For its host, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the annual Met Gala serves a simple purpose: fund-raising. But for those of us who follow the event from home, it is often about something else: judging other people’s clothes.
There are some who find this practice incomprehensible. I used to be one of them. The habit seemed not just hard to understand but also a little frightening: If some of the most beautiful, wealthy people in the world, attending events like the Met Gala or the Oscars, couldn’t escape snarky commentary about their outfits, what hope did the rest of us have?
What I didn’t understand, back then, was that to wear something to one of these events and receive only polite recognition was worse than failure. Attention surely makes a celebrity’s life hell, but its absence brings a hell of another kind. In another time, the looks on these lavish evenings would have been constructed primarily for the other people in the room, but now they are photographed, livestreamed, instantly converted into jokes and memes on Twitter and in group chats; their audience has swelled to include the sweatpants-clad zoomer drinking boxed wine in a small apartment. In other words, the pleasure of judging celebrity clothes lies partly in understanding that this is why celebrities wear them. We are in a symbiotic relationship: They are beautiful for us, and we, in turn, give them an audience whose approval they actually desire. Beyond which, yes, it is also fun to see how much people can squander their own good looks and access to the best designers in the world.
Beautiful clothes are not like beautiful people. A beautiful person has something you don’t, even if you’re beautiful, too: Their beauty can’t be transferred, borrowed or replicated. We can envy or resent or imitate it, but we are always outside it. A beautiful dress, on the other hand, acts like an invitation, beckoning you to step inside it: This could be you. Still, anybody who has stepped too impulsively into a dressing room, or rifled through a friend’s closet, will know that this invitation is a deceptive one. Beautiful clothes have ideas about who gets to wear them.
Enter Kim Kardashian, who arrived at this year’s Met Gala wearing Marilyn Monroe’s famous 1962 “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress — the original garment itself, on loan from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. Watching her carefully pick her way up the stairs, her hair bleached blond, was a weird, if moving, testimony to the promise of clothes and the limits of that promise. And perhaps, a referendum on the story so many people tell themselves while judging the outfits celebrities have assembled for the gala: that if they had the looks and figures and budgets of the attendees, they would absolutely look better than that.
Kardashian lost, by her own account, 16 pounds in three weeks in order to wear the original dress, instead of 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 wearing it. Its point was that Monroe, in 1962, found a way to be naked while clothed, wearing nothing under a dress that appeared sheer without actually being so. Without her breathy, soft beauty animating it, it’s just a nice dress. Kardashian looked good in it, of course, but for all her work, she didn’t really evoke Monroe; if I hadn’t been told it was that particular dress, I wouldn’t have recognized it.
On social media, some loved the look: “She IS a modern day Marilyn,” went one breathless and then much-mocked comment. Others were underwhelmed. (“Sorry,” tweeted Stephanie Zacharek, the film critic at Time, “but the ‘Marilyn Monroe dress’ worn with modern underpinnings is not really the ‘Marilyn Monroe dress.’”) Conservators complained that the dress had been irreparably damaged. Some wrung their hands about the choice to crash diet to fit into it. 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 climb up the red carpet, Kardashian changed into a replica. The real thing was just to make a point for the cameras — which is to say, for us at home. Others have successfully echoed Monroe at the Met Gala, including Billie Eilish at last year’s event. The reason to wear Monroe’s actual clothes, and not a dress meant to echo or pay homage to them, would be to insist on a literal kind of transformation: I am the Marilyn Monroe of today, not in analogy but in fact. (And one the real Monroe never got to be — not just a bombshell but a business, a mother, able to detach from toxic male influences, able to shake off tabloids.) But no amount of weight loss, shape wear and the rest can get you access to only the good and none of the bad in Monroe’s life; she lingers in the culture the way she does because she is both aspirational and tragic.
The dream of all of us watching at home is that stepping into the shoes of a celebrity might be as simple as literally putting on the right shoes. Made literal, however, that dream falls short. A dress is just a dress. What we want is really to become somebody else — to get the beauty that you can’t just put on. What a blow to discover that even all the resources and effort in the world cannot give you this one desire — that beauty remains stubbornly individual.
Nobody wishes to go to the Met Gala because they think important things of great consequence are being done there. (This year’s theme, which evoked the Gilded Age, drew caustic political commentary from some onlookers; cornered on the Vogue livestream, attendees didn’t seem to know quite what to say. At one point, one of the hosts, Hamish Bowles, surprised me by bringing up the war in Ukraine.) What people dream of, gala-wise, is beauty, admiring and being admired, charming and being charmed, being selected as special and deserving. There is no excuse for dressing up and drinking Champagne while people are dying, except the excuse that there has always been, which is that people are always dying. When the celebrities disappear into the party itself, where we cannot follow them, they leave behind a dream of a life that is beautiful and uncomplicated, where the most important thing isn’t as heavy as life or death or good or evil. The most important thing is just a look and whether you carried it off, as judged by the rest of us, eating takeout at home. “Did you see Kim Kardashian in Marilyn Monroe’s dress?” go a hundred text messages. “Such a lost opportunity. I could have been Marilyn so much better.”
Source photographs: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue; Sam Shaw/Shaw Family Archives/Getty Images; Jay’s photo/Getty Images.
B.D. McClay is a critic, an essayist and a contributing editor at The Hedgehog Review as well as a contributing writer at Commonweal.