Kim Kardashian was the last one to arrive on the red-carpeted steps of the Met Gala last week, in a look that was such a car crash of pop cultural significance that it momentarily knocked the war in Ukraine out of the headlines.
As you probably know by now, Kim chose that night to “come out” as Marilyn Monroe. The concept of Kim as the modern-day Marilyn was actually hatched many moons ago by her then-husband Kanye (not yet Ye) West. Last week, she gave it legs, sporting Marilyn’s sparkly, iconic “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” gown from when MM, then at a low point in her life and career, warbled her song to JFK at a massive Madison Square Garden fundraiser on May 19, 1962.
Barbara Lippert will be speaking about this and other elements of pop culture this Sunday, May 15th both in-person (in NYC) and live-streaming. Click here for more details.
In that historic minute, Marilyn’s gown, designed by Jean Louis from sketches by Bob Mackie, represented a breakthrough of enhanced nakedness, a tight-fitting flesh-colored slip encrusted with some 5,000 rhinestones hand-sewn on its surface. The whispery star became a beacon of sex shimmering on a stage in front of 15,000 people. But in her vulnerability, she was still very much alone.
Everything about MM’s fateful appearance that night, with Peter Lawford making her the butt of recurring jokes about “the late Marilyn Monroe,” presaged her death, a short three months later, under murky, covered-up circumstances.
Another Marilyn Exploitation
So I got mad and sad that Kim (no doubt obliviously) exploited that scene for her own sex-by-association, show-stopping drive-by. In another clash, she wore her own gallery (the gown is owned by Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, believe it or not) to the Met Museum. She also spent 16 hours coloring her hair platinum, and wearing it back, close to her head—to me it looked less like Marilyn and more like some sort of homage to another embattled woman, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Kim’s disturbing repurposing of Marilyn’s original spoke to the way we’re still wrestling with unresolved issues of female sexuality and the illusion of control.
But that’s when another bombshell hit the media: a leak of Supreme Court Justice Alito’s draft about overturning Roe vs. Wade, a decision so incomprehensibly punitive that it basically legislates women out of existence.
That painful smack brought into even higher relief the absurdity of the ball itself and the vapidity of Kim’s big Marilyn moment in it.
The theme of the gala was “The Gilded Age,” which celebrated the Robber Barons, as they were called at the time, the various Elon Musks of the late 19th century, who made their enormous fortunes in railroads, the equivalent of tech back then, and behaved outrageously. Meanwhile, the rest of the country struggled in a wealth gap similar to today’s, but eagerly followed newspaper gossip about them. The idea that the Met committee could come up with this theme at this time, without a hint of satire or irony, was staggering.
Who’s in Control?
Obviously, the Met had no control over the ultra-unfortunate timing. But Kim’s disturbing repurposing of Marilyn’s original also spoke to the way we’re still wrestling with unresolved issues of female sexuality and the illusion of control.
Writing on social media about the re-wearing of the Marilyn dress, Dr. Rhonda Garelick, Dean of the School of Art and Design Theory at Parsons/The New School, said, “The dress itself remains a metaphor for potential female bodily explosion, since neither Marilyn nor Kim could really walk or move in it. Marilyn was literally sewn into it. And Kim K. publicly announced that she’d had to starve herself for three weeks just to contain her own body enough to fit into it. (She said she was eating pizza and donuts immediately after the Met Gala, in other words, letting her bombshell explode again.) The dress is both a display mechanism AND a control mechanism.”
In the same frock, Kim seemed muffled and more covered-up than usual.
It’s all so contradictory—how the culture bows to sexpots while eventually trying to bury them.
But what surprised me most was just how unsexy Kim looked in the dress. Marilyn shocked the crowd by flashing the illusion of her nude body, sexy as hell at the time. Now I’ve come to see that act almost as a human sacrifice.
By contrast, in the same frock, Kim seemed muffled and more covered-up than usual. Given the dress’s sacred history, Ripley’s wouldn’t allow her to alter it in any way, so the top was ill-fitting and the back zipper gaped open over her famous posterior. She draped a white fur stole over the hole in the back the whole time.
It seemed that Kim the influencer, who notably said that she had never worn underwear until the creation of her (now hugely successful) SKIMS shapewear line, wanted her foundational garment, a nude body suit, rather than her actual body, to be seen. That’s a sacrifice of a different sort from a canny marketer.
She changed into a more forgiving copy of the gown, right after her ten minutes on the carpet, and then wore another actual Marilyn vintage piece to the afterparty.
