"We are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle," Marilyn Monroe once said. It wasn't her most profound quote, but it's apposite, given the splash she posthumously made at this year's Met Gala. Even from beyond the grave, Monroe is still stealing the show. On Monday night, the crystal-studded column dress she memorably donned in 1962 to sing Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy was worn by Kim Kardashian, promptly becoming the most talked-about gown on the red carpet and further cementing its reputation as the most famous dress in history.
Which is a big claim, but a warranted one. Even if you weren't born in 1962, it's likely you will have seen the famous black and white footage of a 36-year-old Monroe, spot lit and preternaturally pale as she sang Happy Birthday in soft, husky tones to the president on his 45th birthday. Had the internet been invented, this cultural moment would have broken it. "I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way," Kennedy apparently joked, a pithy allusion to Monroe's sultry delivery and sexy dress whose clingy, figure-hugging form was extremely daring for the time.
How Monroe's dress became so famous is a fascinating question whose answer reveals much about the allure of modern celebrity. It was based on a sketch by Bob Mackie (who would go on to design costumes for Cher) for the French-born designer Jean Louis, a prominent costumier throughout Hollywood's golden years and the man responsible for many of the finest looks worn by actresses including Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Rita Hayworth. Monroe paid US$1440 (around US$13,000 today) for it in 1962, enamoured of the 6000 crystals with which the pale mesh fabric was adorned, no doubt knowing it would make an impact.
Which, of course, it did – one that lived on long after the final strains of Happy Birthday had wrung out in Madison Square Garden. In 1999, it became the most expensive dress ever sold at auction when it fetched US$1.26 million ($1.9m) at Christie's, beating the record formerly held by one of Princess Diana's gowns. In 2016, it hit the block again, selling for US$4.8m ($7.3m) at Julien's Auctions in Los Angeles, California. The winner was Ripley's, an American franchise of museums with branches worldwide. Placing the winning bid, Edward Meyer, vice president of exhibits and archives, said: "This is the most famous item of clothing in 20th-century culture. It has the significance of Marilyn, of Hollywood, of JFK, of American politics."
When dresses soar to the highest echelons of iconography, it's never merely just about the dress. Monroe has a slew of famous dresses to her name, not least the white halter dress she wore in The Seven Year Itch, which sold in 2011 for US$4.6m ($7m). But the Jean Louis creation was worn on one of her last major public appearances before her death less than three months later, on August 4, 1962, and it's imbued with further mystique because she was whispered to be having an affair with President Kennedy. The audacity! No wonder First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy skipped her husband's party to go horse riding.
One can understand the appeal of such a dress to Kim Kardashian. Like Monroe, she has an innate talent for going viral. Unlike Monroe, she has the internet to enable it. Faced with the pressing dilemma of what to wear at the most famous fashion event of the year, Kardashian did what she has always done and went much further than the competition. Internet sleuths on Reddit started speculating about whether she would wear the dress after spotting she and her boyfriend, Pete Davidson, leaving Ripley's last week. They were right.
Having bought some pieces from them before, she already knew the owner of Julien's, who was able to introduce her to someone at Ripley's. If anyone is likely to persuade a museum to part with a dress that has never been worn by anyone other than Monroe and is so precious that it's been stored in a darkened, temperature-controlled vault, it's Kardashian. Before you could say "global warming", the dress was being flown by private jet from Orlando, Florida to her Calabasas home.
But life, as we all know, isn't a fairytale. Alas, Monroe's dress didn't fit Kardashian as she'd hoped it would. "The dress was transported by guards and I had to wear gloves to try it on," she explained to Vogue. "I always thought she [Marilyn] was extremely curvy. I imagined I might be smaller in some places where she was bigger and bigger in places where she was smaller. So when it didn't fit me I wanted to cry because it can't be altered at all."
Instead, she altered her body, embarking on a strict diet and exercise regime and losing 16lb in three weeks. "I would wear a sauna suit twice a day, run on the treadmill, completely cut out all sugar and all carbs and just eat the cleanest veggies and protein," she explained. "I didn't starve myself, but I was so strict." A month later, she was back in Ripley's vaults in Orlando for a final fitting. This time around, the dress fit like a glove.
On the night of the Met Ball, a conservationist from Ripley's helped her put on the dress in a small fitting room beside the red carpet, created for the purpose. Perhaps it was in this room that the conspiracy theories were born. No sooner had Kardashian made her grand entrance with Davidson (letting the side down in sunglasses) than the internet decided that the dress was fake. The truth: she wore the real dress for the red carpet, but once she'd climbed the fabled stairs, changed into a replica. "Everything had to be specifically timed and I had to practise walking up the stairs," she told Vogue, adding: "I'm extremely respectful to the dress and what it means to American history. I would never want to sit in it or eat in it or have any risk of any damage to it and I won't be wearing the kind of body make-up I usually do."
What she did wear, no doubt, was Skims. As well as its propensity to break the internet, it was the perfect choice for a woman at the helm of a multi-million dollar shapewear business. If Kardashian's body looked sleek and svelte, it was thanks in no small part to her shapewear, for heaven forbid such a famous gown be ruined by a dollop of VPL. The message? You may never be able to wear Marilyn's dress but you can still wear Kim's undies.
It's notable that Kim chose a bra with a conical silhouette, in homage to the "pointies" that were fashionable in Marilyn's day. It's also notable that a dress that caused such a scandal in the Sixties looked so tame on the red carpet today. "In a sense, it's the original naked dress – that's why it was so shocking," Kim has remarked. Not in 2022. With so many guests in corsets, midriff-baring ensembles and sheer gowns that displayed their bras and knickers, Kim looked fairly chaste by comparison.
A word, here, on body shape. Monroe once said that clothes should be tight enough to show you are a woman but loose enough to show you are a lady, a maxim that presumably wasn't front of mind on May 19, 1962. According to legend, so tight was the dress that she couldn't wear anything underneath and had to be sewn into it. She was supposedly a size 14, but sizing was obviously very different in the Fifties – a fact born out by Kardashian having to lose 16lb (7.25kg) to fit into it. Many commentators have pointed out the differences between Kim's gym-honed body and Marilyn's softer, fleshier one; while it's true that Marilyn never did a squat thrust in her life, and the fat-to-muscle ratio of their bodies are very different, in other ways they are similar. Both have come to be emblematic of their times, Kim's curves (and rumours of their surgical enhancement) as talked about as Marilyn's ever were.
Inevitably, Kardashian has had her critics. Some have accused her of trying too hard – um, isn't that the point? – while others opined that it was disrespectful to wear the dress of a dead icon. Yes, it's audacious of Kim to take on the gown, and therefore the mantle, of Marilyn, but audacity is a Kardashian credo. I like to think Marilyn would have approved. Had she not declined into barbituate addiction and died at 36 of a drugs overdose that may or may not have been murder, she would be 95 today. Perhaps Marilyn would have respected Kim, an incorrigible meme queen who, like her, has been both fame's benefactor and its victim, wrestling with a public and a private self.
Throughout her 36 years, Marilyn was perpetually having other people's narratives and opinions imposed on her life, a practice that still continues to this day. Compared to the many rumours, conspiracy theories, books, films and documentaries in her name, Kim's sartorial tribute can only seem benign: a tribute from a fan who understands more about fame than most. Kim is a survivor. Marilyn would respect that. Would that she had been the same.