Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala Dress Causes Controversy
Featured Image: GREG SWALES
In the weeks leading up to the Met Gala, rumors circled that Kim Kardashian would be wearing the Jean-Louise dress that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy in 1962 for his 45th birthday.
“The idea really came to me after the gala in September last year. I thought to myself, what would I have done for the American theme if it had not been the Balenciaga look? What’s the most American thing you can think of?” Kim Kardashian said. “For me the most Marilyn Monroe moment is when she sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ to JFK, it was that look.”
The dress, based on a sketch by Bob Mackie for costume designer Jean-Louise, caused a stir. When she removed her white fur coat to reveal the sheer dress embellished with over six thousand crystals, the audience gasped. “Nowadays everyone wears sheer dresses, but back then that was not the case. In a sense, it’s the original naked dress. That’s why it was so shocking.”
The performance at Madison Square Garden was also a fundraising gala for the Democratic Party. Described as one of the most iconic moments in both entertainment and political history, her sultry tone and the nature of her dress would add to the rumors that she and President Kennedy were having an affair.
It’s said that Monroe paid Jean-Louis $1,440 for the piece, which was sold in 1999 for over a million dollars as part of her estate sale with Christie’s. Today, that would equal around $13,700. “I’m a big fan of auctions and I own several JFK pieces so I know the owner of Julien’s. He was able to connect me [with Ripley’s] and that’s how the conversation started,” Kardashian describes. The dress, made of souffle, is the most expensive dress sold at auction. The fabric is stretchy and resilient when new and then becomes weaker with age.
The dress is stored in a vault that’s controlled at 68 degrees and 40-50% humidity. “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,” says Kevin Jones, curator of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising.
The dress couldn’t be altered. “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,” says Jones.
Kardashian describes the process of fitting into it with surprise — “The dress was transported by guards and I had to wear gloves to try it on. I always thought she was extremely curvy. I imagined I might be smaller in some places where she was bigger and bigger in places where she was smaller. So when it didn’t fit me I wanted to cry because it can’t be altered at all.” She had two choices: find something else to wear or find a way to fit into the dress. Monroe herself had trouble fitting into the dress. The marquisette dress was so tight that Monroe had to be sewn into it moments before she went on stage.
“It was this or nothing. I would wear a sauna suit twice a day, run on the treadmill, completely cut out all sugar and all carbs, and just eat the cleanest veggies and protein. I didn’t starve myself, but I was so strict,” She told Vogue. A month later, she would try it on in the Ripley vaults in Orlando. “I wanted to cry tears of joy when it went up,” she said.
In the days that would follow, reports of conservators being outraged began emerging. Sarah Scaturro, chief conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a former conservator at the Met’s Costume Institute told the Los Angeles Times [that] “I’m frustrated because it sets back what is considered professional treatment for historic costume. 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.”
Longtime independent art conservator Cara Varnell added to the conversation, “We just don’t wear archived historic pieces. Obviously, if you have a Charles James hanging in your grandmother’s closet and you want to wear it, fine. But 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.”
And then came the other side of the controversy, outside of historical conservation — on the glamorization of unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders. Criticism came from every angle — TikTok, Twitter, Instagram — including actress Lili Reinhart.
While she didn’t openly name Kim Kardashian, the criticism came exactly one day after Kardashian told Vogue that she lost 16 pounds in just three weeks. “To walk on a red carpet and do an interview where you say how starving you are..because you haven’t eaten carbs in the last month…all to fit in a fucking dress? So wrong. So fucked on on 100s of levels. To openly admit to starving yourself for the sake of the Met Gala. When you know very well that millions of young men and women are looking up to you and listening to your every word. The ignorance is otherworldly disgusting,” she wrote on her Instagram stories. “Please stop supporting these stupid, harmful celebrities whose entire image revolves around their bodies. I am not generally an angry person, but I swear to god, the toxicity of this industry sometimes really gets to me.”
Aiyana Ishmael, editorial assistant at Teen Vogue, also joined the conversation about diet culture and unhealthy weight loss. “All that restrictive eating for a few minutes of photos in a dress that was ultimately inaccurate to the night’s theme. And now, anyone who reads her interview or follows her on social media has a playbook for how they, too, can attempt to lose rapid amounts of weight for whatever special event they’d like to celebrate. I used to think walking hungrily into an event with my fitted dress on fighting off a headache was my private badge of honor. I’d held out so I could look my leanest for an important night. My teenage self thought I was incredibly disciplined, when really I was harming my body irrevocable ways — ways I’m still dealing with to this day,” Ishmael wrote, remembering her own struggles.
Kardashian has yet to comment.