Normally, Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress is housed in a Ripley’s “Believe It-Or Not” vault in Orlando, Florida.
It’s home, a dark case in a climate-controlled room, with the dress form-mounted to prevent stress and covered in acid-free, cotton muslin, protects it from environmental contaminants, light and humidity damage.
But this historically significant dress left its safe-haven on May 2nd 2022, so that one Kim Kardashian could make her entrance in the nude, 6000 rhinestone crystal-encrusted, floor-length gown at The Met Gala.
What’s the Met Gala?
Also known as the fashion world equivalent of the Oscars, The Met Gala is unlike any other fashion event.
Established in 1948 by fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert as a fundraiser for the newly founded Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (MCI), the event receives no funding from outside sources.
A “jewel in New York City’s social crown”, the Met Gala is a vision of fabulousness and the concept is a treat to the eye every year. Leaving no doubt of the Gala’s sartorial, weighty influence on the fashion scene, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, has chaired or co-chaired the Gala since 1995.
Held on the first Monday in May, this year’s theme, meant to embody the grandeur of New York’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century, was ‘Gilded Glamor and White Tie”, with an accompanying exhibition by Andrew Bolton, “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” celebrating the unsung heroes of US design.
About the dress
Created specifically for Marilyn Monroe by designer Jean Louis, the dress was immortalised by the actress when, wearing it, she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F Kennedy at a Democratic Party fundraiser in 1962.
It was also the first “nearly nude” dress and was made to match Ms. Monroe’s personal skin tone. Originally commissioned by Monroe for $1,440, the souffle gauze, beautifully soft and stretchy fabric, encrusted with embellishments, became the most expensive gown to be sold at auction.
Bought in 2016 by Ripley’s “Believe It-Or Not” for just under $5m, it is now considered to be valued at close to $10m.
Damage Through Wear of Original, Antique and Vintage Garments
In the ’80s, a group of costume professionals came together to state a resolution that historic costumes should not be worn.
So the field of Textile Conservation is a relatively young one, and textiles have tended to suffer from lack of respect and neglect, with a trend of people wearing antique, historical garments.
As museum textiles and dresses are cut up for upholstery or altered for costume parties, conservators see items every day that have been irrevocably altered and/or ruined through wear.
It is impossible to don a vintage piece and not cause some damage from culprits including light, humidity, pollution, gravity and movement, with sweat, perfume, make-up and other acids compounding the overall environmental exposure.
Yet, historic and/or vintage pieces are increasingly in demand among celebrities, often the barometer for an impending, broader social trend:
Bella Hadid appearing in vintage YSL ;
Zendaya in a Balmain archive piece are among a swath of examples.
However, while these are beautiful and often very valuable, there are usually multiple pieces in circulation and they are not one-off, iconic pieces.
A Question of Ethics
While there are some exceptions made for respectful purposes, such as ceremonial use by indigenous people, the wearing of historical pieces is viewed as unethical. They belong to the public at large, and must be preserved in the public interest.
Especially objects of important historical value, such as in this instance, when the piece is directly and famously tied to one specific person, at a specific moment of time. This is why objects are accessioned, meaning taken into a museum for long term, historic preservation for researchers and the public.
There is fear and frustration that this incident will actually set back what is considered professional treatment for historic costume.
Sarah Scaturro, chief conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and formerly a conservator at the Met’s Costume Institute, expressed her worry that
“colleagues in historic costume collections are now going to be pressured by important people to let them wear garments”.
Let’s get specific;
Representing an iconic, controversial moment in American history, the “Happy Birthday Dress” is now 60 years old, and a priceless artifact.
There are so many ways to irreparably damage a gown of this age.
Even if it fit Ms Kardashian perfectly (which it didn’t and she wore a stole to cover where it wouldn’t close….) and no actual disaster occurred (which seems to be the case), it is going to damage the dress.
The materials become weaker and more brittle with age.
“Gravity can do a lot of damage” says Kevin Jones, curator of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising.
“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.”
Then there’s the chemical interaction with the human body; sweat, body acids, bacteria and trace minerals will eat away at the fabric.
To further aggravate the situation, this dress was made to be worn without undergarments and to be right up against the body and the skin.
Ms Monroe was literally sewn into the dress in order to wear it.
What’s at risk, Jones says, is more than just a dress.
“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.”
John Corcoran, director of exhibits and archives for Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”, who is in charge of conservation, stated that “No damage occurred at last night’s event,” and that Kardashian could only wear the dress after adhering to certain guidelines, including no body makeup, no alterations and wearing the garment only for the red carpet portion of the evening.
Oh, and she did wear undergarments. A replica was then worn for the rest of the Gala.
Respect for the Piece
Was this incident respectful to the importance of the piece?
This object is by definition nonrenewable, making it clear that wearing it – and anything of similar importance – is not sustainable. It is also about access, and sending a message that cultural heritage is disposable if you have money and power.
Especially considering Ms Kardashian had a replica made that she wore for most of the night, meaning that the wearing of the original was for viral reasons, to create her moment.
Positioning Kardashian’s wearing of the gown as “adding” to its history, the garment and some of Monroe’s and Kardashian’s accessories will be put on display at Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” Hollywood for a limited time.
Ripley’s vice president of publishing and licensing, Amanda Joiner, said in a statement that
“we are excited to be able to add to its cultural significance with Kim Kardashian, who is sharing the story of Marilyn Monroe and her iconic career with an entirely new generation.”
It’s worth noting that Ripleys is not a museum but rather a for-profit organization.
Did Kardashian Add Value?
Is this dress now part of a new story, and has this incident added value?
Perhaps it does bring it to the public forefront and allow appreciation of it in a new way.
What we do know is that a viral moment was created and the dress is in the news.
Or Ms Kardashian is in the news……;
Cultural heritage is not another tool of the rich and famous for attention seeking moments. Whatever possible gains are claimed, do they cancel out the risk to the physical object by the act of wearing it?
Conservators would argue not, and that the risks will always outweigh the rewards.
The garment is a vehicle channeling history and damage to it has cultural consequences for generations to come. Once it’s damaged it’s always damaged.
You just can’t go back.
Perhaps this incident will open people’s eyes to this important type of conservation.
If there’s an upside to the incident, some conservators said, it would be creating conversation around fashion conservation, the landscape of dress history and textile preservation.
Meanwhile, this very special gown was left naked to the elements.