Pamela Anderson, Christina Aguilera and Marilyn Monroe: Why are the Kardashians always dressing like other celebrities?

It seemed like a good idea at first. But perhaps it does when Kim Kardashian asks her army of assistants to do something. This time around, though, it was a particularly tall order. The 41-year-old reality TV star needed something to wear to this year’s Met Gala. Her first choice? The sheer, beaded Jean Louis gown that Marilyn Monroe famously wore in 1962, when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. Yes, that dress.

The gown itself is owned by Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, which loaned it to Kardashian via Julien’s Auctions, the company that handled its sale in 2016 – the dress went for $4.8m (£3.8m). Initially, the Skims founder was offered a replica of the gown – she declined. After much deliberation, Ripley’s agreed to allow Kardashian to wear the gown to walk the red carpet. Then she would change into the replica.

It was all quite straightforward. And yet, the moment Kardashian arrived at the Met, hand-in-hand with boyfriend Pete Davidson, the internet went wild. It wasn’t necessarily anything to do with how Kardashian looked in the dress (gorgeous), or the diet she went on in order to fit into it (absurd), although that did ruffle some feathers. No. The online furore was mostly due to the fact that Kardashian had been granted the right to wear one of the most beloved pieces of clothing of all time.

Earlier this month, Monroe’s dress designer Bob Mackie, who drew the original sketch of the gown for Jean Louis, said it was a “big mistake” that Kardashian was permitted to wear it. “[Marilyn] was a goddess. A crazy goddess, but a goddess,” the 82-year-old told Entertainment Weekly. “She was just fabulous. Nobody photographs like that. And it was done for her. It was designed for her. Nobody else should be seen in that dress,” Mackie added.

Meanwhile, fashion historians also criticised Kardashian for wearing the gown. Justine De Young, associate professor of fashion history at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, told People that it was “Irresponsible and unnecessary… An iconic piece of American history should not be put at risk of damage for an ego boost and photo op.”

But there is context to Kardashian wearing Monroe’s dress. You see, the Kardashian family has form when it comes to paying homage to celebrity style icons. Kardashian herself has previously dressed up as Cher and Madonna, for example, always going the extra mile with her costumes so that the resemblance is as close as possible because, well, she can afford to.

And so can her sisters. In previous years, we’ve seen myriad members of the Kardashian-Jenner clan pay homage to style icons from the past. In 2016, Kylie Jenner dressed up as Christina Aguilera, donning the singer’s famous crotchless trousers and striped bikini top from her “Dirtty” music video. “This was probably one of my first looks that I really got custom and was so exited [to wear],” she said of the look in a YouTube video from 2020. “I still get Tweets about this and my friends still talk about it.”

Meanwhile, it was Kylie’s older sister, Kendall, who decided to dress up as Pamela Anderson for Halloween in 2020, when she channelled the actress’s outfit from the 1996 cult classic film, Barb Wire, complete with a blonde wig, black leather thong bodysuit, and even a motorcycle – the Kardashians don’t do dress up by halves. Kim has also dressed up as Anderson, wearing her famous pink fluffy hat and white corseted look one year for Halloween.

More recently, we saw Kendall channel Monica Bellucci’s famous 1997 Cannes look, in which the actress wore a beige two-piece from Dolce & Gabbana. The 26-year-old model opted for an ensemble from the same collection when she attended an event in Portofino, Italy, celebrating her sister Kourtney Kardashian’s wedding to Travis Barker.

All this begs one question: why are the Kardashians so obsessed with channelling fashion icons from the past? And what does it say about how they want to be perceived? “I think it’s a combination of reasons,” says Rebecca Arnold, senior lecturer in fashion history at The Courtauld. “It’s validation of their own status and celebrity by association with other stars, which is of course only multiplied when it’s someone as mythologised as Marilyn Monroe.”

Of course, by aligning themselves with the likes of Monroe, Anderson, and Bellucci, the Kardashians are boosting their own cultural relevance. “It reinforces their status as stars and as icons of beauty, and suggests they are multi-faceted, that they can be more that one person or type,” says Arnold.

But also a means they get to up the ante on the red carpet, she adds, going on to reference Kim’s all-encompassing bodysuit from last year’s Met Gala. “After the literal blackout of Kim’s Balenciaga outfit, this year she wore a dress that was all about reflection of light, literally and metaphorically, as she stepped into Marilyn’s dress and thereby her spotlight.”

There is also the appeal of simply playing dress-up. “It can provide escape,” says Arnold. “The impulse to dress up is pretty universal, costume balls and fancy dress have been popular for centuries, everything from extravagant masked balls, to costume parades at church fetes.

“Dressing as an icon is an homage – showing you’re a fan, or that you love or admire that person, but also having the fleeting experience of being them and inhabiting their style and beauty, if only for one evening.”

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