In 2016, Ripley's Believe It or Not! acquired Marilyn Monroe's "Happy Birthday Mr. President" dress for $4.8 million at a Julien’s Auctions event. Four years later, Kim Kardashian bargained with the museum in order to wear the gown, originally sketched by Bob Mackie and created by Jean Louis, to the Met Gala. "I’m extremely respectful to the dress and what it means to American history," Kardashian said at the time.
Beyond her own sartorial influence — she's credited with inspiring trends like latex, bodysuits and bike shorts — Kardashian's actually become a major player in fashion history with her growing collection of archival pieces. So what exactly is in Kardashian's collection and what do these acquisitions mean for the future of fashion preservation?
In 2019, Kim Kardashian gave her daughter North an especially "thrilling" Christmas, gifting her the custom velvet jacket the late pop star wore to Elizabeth Taylor's 65th birthday party. Kardashian purchased the coat from Julien's Auctions for $65,625 and altered it to fit her then-6-year-old daughter North. She also snagged North the hat Jackson wore for his 1988 "Smooth Criminal" music video, which apparently still had some of his makeup on it.
Keeping it in the family, Kardashian also scored the outfit Janet Jackson wore in her 1993 "If" music video when it hit the Julien's auction block in 2021.
Kardashian flexed her archival prowess at the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscars party, wearing the iconic Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen's spring/summer 2003 collection. The gown, a gift from then-husband Kanye West, was sourced from Lily Et Cie in Beverly Hills and is one of only two in existence. The other is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose curator refers to it as "arguably the most important dress of the 21st century."
Kardashian's most head-turning display of vintage fashion came at the 2022 Met Gala. After weeks of dieting and a dye job that turned her dark hair platinum blond, the reality star arrived in the sparkling dress Monroe wore in 1962 to sing "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy. (As it happens, Kardashian also reportedly owns Jackie Kennedy's Cartier watch, sold at auction in 2017.)
Kardashian borrowed the gown from Ripley's Believe It or Not in exchange for a charitable donation. Both she and the museum faced considerable pushback after reports spread that the Met Gala moment caused irreparable wear and tear to the historical dress. While Ripley's denied the claim — issuing a statement that Kardashian "did not, in any way, damage the garment" — images posted to Instagram by Monroe historian Scott Fortner seem to show visible gaping along the zipper. And many archivists are doubtful that the dress was returned in its original condition.
"Regardless of the extreme lengths that were taken to convince us that no damage was [done], there definitely was just considering all of the moving pieces," Tianni Graham, the principal archivist for Thom Browne, tells Yahoo Life.
Many fashion figures also objected to Kardashian wearing Monroe's dress at all. In the weeks following the Met Gala, the designer of the dress, Bob Mackie, told Entertainment Weekly that he thought the whole thing was a "big mistake" because the dress had been designed for Monroe alone. "Nobody else should be seen in that dress," he said.
This sentiment was echoed by those in the industry who argued that it was an exploitation of Monroe and her tragic legacy.
"It's really tricky when you have things that belong to people like Marilyn Monroe, because now it seems like we're really looking to capitalize off of her pain and the moments that were really integral to her story," Danya Issawi, a fashion news writer at The Cut, tells Yahoo Life.
Kardashian's most recent conquest of note took place in January. The star purchased the Attallah Cross pendant, famously worn by Princess Diana, from Sotheby's London. According to the auction house, the pendant was made by court jeweler Garrard in 1920. The cross-shaped pendant, set with square-cut amethysts, was purchased by late businessman Naim Attallah in 1980 and loaned to Princess Diana on several occasions. The pendant was reportedly never seen in public again after her death in 1997.
Giving new life or rewriting history
As far as what these acquisitions mean for fashion history, experts say it's important to note that Kardashian is not reinventing the wheel with these purchases.
"It is very common, historically, for people of a certain tax bracket that have an interest in fashion history to collect pieces," Darnell Lisby, the assistant curator of fashion at the Cleveland Museum of Art, tells Yahoo Life.
In fact, these high-figure purchases can actually help museums obtain one-of-a-kind garbs.
"That's how we museums are able to amass our own acquisitions and collections. If you go to a museum exhibition and look at the tombstone labels sometimes you'll see the "gift of" a certain person. So for Kim to collect fashion is pretty run of the mill," says Lisby.
However, it is worth noting, says Lisby, that altering pieces considered historical is a fading practice. "In recent years, many houses and collectors have moved away from wearing garments, instead looking at them as art pieces. You're not wearing it, but you might display it," says Lisby. Which is perhaps why there was so much outrage surrounding the Monroe dress.
Additionally, borrowing pieces once they already belong to a museum, as Kardashian did with the "Happy Birthday Mr. President" gown, is not standard practice either. "Excluding the rare example of the Marilyn Monroe situation, museums do not allow people to wear garments once they're in the museum because it is now officially a historical art object," says Lisby.
This, he explains, is an effort to maintain the integrity of the garment for generations to come.
"There are conservation methods and parameters that we enact to ensure that a garment has longevity. The whole point is that these objects will last so that our grandkids and great-grandkids are able to see those same objects and experience those same histories that we have," explains Lisby. "In order to keep the garments in pristine condition, we don't allow human skin contact, which has a lot of oils that could damage a garment. That's why we wear gloves when handling objects."
Another point of contention regarding her garment collection is the fear that these items, which once carried their own historical importance, become ubiquitous with Kardashian. "Now that dress is a point of modern controversy instead of just being a historical garment," Issawi says of the Marilyn dress. And as her collection grows, so do her associations with these historical moments.
"She continues to make herself relevant through fashion history, and every single time she acquires something else, the Marilyn Monroe dress is brought up which dilutes the [original] history," says Graham.
Conversely, some say it is possible that the clout of the Kardashian name could help draw a broader audience into the fashion history world.
"It's good that archival fashion, from a historical perspective, is getting more people interested in it and it bodes well for vintage and second-hand shopping in terms of sustainability," says Issawi, acknowledging that at the end of the day, clothes are "meant to be worn."
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