To loan or not to loan? Marilyn Monroe’s dress worn at Met Gala sparks conservation debate

Reality TV star Kim Kardashian has sparked a wave of criticism after wearing an iconic Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) dress to this year’s Met Gala. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the gala celebrated the current exhibition “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” with the dress code ‘Gilded Glamour’.

French designer Jean Louis (1907-1997) custom made the dress for legendary actress Marilyn Monroe in 1962. A whopping 2,500 sparkling rhinestones were embroidered on soufflé silk, which perfectly matched her skin tone. Monroe was then sewn into the dress and even wore no underwear, further enhancing the illusion of nudity.

On 19 May 1962, Monroe famously wore the piece whilst singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” at a fundraiser for former US president John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) at Madison Square Garden. Taking to the stage fashionably late, Monroe dramatically removed her fur coat to reveal the sensational dress. Audible gasps echoed throughout the venue as the 15,000 guests believed Monroe was serenading Kennedy in the nude. Rumours of a scandalous affair between the two began swirling in the press afterwards, sparked by Monroe’s intimate performance in the slinky dress and Jacqueline Kennedy’s (1929-1994) notable absence.

Jump forward to 2022, Kardashian loaned the dress from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! collection in Orlando. Ripley’s had purchased the garment in 2016 at Julien’s Auctions, Los Angeles, for $4.8 million (£3.9 million). Kardashian only wore the dress for a short time at the gala due to its fragility, later changing into a replica of Monroe’s sequined Norman Norell (1900-1972) gown the actress wore to accept her Golden Globe award. Ripley’s believe the stunt has added to the historical significance of the dress by “sharing the story of Marylin Monroe and her iconic career with an entirely new generation.”

Yet the stunt has been condoned by museum professionals. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) have subsequently renewed their guidelines on handling historic garments, stating that such pieces should be handled as little as possible with no exposure to photographic flashing.

Historic garments should not be worn by anybody, public or private figures,” explained ICOM in a statement. “Prevention is better than cure. Wrong treatment will destroy an object forever.

Experts are also concerned that Kardashian’s actions will encourage more celebrities to wear historic garments at events. Madelief Hohé, fashion curator at Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands, wrote on Instagram: “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. Wearing historic clothing damages it. Full Stop.”

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