But her melding with Marilyn pretty much stops there.
They were each married three times, but Marilyn and Kim are opposites in many ways. Marilyn exuded sex, but also a softness, soulfulness, and a fragility.
Whereas Kim has turned her body into a fortress, a kind of hard-fought and carefully constructed cartoon caricature of sexy.(“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”)
Marilyn always saw herself as an orphan. She was. She never knew her father, and her mother was in and out of mental institutions throughout her childhood. As a kid, she was shuttled around between various homes and an orphanage, where she was emotionally and sexually abused.
Her dream was to become part of a family. It was to her eternal sadness that she miscarried a baby during her marriage to Arthur “Death of a Salesman” Miller, from whom she was divorced shortly before the JFK birthday party.
Whereas Kim has four children, and of course, comes from a large, rich, and powerful family. Her Kardashian daddy was in the limelight as OJ’s attorney. Kim herself achieved fame starting with her mother (“momager”) leaking her sex tape, catnip for the then-young internet. The real fame came from the family’s pivotal reality show, Keeping up with the Kardashians, featuring Kim and her five siblings strong (including two blended Jenners) and parents Kris and Bruce, in their solid California manse.
A Gift for Timing
As it turns out, Kim has a witch’s gift for timing, because aside from her own Met impersonation (which really had nothing to do with the theme), there’s a Marilyn revival at the moment: Netflix is streaming The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe—the Unheard Tapes, based on investigative journalist Anthony Summers’ 1985 book Goddess, the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe and the hundreds of interviews he recorded while writing the book.
In his machine-like way, Andy Warhol made Marilyn a secular saint.
Summers never says so definitively, but seems to maintain that Marilyn was not murdered. He does go extensively into her downward spiral into depression and drugs after her semi-secret affairs with both Bobby and John F. Kennedy fizzled. She said at the time that she felt angry and used. Her house was being bugged, and the Kennedy brothers feared her complaints would go more public.
More Marilyn headlines were made just this week, with Andy Warhol’s post-death 1964 portrait, “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” a silk screen, sold at Christie’s for $195 million, becoming the most expensive 20th-century artwork ever sold at auction. Neither Andy nor Marilyn would believe it. (Or not.) In making this seminal piece of pop culture, Warhol cropped Marilyn’s head from a publicity shot for an otherwise forgotten early 1950’s movie, Niagara. In heightening the contrasts and the colors of hair, eyelids, and open-mouthed lips, and carefully silhouetting the head, Warhol invented his own filters, way ahead of camera phones. And in his machine-like way, Andy made Marilyn a secular saint.
The Martyr and the Maven
Bob Colacello, Warhol’s right-hand man at Interview magazine, agrees. As quoted in W Magazine at a pre-party for the Christie’s sale, he told a reporter, “Marilyn Monroe was a classic, saint-like figure. A martyr. Andy was making religious paintings for a secular culture.”
Kim has grabbed Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame for at least 15 years.
“Jackie, Marilyn, Liz, Elvis—they were all martyrs to fame,” he said.
As for what Colacello thought of Kardashian’s recent Monroe tribute, he only had a one-word answer: “Horrible.”
But Kim is not beloved for nothin.’ She’s grabbed Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame for at least 15 years. These days, she’s got four kids, four sisters, one brother, mom, Pete Davidson, her underwear business, and is starring in The Kardashians, which last month broke streaming records on Hulu. She also reportedly just became a billionaire.
In the end, for better or worse, the fact that Kim was all over the media as the object of both raves and disparagement for her craftily engineered stunt at the Met indeed links her to Marilyn, the myth, and that pantheon, forever.
She’s executed her strategy, and in her Kardashian-based universe, that means she’s won.
The Final Irony
But is intense insensitivity and monomania really a victory? Ostensibly, Kim came to praise the museum, not to bury it. But in the end, her stunt actually thwarted the entire point of the Met Gala itself: to raise funds for the Met Museum’s Costume Institute, which exists to preserve, conserve and exhibit the 33,000 objects in its collection.
Post-gala, ICOM Costume (the costume conservation part of the International Council of Museums) issued a statement declaring flatly: “Historic garments should not be worn by anybody, public or private figures.”
“…Historic garments are artifacts of the material culture of [the] time, and they must be kept preserved for future generations.”
The statement also said that the gown “is made of soufflé silk, which is no longer available, so it’s irreplaceable.”