Kim Kardashian sparks conservation debate in Marilyn Monroe dress - Museums Association

Kim Kardashian sparks conservation debate in Marilyn Monroe dress

Poll: Is it ever acceptable for historically significant fashion to be reworn?
Marilyn Monroe's 'Happy Birthday' dress was acquired by Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum in 2016 Ripley’s Believe It or Not

Kim Kardashian's outfit for this year's Met Gala has led to a fierce debate among conservators and curators about the ethics of wearing historic fashion.

The reality star donned the original gown worn by Marilyn Monroe to sing happy birthday to president John F Kennedy in May 1962. Created by Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis, the skintight, jewelled garment is believed to be the most expensive garment ever sold, fetching $4.8m when it was acquired by the Ripley's Believe it Or Not Museum at auction in 2016.

Kardashian wore the dress for several minutes on the Met Gala red carpet before changing into a replica. Because no adjustments could be made, the star was unable to fasten the dress at the back and wore a fur stole to conceal the open zip.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the decision by Ripley's - which is listed as an attractions company rather than a museum and does not hold an accessioned collection - to allow a garment of such historic significance to be reworn had left textile conservators and fashion curators “speechless”.


“I’m frustrated because it sets back what is considered professional treatment for historic costume,” Sarah Scaturro, chief conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, told the LA Times. “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.”

Another art conservator, Cara Varnell, told the paper: “We just don’t wear archived historic pieces... 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.”

Ripley's said Kardashian had added to the garment's historic significance by wearing it to the gala.

“We are truly proud to be the stewards of such an iconic artifact and are excited to be able to add to its cultural significance with Kim Kardashian, who is sharing the story of Marylin Monroe and her iconic career with an entirely new generation,” Ripley’s vice president of publishing and licensing, Amanda Joiner, said in a statement.

Comments (2)

  1. Ayesha Fuentes says:

    Meanwhile, communities of origin and diaspora groups are working against museum decision-makers and their gatekeeping mechanisms to gain access to their heritage within collections. The issue here, for me, isn’t necessarily the re-use or re-activation of historic materials, but rather the privileges of wealth and fame.

  2. Sarah Williams says:

    Historic costume is not for wearing! It is yet further evidence of collections not governed by museum ethics believing it is acceptable to breach any guidelines, and flout all the rules! This is nothing new, as a museum professional specialising in costume and textiles I was invited some years ago to visit a lady who held a ‘private costume collection’. I was horrified to find that all the costumes were on dress rails and she boasted of having her models wear them on catwalk shows!! Worse still was when she brought out a Polonaise dress and shook it like on old blanket before spreading it out, and then commenting about not knowing why it was all open at the front. Leave costume to the professionals to look after please.

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