century culture.” (The Monroe and Kardashians dress and some accessories will be on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Hollywood starting Memorial Day weekend for a limited time.)

“We are truly proud to be the patrons of such an iconic artifact and are excited to add to its cultural significance with Kim Kardashian, sharing the story of Marylin Monroe and her iconic career with an entirely new generation. Ripley’s VP of Publishing and Licensing Amanda Joiner said in a statement Monday.

It’s worth noting that Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is not a museum. It is part of a private for-profit “attraction company” as it calls itself, with themed locations around the world. While Kardashian didn’t pay the company a fee to don the dress, she donated money — Ripley’s wouldn’t reveal how much — to two organizations on Ripley’s behalf.

“She’s donating to two Florida-based organizations — a goodwill gesture in appreciation for us allowing her to wear the dress,” Joiner added in an interview. “We are not disclosing their names, but they are organizations that we have worked with in the past and they target youth in the arts and underserved communities.”

Kardashian, the shapewear founder of Skims, who went blonde for the event and climbed the Met’s Grand Staircase with her boyfriend Pete Davidson, also said she didn’t fit the dress initially. She lost 16 pounds for the occasion because she was not allowed to change the dress and reportedly had to drape a fur stole over the partially closed zipper. After taking photos in the dress, Kardashian then changed into a replica dress for the gala itself, Ripley’s said, noting that “great care was taken in preserving this piece of history.”

Kardashian also said armed guards and gloves were needed in her assembly.

“With input from garment [conservators], appraisers, registrars and insurance companies, the condition of the garment was top priority,” said Ripley’s. “No changes were made to the dress.”

John Corcoran, director of exhibitions and archives for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! — and the person in charge of conservation there — added that Kardashian was only allowed to wear the dress after adhering to several guidelines. That included no body makeup, no alterations, and just wearing the garment for the red carpet portion of the evening. “There was no damage during last night’s event,” Corcoran said in a statement, adding that Kardashian “has become — and added to — a flight attendant in his history.”

But according to Scaturro, there are still unavoidable dangers: perspiration, sunlight and oxygen, along with changes in temperature and humidity, pose a threat to such a fragile garment. “Applying it to a human body will damage it no matter how careful you are,” she says.

On Wednesday, the dress will return to the Ripley’s Vault in Orlando, Corcoran notes. He describes the room as a dark, temperature and humidity controlled room. To maintain the integrity of the fabric, the dress is not washed. It will be housed in a case, mounted on a mold and covered with acid-free cotton muslin.

“The shape helps prevent creasing and stress on the dress,” says Corcoran, “while the muslin protects it from light, moisture, and environmental contaminants.”

How did the dress get to 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 the garment’s history – and it didn’t have to be,” she says. “I was a bit flabbergasted by the whole decision to wear it at all because it didn’t really fit the theme of the night — and they made a full replica, so why not just wear the replica?”

If there’s a benefit to the incident, some curators and restorers said, it would spark a conversation about fashion conservation. But the risks outweigh the rewards, Jones says.

“When you wear something, there’s stress and tension,” he says. “Once it’s damaged, it’s always damaged. You can’t go back.”

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