Pre-loved pieces emerge front and center on the red carpet, as stars bask in the unique spotlight of old-world glamour.
The 444 million-and-counting multi-platform viewers of this year’s Met Gala gave a collective gasp when Kim Kardashian arrived on the red carpet in Marilyn Monroe’s Jean Louis crystal embroidered dress.
Originally worn by the blonde bombshell herself in 1962 at Madison Square Garden when she famously serenaded President Kennedy with a very sultry rendition of Happy Birthday, Monroe had been sewn into the bespoke piece that night to achieve a seamless fit. Purchased by pop culture archivists Ripley’s Believe It or Not! for US$4.8 million in 2016 — making it the most expensive dress in the world — this very fabric of history is usually kept in a temperature and light-controlled vault in their Orlando museum and gallery. All of which contributed to making Kardashian’s modern ‘Mr President’ moment such a polarizing affair for the Internet, with many questioning why the delicate dress, made from sheer and flesh-colored marquisette fabric and set with 2,500 rhinestones, had been taken out of the archives. Dubai-based Joe Challita, couturier and fashion history enthusiast weighed in, stating, “Kim Kardashian acquiring Marilyn’s dress for the Met Gala, in my opinion, was not a move for sustainability but a move to acquire its iconic status. That dress had its moment through Marilyn. It has already been in the limelight, and it is still etched in our memories today.” Increasingly, vintage dresses are appearing more and more on the red carpet, but the motives behind the trend appear less grounded in sustainability than an opportunity to achieve an away-from-the-pack look that’s very modernity is entrenched in the past.
Dani Levi, Kardashian’s fashion stylist, expresses that her reasons for sourcing vintage are related to creative freedom, declaring, “A circular fashion system allows for more possibilities to express what I want to say without being bounded. I don’t want to be limited by what designers or trend forecasters think is relevant this season. I feel we stylists are artists and should be more original by letting our personal vibes, environment, and likes play a part in our aesthetic and work. Archive fashion gives us endless ideas.” Kardashian has been donning vintage since 2016, from Thierry Mugler to Vivienne Westwood, each piece delivering new iconic moments in fashion, creating conversations around the importance of historical couture.
The idea that vintage frees women from the constraints of trends is also expressed by Bella Hadid. The Palestinian-Dutch model made an old-glamor statement on the red carpet when she wore a 1950s Dior gown to the Prince’s Trust Gala in New York, in April. It did not end there. The Cannes Festival red carpet saw her wearing not one, but two Versace gowns plucked from the maison’s archives — confirming her position as a vanguard for the vintage trend. Law Roach styled Hadid’s striking looks and is a huge supporter of vintage couture. He recently commented on actress Zendaya’s Bob Mackie moment, “Vintage and archival dressing isn’t a trend for me, it’s what led me to this career and will always be my first option when possible.”
In the region, fashion purveyor Sheikha Dana Al Khalifa is vocal in her praise for vintage couture and jewelry, revealing, “Cherie Balch of Shrimpton Couture taught me a lot about vintage dressing, and I have bought a number of pieces from her in the past.” Balch is a vintage expert to the stars and has dressed the likes of Rhianna and Adut Akech in yesteryear’s Moschino and Christian Lacroix. “I think everything in fashion is cyclical, it could never be old if it was never new. Nothing really new is being created, everyone is looking back to create their designs. Women’s current fashion climate is setting the trends on the market for fast fashion to emulate and it is costing our environment. In the Middle East, women feel they are less-than if they wear vintage; you are seen as someone who can’t afford what is new and considered ‘in.’ Through the red carpet, a shift in this opinion is starting to be seen.” Al Khalifa confirms that heritage accessories, however, are much loved. “Vintage jewelry is a big deal in the Middle East. When anyone asks me what I am wearing, I always reply that it’s my mother’s from the Eighties. I love the fact that these pieces have a story.”
Looking back on the trade of garments, during the Renaissance, it was common for servants to sell their masters’ old clothing to peasants in nearby villages. Fast forward to today, when did vintage fashion become trendworthy? In an article written for Smithsonian Magazine by Professor Jennifer Le Zotte, and in her book Goodwill to Grunge, the author marks the moment second-hand buying went from “suspicious to significant.” In the Fifties, when freethinkers took to the trend of wearing thrifted garments, it became desirable. An affront to capitalism, these groups were opting out of the bourgeoisie fashion scene, with the view that if you adopted the trend, you were special, unique, and different. The style adage goes that fashion recycles every 20 years, and stars are looking back, to appear forward-thinking. A lot like the grass roots of vintage, one can see a relation to how celebrities categorize themselves today when wearing exclusive, one-of-a-kind pieces. It is something of a rebellion against commercialized fashion and acts as a further differentiator for women seeking to separate themselves from the crowded huddle of designer trends.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia