A spectre is haunting Kim Kardashian: the spectre of superstardom. Everything she’s ever done – from shooting nude magazine covers, to training as a lawyer, to filming TikToks with her daughter – has sent her deeper into the spirit realm, where she must do battle with the ghost of every celebrity that came before her. The battleground? The court of public opinion. The prize? A place in the pop culture pantheon. The stakes are high, but, like mythical villains of old, the long-gone superstars have left behind legendary artefacts to help Kardashian in her quest: bejewelled necklaces, red-carpet-ready gowns – the keys to their own undoing. Of course, these artefacts come at a price.
On a fateful day in May 2022, Kim Kardashian walked the red carpet at the Met Gala in a bejewelled gown last worn by Marilyn Monroe as she serenaded JFK for his birthday six decades before. The price tag? $4.8 million, although apparently Kardashian didn’t pay a dime. She did pay, however, with a sharp blow to her public image, as fashion historians and designer Bob Mackie himself descended with damning criticisms of her carelessness. She had disrespected Monroe’s tragic legacy, they said, and the dress itself suffered “irreparable” damage during the 20 minutes she wore it, returning to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! with stretched fabric and missing crystals. For the afterparty, Kim posed in another of Monroe’s dresses, clutching her 1962 Golden Globe.
The Attallah Cross – an amethyst pendant that was worn many times by Princess Diana, and was recently snapped up by Kim at auction – came with a more straightforward price tag. After a five-minute bidding war at Sotheby’s on January 18, Kim won the 1920s pendant for £163,800, way above the pre-sale estimate of £100,000. Still, the purchase isn’t without its detractors, who argue that she should no longer be trusted – or doesn’t deserve – to preside over our cultural history. Others suggest that she’s only doubling down on her past insensitivities by drawing a parallel, via six-figure jewels, between herself and the late Princess of Wales (another figure whose adoration is intertwined with the tragedy of her life and death).
MJ Corey – the researcher behind @kardashian_kolloquium and founder of the Kardashian Data Koalition – notes that Kim’s collection of pop culture Horcruxes marks a significant shift in her quest for relevance, away from “high-drama scandals” and toward a more mature and sustainable mode of social climbing. “The ‘Break the Internet’ cover, the 72-day marriage, the Taylor Swift thing, so many sister fights, marrying Kanye and becoming exposed to the fashion world... we all know the Kim K mythology,” she says. “But as she matures – and becomes more entrenched with the elite – I suspect that she needs to approach that formula in an even more curated way.”
With a net worth north of a billion dollars, and fashion’s best and brightest queueing up to tap into her cultural capital, making massive purchases that align her with some of history’s most talked-about figures seems like an obvious solution. Besides, Corey adds, evoking these familiar ghosts helps cut through the schizophrenic culture of social media, where attention is increasingly fragmented across various personalities. “Icons like Princess Di, Marilyn, Liz Taylor, Michael Jackson, who were dominant during older eras of media, have a unique hold on audiences still.” This is especially true when these icons loom large in the current news cycle and the algorithm turns our attention their way – notice Kim wore the Marilyn dress bang in the middle of Blonde’s publicity cycle, and bought Diana’s jewels amid a wild time for royal headlines.
Is it all just an attention grab, though? It’s hard to resist ascribing deeper hidden meanings to some of Kim’s most notable purchases. Controversy aside, the Marilyn dress was widely accepted as a reference to her status as this generation’s foremost sex symbol, hounded by paparazzi the way Monroe was by Hollywood press. Could snapping up the Attallah Cross also be a nod to Diana’s marital strife and tense relationship with the royal family? Is Kim trying to imply she’s the 21st-century People’s Princess? The Kardashians are, after all, the closest we have to God-given royalty in the neoliberal hellscape of 2023, with a divine right to rule (i.e. conventional beauty, inherited wealth, and ruthless PR sensibilities) and a lineage steeped in myth and legend.
Maybe it’s not that deep though; maybe we’re finding meaning where there is none, just a void of empty references pulled from the nostalgia-obsessed zeitgeist. Then again, who understands the importance of image and power of pop symbolism better than Kim Kardashian? How could she not realise how it looks when she tears apart JFK’s birthday treat on the world stage, or plays a similarly risky game with an iconic Alexander McQueen Oyster gown – one of only two ever produced?
