Pretty clothes are not like pretty people. A beautiful person has something that you don’t have, even if you are beautiful too: their beauty cannot be transferred, borrowed, or replicated. We can envy it or resent it or imitate it, but we are always outside of it. A beautiful dress, on the other hand, acts as an invitation, beckoning you to step into it: this could be you. Still, anyone who has ever too impulsively walked into a fitting room, or checked into a friend’s closet, will know that 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 the famous “Happy Birthday, Mr President” — the original garment itself, on loan from Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. Watching her carefully climb the stairs, her dyed blonde hair was a strange, yet poignant testimony to the promise of clothing and the limits of that promise. And perhaps, a referendum on the story so many people tell themselves when judging the outfits celebrities put together for the gala: that if they had the looks, the figure, and the budget of the attendees, they would look better than that.
Kardashian lost 16 pounds on her own in three weeks to wear the original dress, rather than 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 he was dressed, not wearing anything under a dress that looked transparent without really being. Without her soft, breathy beauty cheering him on, it’s just a pretty dress. Kardashian looked good on him, of course, but for all her work, she didn’t conjure up Monroe; if they hadn’t told me what that particular dress was, she wouldn’t have recognized it.
On social media, some loved the look: “She IS a modern-day Marilyn”, it was a breathless comment and then much mocked. Others were disappointed. (“I’m sorry,” Stephanie Zacharek tweeted, the Time film critic, “but the ‘Marilyn Monroe dress’ worn with modern underpinnings isn’t the ‘Marilyn Monroe dress'”). Conservators complained that the dress had been irreparably damaged. Some wrung their hands over choosing to go on a crash diet to fit in. In any case, it was indisputably the look of the night, not because it was memorable in itself, but because it was once, decades ago.
The original dress was so fragile that after her slow ascent down the red carpet, Kardashian transformed into a replica. The real thing was just to make a point for the cameras, that is, for us at home. Others have echoed Monroe at the Met Gala, including Billie Eilish at last year’s event. The reason for wearing Monroe’s actual 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 fact. (And the real Monroe never got to be, not just a bombshell, but a business, a mother, able to separate herself from toxic male influences, able to shake off the tabloids.) But no weight loss, loss of shape and the rest can access only the good and none of the bad in Monroe’s life; she stays in the culture the way she does because she’s aspirational and tragic.