The Dress: Part 2

So after the Slate article came out, I still had a LOT of feelings on the dress issue. My friends at the American Association for State and Local History were interested in what I had to say, and they published some of my thoughts on their blog.

As I said in that article, “First things first: I am not a textiles conservator. I am a museum studies professor who has worked in museums for over a decade in a variety of roles including executive director and collections manager. I do know that proper collections care and preventative conservation of fibers includes careful handling, climate control, low light, and very little handling. I am not a fashion historian. I do understand and advocate for the importance of material culture as an interpretive device for museums and historical organizations.”

My main thesis of that blog is:

“The outcry and rage surrounding Kim Kardashian’s donning of the famous Marilyn Monroe “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress to walk the red carpet of the 2022 Met Gala is in many ways justified; but Kim didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, legally, or even ethically.”

Marilyn’s Dress and Museum Ethics, AASLH

I won’t reproduce that whole article here, but I did want to delve a bit more deeply into something that wouldn’t fit in the blog:

Authenticity of Historical Artifacts

The AASLH article begins to talk about this, but I had more to say (to no one’s surprise).

One very valid concern that conservators and historians have raised is the risk that this event will encourage others to request a loan of other historic items from museums for their own purposes. Again, collections and ethics policies should help prevent this sort of thing from happening, but as many museums struggle to pay the bills, millionaires, billionaires, and famous individuals could put the pressure on museums to make a quick buck by loaning out the real, authentic artifact.

Ripley’s was quick to point out that the original dress was only worn for the red-carpet portion of the Met Gala evening. Three replicas were made, which Kim wore for the rest of the evening. Part of the reason for this was that the original dress would not fully close, and alterations were not allowed by Ripley’s; they also acknowledge that the longer an item of clothing is worn, the more damage is done. Many have questioned why Kim did not wear a replica for the entire evening; but wouldn’t that completely defeat the purpose? We don’t go to museums to see replica artifacts – we go to see the real deal. I once visited a museum to see a Treasures of King Tut exhibit; I was furious to find that the items on display were all replicas (and that I didn’t do my proper homework before buying a ticket).

But where is the line?

A @MuseumsAssoc Twitter poll asked this week, “Is it ever acceptable for historically significant fashion to be reworn?” As of the time I wrote this piece, 73% of 74 total voters said no, it is not acceptable.

Kim is not the first celebrity to don Marilyn Monroe’s actual historical clothes. Something that seems to be missing from this narrative is the use of other historical items of clothing, including those of Marilyn Monroe herself!  Last month I was reading Holly Madison’s memoir Down the Rabbit Hole about her time with the Playboy Corporation and after. In the book she talks about her devotion to Marilyn and the absolute joy she felt at having the opportunity to wear some of Marilyn’s clothes for a photo shoot. In the book she says, “Beyond honored, I modeled many of Marilyn’s personal items, which I recognized from famous photos of the star: a white terry cloth bathrobe, an orange Pucci top, a curve-hugging fuschia day dress, etc. … Flushed with excitement, I tried on the original custom-tailored piece intended for her “Diamond’s are a Girl’s Best Friend” number.”

No one else, apart from perhaps Will and Kate’s daughter, could wear Princess Diana’s famous wedding dress in the British Royal Family collection. Should a museum lend George Washington’s clothes if the President of the United States wants to wear them for an event? What about  the iconic J. Lo dress from the Oscars? Bjork’s swan dress? Audrey Hepburn’s dress from Breakfast at Tiffanys? Beyonce’s Lemonade dress? I wore my own grandmother’s 1953 wedding dress, which was hand made for her for her own special event by my great grandmother. Sure, this isn’t as historical an occasion, and my family owns the piece. I had to have the dress altered to fit. I’m not saying this is the same thing, and my grandmother’s dress is not a museum piece; but it could be. Anything could be.

Perhaps a better parallel to this situation is Ariana Rockafeller wearing her grandmother’s dress to the 2022 Met Gala. The dress was originally made for Peggy Rockefeller in 1954, and refashioned, cleaned, and altered for Ariana to wear to the event. “Reviving this 70-year-old garment has been a fun and sustainable way to engage with this year’s Met Gala theme. I feel like the luckiest girl to have this opportunity to wear this gorgeous piece of my family’s history to the Costume Institute Benefit.”

All of this begs the question: why all the hate for Kim, then, and about this specific piece? After all, as a completely oversimplified statement on the situation (that will win me no friends in the conservation world!): clothes were meant to be worn. It is also worth noting that Marilyn Monroe’s estate ostensibly approved of the use of the dress.

You Can’t (and Shouldn’t) Save it All

A fact of the museum and preservation world is simple: you can’t save everything; and who would want to? Where would it go? Who would finance the conservation and storage of it all? Would anyone care about every single piece? What value would it add to a museum? Contrary to what Indiana Jones taught us forty years ago, not everything belongs in a museum.

One part of the conversation I had with Heather from Slate asked has stuck with me: “Maybe you’re thinking there should be rules against this sort of thing, that a private company shouldn’t just be allowed to buy a priceless artifact and put it at risk of being damaged or destroyed. And that makes sense, until you really think about it. ‘I don’t know if it could be regulated or should be regulated,’ said Stringer Clary. Who would define what’s too important to be owned privately on account of being part of our collective cultural heritage? Individuals and companies own all sorts of things and have the right to sell them to the highest bidder if they so wish. They can donate them to real museums or be choosey about who they sell them to, but ultimately, there’s no stopping capitalism. Ripley’s owns the dress fair and square and can do whatever it wants with it. If the company wanted to cut up the dress and make crystal-studded curtains of it, that would be its right.”

Private collectors are a tricky gray area; there are pros and cons to individuals buying items of cultural or historical significance. In some cases, wealthy individuals or corporations can buy and save or conserve items, and in the best case scenario they may later donate or sell at a low cost to a museum. On the other hand, there is nothing to stop them from worst case scenario, in which they keep an item for themselves, hidden, or even destroy it. In a capitalistic society like the United States, there isn’t really a way to stop this from happening. 

There are many other aspects of this I wanted to include and simply did not have the space for. I did want to acknowledge that Kim’s real contribution to lasting memory at this event was the perpetuation of potentially unhealthy diet culture by an influential member of the pop culture public. Others have brought up the exploitation of Marilyn Monroe in life and still in death. All of these are important points that I look forward to reading more about in the coming weeks.

Coming up next… finally. The human remains aspect. Whew.

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