Wearing Marilyn’s Memory: Kim K, Monroe and The Dress

Leoni Horton examines how Kim Kardashian's Met Gala dress continues the tragic history of Marilyn Monroe’s struggle for agency and autonomy.

Kim Kardashian Met Gala

Kim Kardashian wore a custom dress made for Marilyn Monroe at this year’s Met Gala. Leoni Horton examines how this continues the tragic history of Marilyn’s struggle for agency and autonomy.

If you wanted to pay your respects to Hollywood’s iconic blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe, you’d find her final resting place, not in the vast, tourist-heavy gardens of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery but tucked into a quiet corner of a small memorial garden in the Westwood Village area of Los Angeles. It’s a peaceful spot, somewhat removed from the busy streets, chic coffee shops and endless fashion hot spots that surround the area. The idyllic garden would be the perfect place for the once-troubled Some Like It Hot star to rest, however a smattering of pink lipstick kisses disrupts this calm, imposing themselves upon the plaque that bears her name. These kisses belong to Hugh Hefner, the notorious billionaire womaniser and founder of Playboy Magazine.

In 1953, while Marilyn was rising rapidly to fame, Hefner bought nude photographs Marilyn had posed for years earlier when struggling to find acting work and published them in the first print issue of Playboy Magazine. However, as Marilyn didn’t hold creative control over the pictures, Hefner published them without her consent, and, as she had already received a payment of $50 at the time of the initial photoshoot, she was not paid anything further for the continued use of her image. Then, in 1992, Hefner infringed upon Marilyn’s privacy again, purchasing the crypt next to hers for $75,000, proclaiming to all that, upon his death, he would become “eternal bedmates with Marilyn Monroe.”

Hef’s choice of burial site raises interesting questions about how people have always viewed Marilyn. The platinum blonde, perfectly curved girl from sunny California was so loved, so desired, so coveted, it’s almost as if she stopped belonging to herself entirely. In fact, Norma Jeane became so far removed from Marilyn Monroe that she had to go out and purchase her own copy of Playboy from a newsstand just to see herself tucked inside its lewd, glossy pages.

Marilyn Monroe Portrait

This is only a single instance of how Hollywood would commodify and use Marilyn throughout her life, leaving her to fight fruitlessly for agency and ownership of her sense of self. Yet, despite this fight, and the changing tide of Hollywood’s treatment of women, even in death, Marilyn’s memory, legacy, stories, image, final resting place, and clothes have found their way into the possession of others.

The latest person to claim a piece of Marilyn is world-renowned reality TV star, Kim Kardashian. Kim is well known for using fashion to provoke and capture the media’s attention; she has worked with countless designers to achieve a variety of looks which often fulfil her desire to ‘break the internet’. This year Kim delivered once again by arriving at the Gala wearing the iconic dress Marilyn Monroe wore in 1962 when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to John F. Kennedy.

The dress, custom-made for Marilyn by the Academy award-winning costumier Jean Louis, is a beautiful, skin-tight, flesh-coloured souffle gauze number which glistens with the light of over 6,000 hand-sewn crystals. Some might argue that a dress is made to be worn and that recreating Marilyn’s look is no major atrocity in regards to everything happening around the globe right now, but in wearing Marilyn’s dress, Kim is, however innocently, joining a long line of people in using Marilyn for their own advantage. This might seem like a wild accusation and less insidious than publishing risqué photographs of a person without their permission. Yet, Kim’s desire to wear the dress reveals something intriguing about how we overlook Marilyn’s memory as we continue to reproduce her image.

Looking into the history of Marilyn’s dress reveals more about why the garment was so unique to her. When asked to perform at Kennedy’s birthday party, Marilyn reached out to Louis, who was commissioned to design costumes for her final movies: The Misfits and Something’s Got to Give. She paid $1440 for the piece with the instruction for the dress to be ‘one of a kind’. Marilyn was clear in her intention for Louis; she wanted something memorable, something that would steal the night, go down in American history, and, above all else, be the kind of garment only Marilyn Monroe could wear. Not only was the dress designed to match Marilyn’s vision and unique style, it was also constructed to fit her body perfectly.

Kim Kardashian Met Gala

She stood naked and was physically sewn into the dress, the dress precisely hugging every curve of her body. Though she looked undeniably beautiful wearing it, the dress Kim wore to the Met Gala wasn’t intended to ever sit on the hips of another woman but Marilyn. In taking it and making it her own for the evening, Kim ignores what Marilyn wanted when she bought her dress. It’s this blatant disregard for Marilyn’s possessions and intentions that continues to bring her autonomy into question posthumously.

Yet, it isn’t only Marilyn’s vision for her one a kind dress that Kim disregarded when walking the Met Gala red carpet. Fashion conservationists also expressed explicit concern that, due to weak spots in the 60-year-old fabric, wearing the dress would cause damage regardless of how careful and respectful Kim was to the garment while it was on her body. Following the Met Gala, behind the scenes footage of Kim getting ready for the event surfaced online. We can see stylists physically pulling at the fabric to get it to fit a body it was never intended for, subsequently stressing the material. This, coupled with the lotions, body make-up and perfume Kim wore on the night, would arguably cause further, irreversible damage and changes to the dress. 

Although Kim reportedly lost weight to fit in the dress, it also had to be tied in the back as it wouldn’t zip all the way up, leading Kim to wear a white fur shawl to cover it. She then changed into a replica after the red carpet. 

Marilyn’s dress is a valuable piece of American history and part of Marilyn’s rich legacy as an icon and trailblazer. Recycling the look and risking potential damage to such an intimate piece of Marilyn’s history is another example of a culture that seeks to use Marilyn’s image to achieve fame, celebrity, and social standing, whatever the cost.

Kim Kardashian Met Gala Dress


Such is the trouble with being a beautiful woman. The industry values beauty above all else, and because Marilyn had beauty by the bucket, the surrounding world sought to take her looks and use them for their own gain. The film industry didn’t want to give her the serious roles her brilliant comedic timing and acting talents would flourish in; they wanted ticket sales and Sugar Kane in every variety. Eventually, Marilyn went on strike and demanded greater creative control over her image. Still, she would never escape the culture that wanted to use her image for profit.

As Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s semi-fictional biography of Marilyn’s life, is due to arrive later this year, we’re left, again, in apprehension of how Marilyn’s next manifestation will appear. Will the titillating aspects of her life be again put on display to sell movie tickets? Or will we finally see a realistic version of the woman she was?

Like every person in the world, perhaps Kim only wanted to feel beautiful and sought to achieve that by wearing a gorgeous dress. However, Kim’s disregard for Marilyn and the history of her dress add to a cycle of Hollywood’s exploitation and ignorance that robbed Marilyn of her agency, commodified her beauty and contributed to her sadness.

Maybe it is just a dress, but it belonged to Marilyn Monroe.

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