“You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.”
That’s a paraphrase of a Jeff Goldblum line from the original Jurassic Park, as his Malcolm lectures Sir Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond on the ethics of spawning dinosaurs in a modern world. But it’s an apt statement that unfortunately applies to too many scenarios in these times — the latest having, rightfully, sparked the fury of costume conservationists, fashion aficionados and classic-film fans alike. And most of the parties involved have ceased talking about it.
“These people are here as custodians to preserve these pieces of history, not exploit them,” says ChadMichael Morrisette, a creative director and costume expert who owns the West Hollywood-based visual-display firm Oh Mannequin. “Marilyn Monroe was taken advantage of for other peoples’ gain her entire career, and to take something that belonged to her and use it as a publicity stunt, it’s as though she’s being exploited all over again.”
Morrisette is among the growing number of people to speak out against Kim Kardashian’s decision to wear one of the most famous designs of the 20th century to the May 2 Met Gala in New York: The “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” gown created for Monroe by legendary costume designer Jean Louis, worn by the star on May 19, 1962, when she seductively and scandalously serenaded John F. Kennedy during his 45th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. The dress famously sold in 2016 for $4.8 million, a record price for a garment at auction; the buyer was Orlando, Florida-based Ripley Entertainment, the holding company that operates the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! attractions around the globe, including a Hollywood location.
I was on the Met Gala red carpet that night, covering the annual parade of A-list stars in custom looks themed to the Costume Institute’s latest exhibition, In America: An Anthology of Fashion, which examines the history of American design and extends back to the coat George Washington wore to his inauguration in 1789. To honor the night’s theme, co-chair Blake Lively wore an Atelier Versace gown that paid tribute to New York City, while Alicia Keys wore a luxe Ralph Lauren cape beaded and embroidered to depict the Manhattan skyline.
When Kardashian arrived with Pete Davidson as the planned finale moment of the red carpet, she caused a sensation in a dress that looked instantly familiar to anyone who loves the intersection of film, pop culture and fashion. How cool, I thought, that Kim had sourced a replica of Monroe’s famed “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress. The most high-wattage woman of the early 21st century wearing a copy of a gown owned by the 20th century’s most iconic woman undeniably felt like a perfect expression of American fashion and the evolution of American celebrity.
But a buzz quickly spread among the Met Gala press pool that it wasn’t a replica; it was the dress. I was among the indignant doubters in that moment: “No, not possible. It’s a piece of history. It can’t be the actual dress.” As Kim reached our position on the carpet, the cadre of print reporters, which included everyone from Associated Press to People, shouted questions at her: “Kim, is it a replica? Kim, is it the real dress?” Kardashian said nothing as she posed for photos and sauntered into the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Her silence was understood when the carpet wrapped minutes later: Vogue.com had been given the exclusive on the story, a behind-the-scenes look, posted upon Kardashian’s arrival, not only at the reality star’s desire to wear the historic dress, but also how she embarked on a stringent diet to lose 16 lbs. in three weeks to fit into the garment. The latter fact immediately sparked ire among women who believe quick, hardcore diets aren’t only unhealthy, they also send a terrible message to young girls who already must navigate sensitive body issues.
The day following the Met Gala, all involved parties were eager to talk about how this sensational partnership had come together. An avid Monroe fan, Kardashian asked Beverly Hills-based Julien’s Auctions, which handled the sale of the dress in 2016, to put her in touch with Ripley Entertainment execs to discern whether she might wear it to the Met Gala. Kardashian was offered a replica dress, crafted by an in-house Ripley seamstress soon after the 2016 acquisition; that gown fit her perfectly (and, given its newer fabric with a bit of stretch, was actually a tad loose), according to Amanda Joiner, vice president of licensing and publishing for Ripley Entertainment. But Kardashian wanted to wear the real thing. “Kim doesn’t do replicas,” noted Darren Julien, owner and founder of Julien’s Auctions, when I spoke with him the day after the Met Gala.
After a series of meetings and negotiations that included non-negotiable mandates about body makeup and other details, as well as reported donations to Orlando-based non-profit organizations, it was agreed that Kardashian could wear the dress only for her walk up the shallow museum steps, slipping into the garment in a tented area adjacent to the carpet’s entrance, then changing into the replica immediately upon entering the Metropolitan Museum. Still, adjustments needed to be made that didn’t impact the dress itself: Kardashian wore a white stole that concealed the fact that the back of the dress couldn’t be closed fully, while her seven-inch heels, from Southern California-based Pleaser Shoes (a brand Kardashian has worn to other events), meant the gown’s hem did not require adjustment.
