No one loves a Met Gala surprise more than Kim Kardashian—so it’s no wonder rumours of her dramatic transformation into Marilyn Monroe were swirling 48 hours before the ball. Naturally, the big reveal tonight was nothing short of jaw-dropping. “The idea really came to me after the gala in September last year. I thought to myself, what would I have done for the American theme if it had not been the Balenciaga look? What’s the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe,” says Kardashian. The instant she stepped foot on the red carpet wearing the infamous glittering dress, her hair platinum blonde and perfectly coiffed, the reference was unmistakable. “For me the most Marilyn Monroe moment is when she sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ to JFK, it was that look.”
When I speak to the reality TV star and entrepreneur over the phone this past Sunday afternoon, she is in the midst of getting her hair bleached blonde. “I’m spending the whole day just dyeing my hair, 14 hours straight,” she says laughing. Kardashian clearly relishes the challenge of a tricky-to-pull-off fashion moment. Between the impossibly waist-whittled “wet look” Mugler dress she wore in 2019 and the mysterious Balenciaga Zentai-style outfit she donned last year, she’s especially game to go the extra mile for the Met Gala. Still, orchestrating a style maneuver of this magnitude would require new levels of commitment and planning.
Based on a sketch by Bob Mackie for the French-born Hollywood costume designer Jean-Louis, the dress caused a stir when the actress wore it to serenade President John F. Kennedy on his 45th birthday in 1962. In the brief film footage of her performance, you can hear the audience gasp as she peels off her white fur coat to reveal the sparkling translucent look embellished with over six thousand crystals. “Nowadays everyone wears sheer dresses, but back then that was not the case,” says Kardashian. “In a sense, it’s the original naked dress. That’s why it was so shocking.”
Fresh out of college and just 21 at the time, Mackie remembers the moment vividly. “After the day the sketch was drawn, I had no idea what it was for until photos of the event appeared in the newspaper,” he says. “Marilyn looked amazing and accomplished exactly what she intended to. Fox Studios would not let her wear anything too revealing in films, because of the previous nude calendar scandal. And she didn’t really care, because she had already been fired. Her figure was at its peak, the dress was a classic shape of fashion at the time.”
Monroe is said to have paid Jean-Louis $1,440 for the custom piece, which was first sold at auction in 1999 for over a million dollars as part of a sale of her estate with Christie’s. It then sold for a whooping $4.8 million at Julien’s Auctions in 2016, and was later acquired by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. To this day, it holds the record for being the most expensive dress sold at auction. “I’m a big fan of auctions and I own several JFK pieces so I know the owner of Julien’s. He was able to connect me [with Ripley’s] and that’s how the conversation started,” says Kardashian.
Stored in a darkened vault that’s controlled at the optimum 68 degrees and 40-50% humidity, the multi-million dollar dress has rarely been separated from its muslin-covered dress form, let alone worn by anyone other than Monroe. Before Ripley’s would agree to loan Kardashian the piece, she was invited to try on a replica for size. It fit perfectly. Soon after, the original dress was winging its way via private plane from Orlando, Florida to Kardashian’s home in Calabasas. And yet somehow the second fitting didn’t quite go as planned. “The dress was transported by guards and I had to wear gloves to try it on,” she explains. “I always thought she 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.”
With only a few months to go before the gala, there were only two choices: slim down to fit into the dress or find something else to wear. In her mind, there was only one real option. “It was this or nothing,” she says flatly. In the weeks that followed, Kardashian would adhere to a strict diet to get closer to her goal. “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 explains. “I didn’t starve myself, but I was so strict.” A month later, she was inside the Ripley’s vaults in Orlando for the final fitting. This time around, the dress fit like a glove. “I wanted to cry tears of joy when it went up,” she says.
The truth is Kardashian only actually wore the original dress for a matter of minutes. Given the fragile nature and historical value of the dress, she wasn’t about to take any chances. In fact, her whole process of getting dressed reads like a highly sophisticated military operation. First, she left her hotel in a dressing gown with barricades set up outside to obscure the view of any waiting paparazzi. She then arrived at a small fitting room by the Met Gala steps that was especially organized for the occasion. There a conservationist from Ripley’s was on hand to assist her in white gloves. “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 makeup I usually do,” says Kardashian, who changed into a replica of the dress also owned by Ripley’s once she successfully climbed the stairs. “Everything had to be specifically timed and I had to practice walking up the stairs.”
As it turns out, the ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ dress isn’t the only Monroe replica Kardashian has available for the evening. It’s one of three. Though it’s unclear which, if any, of the other two will be seen by the world at large. “I have a replica of the dress she wore to the Oscars in 1962,” says Kardashian proudly of Monroe’s stunning green sequin number by Norman Norell. “I think I might just wear that one to eat pizza in my hotel room.”
This story was originally published on Vogue.com.