At Monday night’s Gilded Glamour-themed Met Gala, Kim Kardashian (and paramour Pete Davidson) swooped onto the red carpet to deliver the most talked-about look of the night. Kardashian arrived in Marilyn Monroe’s original, infamous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress, the skintight and nearly transparent gown she wore to serenade John F. Kennedy, her rumored lover, in 1962.
In an interview with Vogue, Kardashian explained she’d borrowed the dress from Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in Orlando, which itself had acquired the creation from Julien’s Auctions in 2016 for $4.8 million; the dress—originally sketched by Bob Mackie, then designed by Jean-Louis—is the most expensive ever sold at auction. In a press release, Ripley’s described the dress as “very heavy:” over 6,000 crystals adorn it, causing the garment to weigh in at around six pounds.
In the aftermath of the Gala, ire has started to brew forth amongst the fashion archivist community: several conservators of fragile garments, including the former Head Conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, have expressed outrage that Kardashian went so far as to pull the original gown out of storage and wear it, thereby potentially damaging the garment.
“When I was the head of the Costume Institute’s conservation lab I had to swat off requests by people (including Anna Wintour) to have irreplaceable objects in the collection be worn by models and celebrities,” conservator Sarah Scaturro wrote in an Instagram caption.
A representative for the Met said the museum had no comment. The Daily Beast reached out to Scaturro, Condé Nast and Wintour for comment.
Scaturro’s criticism has been re-posted by Marjolein Koek, the conservator of textiles at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Madelief Hohé, a fashion curator at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands. (The Daily Beast reached out to Koek and Hohé for comment.)
“In my opinion, [Kim wearing the dress] was not a good idea," fashion historian Keren Ben-Horin told The Daily Beast. “It raises a lot of questions about ethics. Sarah raises very important points that this is one of a kind, historical garment that should not leave the museum. For conservators, there are a lot of things they consider even before they even take any action to restore the dress. Sometimes they might even leave sweat stains in, because it's part of the integrity of the dress.”
Scaturro said that because Kardashian’s request to wear Monroe’s gown was fulfilled, it’s likely that other “fancy powerful rich people” will now be inspired to pressure conservators to let them borrow “similarly irreplaceable” outfits.
After the Daily Beast reached out to Scaturro for comment, the conservator switched her Instagram account's settings to private.
“Wearing historic clothing damages it,” Scaturro continued in her caption. “Full stop. A 60 year old embellished silk dress is going to have problems, weak spots. And Kim is certainly putting on products, lotions, creams, perfumes, body make-up etc, all of which will further damage it.”
“Once a dress like that gets on the body, the body sweats, there is makeup,” Ben-Horin said. “You could see that when Kim Kardashian was going up the stairs, it was very hard for her to take big steps. The dress could have easily stained or ripped, and I think it was an unethical choice on their part to let the dress leave the museum.”
“I haven’t seen the comments on Instagram that [Scaturro] wrote, but one of our missions is to educate and to bring different and wonderful exhibitions, people, places and things that really are intriguing to the world,” Amanda Joiner, Vice President of Licensing and Publishing at Ripley Entertainment, told The Daily Beast. “We felt that this was a way to bring something that's 60 years old and very iconic to a new generation.”
On Tuesday, the Daily Beast reached Joiner—who oversaw Kardashian’s Marilyn Met Gala project—by phone while she sat with the Monroe dress in a sprinter van in Manhattan alongside “a ton of security.”
After receiving Kardashian’s request to wear the dress a couple of months ago, “we had to make some decisions as far as whether or not we were willing to let Kim borrow the dress,” Joiner said. “We did two different fittings with her. The first one was in L.A. in April and then the second one later in April to see whether or not the dress would fit. The biggest challenge that we had is that we really wanted to make sure that we kept the integrity of the dress and the preservation, because it’s 60 years old, and we feel that it’s such an iconic piece of fashion, both from a historical perspective, but also from a pop culture perspective.”
No one other than Marilyn Monroe had ever worn the dress before, Joiner said, so allowing Kardashian to take the look for a spin required a great deal of preparation.
“We basically had many conversations with Kim and her team and put a lot of requirements in place with security and with the handling of the dress,” Joiner said. “The dress was never with Kim alone. It was always with a Ripley’s representative. We always ensured that at any time we felt that the dress was in danger of ripping or we felt uncomfortable about anything, we always had the ability to be able to say we not were going to continue with this.”
During one of Kardashian’s attempts to try on the dress, which Ripley’s usually stores in a dark, humidity and temperature-controlled vault, she discovered Monroe’s custom-made look didn’t fit. Determined to make it work, Kardashian crash-dieted, and claimed she dropped 16 pounds in 3 weeks.
Stringent measures to protect the dress, which couldn’t be altered, didn't stop there. On the night of the Gala, Kardashian was dressed by a gloved conservationist from Ripley’s, and she only wore the dress during her appearance on the red carpet before swiftly changing out of it. For the rest of the evening she wore a replica, and had three on hand in total in case she needed them.
“I’m extremely respectful to the dress and what it means to American history,” Kardashian told Vogue. “I would never want to sit in it or eat in it or have any risk of any damage to it and I won’t be wearing the kind of body makeup I usually do. Everything had to be specifically timed and I had to practice walking up the stairs.”
It’s common practice for celebrities to wear obscure archival couture garments or vintage gowns to red carpet events, but because Monroe’s dress is so undeniably famous, the stakes at the Met Gala were particularly high.
“The fabric’s very, very thin and the stones are personally hand-sewn onto the dress,” Joiner said. To transport the dress from Ripley's in Orlando to Calabasas for fittings, Joiner and her team flew on a private plane sent by Kardashian.
“When we transport the dress, the dress is always on its dress form,” Joiner said. (A dress form is essentially a torso-only mannequin without a head or limbs.) “The dress form is specifically fitted just for the dress, and the fabric that’s on the fitted form is specifically there to keep the archival quality. There’s archival paper put in the box as well, and then the box doesn’t even go under the cargo part. It goes in the plane with us.”
Next, Ripley’s will return the dress to the vault on Orlando until Memorial Day Weekend, when it’s scheduled to go on display at Ripley’s in Hollywood. Even with every possible precaution taken, the responsibility falls on Ripley’s to protect the dress, which Ben-Horin thinks they failed to do.
“Once a dress enters a museum collection, the same way you wouldn't let [Kardashian] leave with the Mona Lisa, I think it's the same thing,” Ben-Horin said. “We can’t expect people to understand conservation issues, but I think it’s the role of the museum itself to set up very clear guidelines and ethics codes around how pieces can leave the museum.”
In other words, even if Kardashian’s desire to respect the dress and its historical value is truly genuine, her vision should never have been permitted to come to life.
“All of us have a fantasy to wear something from a museum,” Ben-Horin said. “That’s what makes fashion exhibitions so successful. But you can’t, and it’s up to the museum to educate people about why they cannot do that.”