That brief moment quickly provoked anger among costume experts and historians, however. Bob Mackie — a sketch artist for Jean Louis early in his career and indeed responsible for sketching the now-legendary dress for the costume designer, who was already celebrated for his work in 1946’s Gilda and 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle — told Entertainment Weekly the decision to allow Kardashian to wear the genuine dress was “a big mistake … it was designed for [Monroe]. Nobody else should be seen in that dress.”
Sarah Scaturro, a chief conservator for the Cleveland Museum of Art and previously a conservator at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, the recipient of the funds raised at the annual Met Gala, told the Los Angeles Times she was “frustrated because it sets back what is considered professional treatment for historic costume … my worry is that colleagues in historic costume collections are now going to be pressured by important people to let them wear garments.”
Scaturro’s comment is well-founded when you consider: If anyone other than Kim Kardashian had requested to wear the dress, what would the answer have been? With 319 million Instagram followers, Kardashian ranks eighth among that social-media platform’s chart-topping participants, a list that includes soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo at 455 million followers and Kardashian’s own sister, Kylie Jenner, who currently boasts 349 million followers. The mega-watt reality family’s show, The Kardashians, premiered in April to what Disney-owned Hulu trumpeted as its biggest series premiere in U.S. history (the streamer does not release official viewership numbers, as per Disney policy).
Those figures resulted in the stock response I’ve given to anyone who since May 2 has asked me: Why would someone let Kim wear that historic dress? “Because no one between the ages of 12 and 50 has heard of Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” I tell them. “But they all know Kim Kardashian.” Whether garnered through ratings or social-media clout, power is currency, an idea anyone in Hollywood will confirm, and it can even buy the right person the ability to wear a historic garment that never should have left the confines of a climate-controlled display case or vault.
Now the dress is reportedly damaged. Morrisette, who personally oversaw the display of the gown when Julien’s sold it in 2016, was the first to note differences in the garment between when he handled it that year and when he saw it on Sunday, June 12 at the Hollywood location of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! “I remember the exact day because it was my birthday,” explains Morrisette, who was also on Hollywood Boulevard for L.A.’s Pride Parade with his friends, and he slipped into Ripley’s so he could see the dress in person for the first time in six years. Before leaving, he took photos of the dress, displayed in a glass case so all angles can be viewed. Kardashian’s shoes are also part of the display.
The new damage, Morrisette says, was instantly apparent. “The lower-back section shows stretch damage and is missing beads, the back left shoulder strap appears to be damaged, and on the front at the knees, there are stress marks on the fabric, likely caused by Kim’s walk up the steps,” he notes of the dress, crafted in 1962 of an extremely delicate silk souffle fabric that has since been discontinued, also because it proved to be highly flammable. “The material is no longer available, so how do you repair it? The dress will never be the same.”
Ripley Entertainment has denied allegations Kardashian caused damage to the dress, releasing a statement on Thursday that “a report written on the dress’s condition in early 2017 states, ‘a number of the seams are pulled and worn. This is not surprising given how delicate the material is. There is puckering at the back by the hooks and eyes,’ among other instances of damage.” Joiner, who was with the dress every moment on May 2, adds in the statement, “From the bottom of the Met steps, where Kim got into the dress, to the top where it was returned, the dress was in the same condition it started in.”
These are the only remarks released about the dress once questions about damage arose. When asked for comment from Kardashian about the dress, her team declined, while the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, which boasts a collection of more than 33,000 objects spanning “seven centuries of fashionable dress,” likewise issued a terse “no comment.” The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures also declined to comment on a piece not in their collection.
But Scott Fortner, a Monroe historian and owner of what’s billed on his site as “the world’s largest, privately held collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia,” has weighed in on the controversy. On Thursday he posted on Instagram side-by-side images (the “after” among the photos taken by Morrisette) of the back of the dress, adding, “If a photo of the gown from 2016 is irrelevant, then so is an uncredited condition report from 2017.”
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Kardashian has posted nothing further about Monroe’s dress since the week of the Met Gala, when she noted she was “forever grateful” for the opportunity to wear it — she also spent the week extending the story and feeding the news cycle, posting soon after that she wore a second Monroe original to the Met Gala’s after-party (there’s no report on that gown’s current condition). Multiple parties also reported at the time that Kardashian wanted to wear the dress to express her true love for Monroe — but sometimes, if you genuinely love something, especially an object that’s equal parts historic, valuable and delicate, isn’t the best choice to admire it from afar, and simply leave it alone? But that wasn’t the choice; the desire to do something that had never been done, to borrow a legendary dress only ever worn by a bona fide screen icon, those were the priorities. And it must be said: It seems like a decision driven by ego, rather than love.
Indeed, while the debate continues to rage over when the damage currently seen on the dress occurred, the key question remains: Kardashian was so preoccupied with whether she could wear the actual dress, did she ever stop to think about whether she should wear this piece of 20th-century history? That’s the question that deserves an answer. But unfortunately, few are willing to discuss the subject any longer.