Textile conservators and fashion curators were left "speechless" after Kim Kardashian donned one of Marilyn Monroe's iconic dresses for the 2022 Met Gala.
According to Sarah Scaturro, former conservator at the Met’s Costume Institute, Kardashian's choice to wear Monroe's historic "Happy Birthday" dress "sets back professional treatment for historic costumes." She explains,
“In the ’80s, a bunch of costume professionals came together to state a resolution that historic costume should not be worn. So my worry is that colleagues in historic costume collections are now going to be pressured by important people to let them wear garments.”
Cara Varnell, a longtime independent art conservator specializing in historic dress, says you "just don’t wear archived historic pieces," elaborating,
"Something that’s archived means it has enough cultural importance that we value it and want to save it. The dress represents something very important — it’s part of our collective cultural heritage. I’m speechless over it.”
As the most expensive dress ever sold at auction, Monroe's gown is incredibly delicate. Kevin Jones, curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, explains how even wearing the dress once could do irreversible damage to it.
“Gravity can do a lot of damage. Whenever you move, something is giving way, even if you can’t see it. Under a microscope it would show all these little splits. And over time that would be a big problem. ”
To Jones, it's not just a dress that's at risk--there could be severe cultural consequences. He continues,
“Our job is to get the garment to the next generation with as little damage as possible, so that 500 years from now, these objects are around to talk about our history, our collective history as people, design, technology, arts and culture. All of that gets blended into a single object, in this case a garment. It represents a moment in time.”
Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Orlando, a privately owned, for-profit “attractions company,” lent the gown to Kardashian, as well as gifting her a lock of Monroe's hair. Many fans were upset by this decision, as it seemed disrespectful to Monroe.
While Kardashian did not pay to wear the dress, Ripley's alleges that she made donations of an undisclosed amount to undisclosed charities as per their agreement. The dress returned to Orlando on Kardashian's private jet.
Ripley's claims "great care" was taken to preserve the dress, and that no alterations were made. Still, fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell doesn't see the point. She says,
“The Met Gala is now part of the garment’s history — and it didn’t need to be. I was kind of baffled 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 an upside to the incident, some curators and conservators say it would be the conversation that's begun around fashion conservation. Still, the risks outweigh the reward, as Jones says,
“If you wear something, there’s stress and strain. Once it’s damaged it’s always damaged. You can’t go back.”
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