Textile conservation had a recent moment in the limelight, when Kim Kardashian wore a dress formerly owned by Marilyn Monroe to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s famous Costume Institute Gala on May 2. The dress was sold at auction in 2016 for the dizzying price of $4.8 million, making it history’s most expensive dress. It belongs to the collection of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), a for-profit museum with multiple locations in the United States.
Kardashian undertook a crash diet to fit into the dress, and tread carefully along the red carpet, frequently casting a glance down to her feet to see if they were trampling along the dress’s hem (alas, they were). Conservators were quoted in newspapers condemning this as an appalling abuse of a historically significant object: wearing historical garments damages them, and the field of textile conservation has officially opposed the practice for decades. Instead, guidelines for the care of wearable heritage emphasize maintaining their material integrity by protecting them from bright lights, fluctuations in temperature and humidity, and any unnecessary stress – best achieved by keeping garments as still as possible, and under glass. Sarah Scaturro, once a conservator at the Costume Institute and now chief conservator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying “I’m frustrated because it sets back what is considered professional treatment for historic costume.” As she explains, “In the ’80s, a bunch of costume professionals came together to state a resolution that historic costume should not be worn.”
Yet even granting that Kardashian damaged Monroe’s dress – and there was little doubt that she did, even before damning photos appeared – I am wondering if there isn’t at least a potential counterargument to be made from the perspective of performance conservation.
First of all, let us consider the dress itself. It is a spectacular garment, a one-of-a-kind confection designed by a young designer named Bob Mackie, and made of sheer fabric and 6,000 crystals by Hollywood costumer Jean Louis specifically for Monroe. She wore it during her last public performance before her early death, when she seductively sang “Happy birthday Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy in 1962. In film footage of the brief yet instantly iconic performance, Monroe sparkles like a diamond. But the dress was intended to shock as much as to glitter: it was skin-tight, with little give – fabrics were less stretchy in those days, and Monroe famously had to be sewn into it – and made of a sheer, gauzy material that gave audiences the impression that the famous bombshell was wearing little more than rhinestones. As Mackie later recalled, “She was going to walk out into the middle of this huge arena and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the president so she wanted something that would be more outrageous and sexy than anything she’d ever worn in a film.” Monroe appears on stage wrapped in a fur jacket; when she removes it to reveal Mackie’s confection, the audience’s hoots and whistles reach a crescendo.
Monroe’s dress is indeed a precious object. Mackie himself was among the many voices who deplored Kardashian’s wearing it. Yet its preciousness is not primarily a function of its materiality. Museums, private collections, and grandparents’ closets hold thousands of fabulous couture garments from this period, and not one of them is as valuable as this (at least, in monetary terms). Rather, this particular dress is most significant because of its status as a performance relic: The dress’s significance, meaning, and power derive directly from the fact that it was performed by Monroe.
This of course is why, for her walk on the red carpet, Kardashian chose to wear this dress, the actual object worn by Monroe, instead of the careful replica that she changed into before entering the gala itself (see below – Monroe’s dress didn’t fit Kardashian as well as this custom replica!). Kardashian understood the power of the performance relic. And there is some precedent for understanding the reactivation of museum pieces, however valuable and important they may be. For one, conservation is always a balancing act: if physical preservation were the only concern, light-sensitive color photographs and works on paper would never go on display to the public. Conservators understand that there is no way to preserve these objects forever, allowing that a certain degree of damage is necessary for culturally significant objects to fulfill their functions.
The conservation of costumes and ritual objects in ethnographic collections has been transformed in recent decades by the understanding that these objects, however precious, suffer a more metaphysical kind of damage if they cannot be sometimes activated in performance by representatives of the cultures that made them. (The conservator Miriam Clavir was a pioneer in this field.) Like Monroe’s dress, culturally significant costumes were not made to be put behind glass in a museum, but to be activated by a live, performing body. To see the costume on display is to not really see the costume. Increasingly, curators and conservators of ethnographic collections understand that physical preservation cannot be the only criterion of responsible care, but must be balanced against these objects’ identities as essentially performative. Here, the demands of intangible cultural heritage clash with those of the more material variety.
One could argue that Kardashian, as an American celebrity, belongs to the same “tribe” as Monroe, and that wearing the dress – which is significant not for its own materiality, but for its having been performed by Monroe – activates it in a way that traditional, object-based conservation measures cannot. By returning the dress to the celebrity culture in which it originated, Kardashian, one might argue, is preserving the dress in a way that opposes yet also transcends traditional textile conservation.
My aim in presenting this case is not necessarily to defend the wearing of a historical garment by a contemporary celebrity, but rather to point out that evidence of performance’s power – and efforts, however unintentional, to exploit and augment that power – may be found in the unlikeliest of places, far from the conservation laboratories, museum galleries, theaters, and academic discussions where performance conservation is taking shape. In developing practical as well as theoretical strategies for engaging with the afterlives of performance, we do well to attend not only to the risks and vulnerabilities of performance, but also to its power.
 Commentators were also incensed by Kardashian’s extreme diet – she lost 16 pounds in three weeks – which she undertook when she realized, less than a month before the Gala, that the dress did not fit (apparently an earlier fitting had gone more smoothly, so Kardashian was taken by surprise). Yet here, too, the art context may offer another perspective. Tellingly, Kardashian compared the diet to preparing for a film role, noting that weight loss or gain by actors like Christian Bale and Renée Zellweger is considered a sign of their commitment to the performance. Kardashian may not be an actor, but she is certainly a performer – and the constant public criticism of her own transformations of her body strike me as not dissimilar to criticism of performance artists like Marina Abramović or Orlan.