Beautiful clothes are not like beautiful people. A beautiful person has something that you don’t have, even if you are beautiful too: their beauty cannot be transferred, borrowed or reproduced. We can envy it, feel it or imitate it, but we are always outside of it. A beautiful dress, on the other hand, acts as an invitation, inviting you to step into it: it could be you. Yet anyone who has too impulsively entered a dressing room or rummaged through a friend’s closet will know this invitation is misleading. Beautiful clothes have ideas about who can wear them.
Enter Kim Kardashian, who arrived at this year’s Met Gala wearing Marilyn Monroe’s famous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress from 1962 — the original garment itself, on loan from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. Carefully watching her climb the stairs, her bleached blond hair, was a strange, if moving, testimony to the promise of clothing and the limits of that promise. And perhaps, a referendum on the story so many tell themselves when judging the outfits celebrities put together for the gala: that if they had the attendees’ looks, figures and budgets, they would absolutely be more beautiful than that.
Kardashian lost, on her own account, 16 pounds in three weeks to wear the original dress, instead of a replica. But the reason the original dress was so famous had almost nothing to do with the dress itself and everything to do with the woman who wore it. His point was that Monroe, in 1962, found a way to be naked while clothed, wearing nothing under a dress that looked transparent without actually being. Without its breathable, soft beauty that drives it, it’s just a beautiful dress. Kardashian looked good in it, sure, but despite all her hard work, she didn’t really evoke Monroe; if I hadn’t been told it was that particular dress, I wouldn’t have recognized it.
On social media, some loved the look: “She IS a modern-day Marilyn,” made a breathless and then very mocked comment. Others were mixed. (“Sorry,” tweeted Stephanie Zacharek, the Time film critic, “but the ‘Marilyn Monroe dress’ worn with modern underwear isn’t really the ‘Marilyn Monroe dress.’ ”) The restorers complained that the dress had been damaged beyond repair. Some have twisted their hands over the choice to crush the diet to fit into it. Either way, it was unmistakably the look of the night — not because it was memorable per se, but because it was once upon a time, decades ago.
The original dress was so flimsy that after her slow ride up the red carpet, Kardashian changed into a replica. The real thing was just to make a point for the cameras – that is, for us at home. Others successfully echoed Monroe at the Met Gala, including Billie Eilish at last year’s event. The reason for wearing Monroe’s real clothes, and not a dress meant to echo or pay homage to them, would be to insist on a kind of literal transformation: I am the Marilyn Monroe of today, not by analogy but in facts. (And one of the real Monroes could never be – not just a bombshell but a business, a mother, able to detach from toxic male influences, able to shake off the tabloids.) But no weight loss, no form of wear and the rest can only give you access to the good and nothing bad in Monroe’s life; she lingers in the culture the way she does because she is both ambitious and tragic.