It’s the perfect celebrity story: at the height of her alleged affair with John F Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe donned a skin-tight dress and performed a sexy rendition of Happy Birthday for the president at a gala attended by more than 15,000 people, including other celebrities, while JFK’s wife, Jackie, was elsewhere, spending the day with their two children. It’s an archetypal tabloid moment: it involves the fabulous and the powerful, whispers of adultery, an inappropriately intimate gesture, all playing out in a needlessly public way. It is the best service a celebrity could provide for eager onlookers: to be glamorous, intriguing and vaguely unhinged.
The dress from this moment became infamous, and has spent the 60 years since moving between auction winners — most recently in 2016, when it was bought by Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum for $4.8 million — and living on mannequins. That was, until last night, when Kim Kardashian wore it to the Met Gala to fit the theme “In America: An Anthology of Fashion”, the dress code for which was “gilded glamour”. The Met Gala is synonymous with sartorial artistry, a night when the world’s best-known designers get to display their unfiltered ingenuity. For many people, this dress was a great gimmick — great enough to dub Kardashian the winner of the night.
Looking beyond the gimmick, though, what do we see? The dress is simple and perhaps even pretty, but it is unremarkable – squint, and you could find something similar in the high-end section of Zara. Its crystals cost over a million dollars, which is, of course, a number, but it is the actions of another woman from another century that make this dress. The story alone is what makes it worth digging out of a billionaire’s archive. As an item of clothing, it is strikingly similar to the types of dresses Kardashian has worn so often she made them into a decade-defining trend: a neutral-toned, bodycon mermaid dress.
Kardashian’s choice is emblematic of a trend that has become unavoidable on red carpets: boring looks that rely heavily on some outside factor — a gimmick, or sheer expense — to make them seem like an act of genius. You can look at Gigi Hadid’s “heavy dress” (something we’ve seen numerous times from people like Rihanna and Cardi B, who wore a heavy dress in the same colour in 2019); or the parade of bejewelled “naked” dresses, with transparent material and adorned with gemstones, which has been the monotonous Met look du jour for more than half a decade; and Kardashian’s two sisters, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, whose whole outfits appeared to be centred around having blonde eyebrows and wearing a baseball cap, respectively. Scanning the looks from the Met Gala — supposedly the most inventive night in fashion — it’s hard to find one that isn’t safe, tired or ugly, something closer to a cheap outfit you’d find on BooHoo than a showpiece. The ones that try to do something different often rely on thoughtless shapes — clearly hoping that making a dress look weird will be enough to make it interesting — or stunts we’ve seen before. Most don’t even try.
Consider the one celebrity who received almost unanimous praise for her look last night: Blake Lively, whose coppery dress unfolded as she walked up the stairs to reveal a long, wide train that changed the dominant colour of the gown to blueish green — a reference to the oxidisation of the Statue of Liberty. While Lively’s dress was no doubt the best of the night, we’ve seen this mid-carpet move at the Met Gala many times before. Zendaya’s Cinderella dress changed colour after being sprayed by a chemical out of a wand in 2019, Karlie Kloss shed a layer in 2016 to show a different dress hidden under her original one, and Lady Gaga did four outfit changes on the red carpet three years ago. Sydney Sweeney even did a similar mid-carpet dress reveal last night, as did Cara Delevingne.
At an event that claims to be the height of fashion, should this level of imagination not be the bare minimum for celebrity guests, a class of people with almost endless wealth and access to countless people to whom they can outsource their creativity? A dress that unfurls to reveal a slightly different colour scheme is not that inspired, especially when weighed up against the technology and materials available to designers (who often work more than a year in advance on these looks). It only stands out when lined up beside the myopic and uninspiring offering from a cohort of public figures who consistently choose to evade risks, despite being the people best poised in the world to actually take them.
The Met Gala is not alone in this trend: it’s hard to think of a red carpet in the last year that wasn’t plagued by a similar problem. (I would encourage you to try to find one engaging or beautiful look, for example, from this year’s Oscars or Grammys.) Our era of celebrity demands safeness and sameness, a level of uniformity driven by social media, which rewards specific styles of images and being. As a result, creativity and playfulness are performed within narrow metrics of acceptability. Like Kardashian’s dress, celebrities today more often than not choose to ride on derivative throwbacks and superficial gimmicks to make their choices seem intelligent or even just interesting, rather than wearing anything (or, God forbid, actually being) interesting themselves.