It’s worth noting that, not so long ago, Kim was essentially the face of future-facing fashion. This reputation often came courtesy of her ex-husband and ex-stylist Kanye West, whose post-divorce departure from her dressing room apparently prompted “panic attacks”; tellingly, she dove straight back into her own 30,000-piece archive in an attempt to define her subsequent style era. Close relationships with the likes of Demna Gvasalia and Thierry Mugler also saw her dressed in fetishwear and sci-fi ensembles (though even her drippy, Mugler-designed look at the 2019 Met Gala was explicitly intended to conjure the spirit of Sophia Loren emerging from the ocean – you don’t need to die to be turned into a ghost, it seems).
Kim’s new turn toward the past shouldn’t be written off as a reluctance to take risks, though, or a desire to fall back on time-honoured style. In fact, what could be more dangerous (and of-our-time) than charging full-tilt at the icons we hold dear, and destroying them in the process? Corey describes Kim as a “postmodern force”, tirelessly consuming the images and narratives of the past. The social media star’s success at converting these images into attention, she says, “serves to reflect some uncomfortable truths with the media landscape itself... but many people hold their celebrity idols as something very sacred, and [to them] it probably feels like Kardashian sacrilege knows no bounds”.
What are these “uncomfortable truths” revealed by Kim’s postmodern plundering? Well, if it tells us one thing about contemporary culture, it’s that we’ve basically given up on new images and ideas, and seem destined to exist in endless nostalgia loops, stubbornly resisting (and resigning ourselves to) a future that’s forecast to bring nothing but doom and gloom. Ironically, this news is nothing new: by now we’re all familiar with contemporary culture’s obsession with everything 70s, 80s, 90s, and Y2K – an obsession that’s alive and well on the runway. Mark Fisher, the late cultural theorist who went by the alias k-punk, identified this as a problem in the early 2010s, putting words to the “cultural impasse” that lies at the heart of “hauntological” art forms.
In a 2012 article for Film Quarterly, Fisher wrote that 21st-century culture is haunted by the failure of the futures that we were promised in the century before. “Troublingly, the disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live,” he wrote. “It meant the acceptance of a situation in which culture would continue without really changing, and where politics was reduced to the administration of an already established (capitalist) system.” We were in, he suggested, the “end of history” – a mode of existence described by political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in which liberal democracy emerges as the final form of human government.
Of course, Fukuyama’s ideas are controversial, and the bold claim that we’re living in the “end of history” has been endlessly disputed. Just because you can’t imagine a future that’s radically different from your own, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. Whether Kim Kardashian is simply “cashing in on nostalgia culture” or aiming for something more meaningful with her archive of historic artefacts, though, it seems significant that she (a figurehead of the liberal, capitalist establishment) feels compelled to comb the past for cultural capital, rather than using her money and connections to craft an aesthetic that feels fresh and new, and maybe even improves on what came before.
“The disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live” – Mark Fisher
Can Kim imagine a better future, a “world radically different from the one in which we currently live”? Can any of us? As Fisher noted of culture a decade ago, Kim’s historic purchases are about iteration rather than innovation, betraying a dire lack of imagination. Even Kim’s own brand, SKIMS, struggles to imagine what the future could look like, opting instead for an ambiguous, utilitarian aesthetic – a blank slate.
As time goes on, it will be interesting to see how Kim continues to wrestle with the legacies of pop culture legends. Corey expects to see her make more “big, controversial, iconic purchases” in the future, and that “all legacy icons will be fair game”. It’s a horrifying prospect for professional archivists, and an exciting one for whoever does the Kardashians’ alterations. Whether it signifies the end of history and the failure of the future remains to be seen. Maybe Kim’s recklessness with history is exactly what we need to break the cycle. Maybe, when Kim has cleared out the museums and wins the bidding war for the last historic look we have left – Jackie O’s wedding dress? The Crown Jewels? – she’ll grind it all into a fine dust and we can finally put the past behind us, and our eyes will be opened to a future beyond our wildest imagination.
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