From JFK to Kim Kardashian
Photo: Gotham/Getty Images
Sixty years after the world first saw Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress, it’s still causing conversation. Most recently, Kim Kardashian wore the sparkling garment to the Met Gala, which had a theme of “gilded glamour.” Unless any of the collectors who have owned the dress secretly tried it on, Kardashian is the first person since Monroe to put on the gown. And she’s now been accused of permanently damaging the garment, sparking perhaps the most heated online dress-centered controversy since the great black-and-blue vs. white-and-gold debate. But why exactly do people care about it? From President John F. Kennedy to the eccentric Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum, here’s the decades-long history of this dress.
1962: Fashion legend Bob Mackie sketches the initial design of what will become a nude dress hand-stitched with 2,500 rhinestones. According to ET, this is his first job after college. His boss, leading Hollywood designer Jean Louis, sees the vision to completion. Louis is following instructions from Monroe herself, who reportedly instructed him to “design a truly historical dress, a dazzling dress that’s one-of-a-kind, a dress that only Marilyn Monroe could wear.” Per The Vintage News, she pays $1,440 for the garment, which is so skin-tight that she has to be sewn into it.
Monroe debuts the final product at a Madison Square Garden political fundraising event that doubles as a birthday celebration for President John F. Kennedy, who turns 45 in 10 days. After taking off a white fur coat to reveal the sparkling gown, she sings a breathy, intimate version of “Happy Birthday” to the president and — according to The Vintage News — an audience of 15,000 paying guests.
1999: Per The Marilyn Monroe Collection, the bulk of Marilyn Monroe’s estate (including her clothing, furniture, and awards) is auctioned off in New York in October. The “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress sells for almost $1.3 million. According to the New Jersey Herald, the winning bid comes from Martin Zweig. The well-known financial investor keeps the dress carefully mounted on a mannequin in a climate-controlled display in his New York penthouse.
2016: The dress is once again on the auction block, this time in Los Angeles. (Zweig died in 2013, and his estate has decided to put the dress on sale.) NBC News reports that the dress sells for $4.8 million to an unidentified bidder in November. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! eventually comes forward as the winning bidder. According to the museum, auction fees put the final price at more than $5 million, which sets a record for the most expensive dress ever sold at an auction.
2017: Per the National Post, billionaire Jimmy Pattison announces in May that Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” dress will be exhibited in the small Canadian town of Luseland, Saskatchewan. Pattison, who owns both Ripley’s and the Guinness World Records, reportedly made the decision in order to promote the expansion of one of his grocery chains. Luseland’s mayor tells the National Post that his town is “very thankful and gracious.”
2022: Per The Daily Beast, a couple of months before the Met Gala in May, Kim Kardashian asks Ripley’s if she can borrow Monroe’s iconic dress. According to Ripley exec Amanda Joiner, the museum conducts two fittings with Kardashian in April and puts “a lot of requirements in place” regarding the handling of the dress. “The dress was never with Kim alone,” Joiner says. “It was always with a Ripley’s representative. We always ensured that at any time we felt that the dress was in danger of ripping or we felt uncomfortable about anything, we always had the ability to be able to say we not were going to continue with this.”
After debuting the look at the Met, Kardashian publicly thanks Ripley’s for loaning her the dress. (The museum apparently has also given her a wad of Monroe’s hair.) Per People, Kardashian tells Vogue that she lost 16 pounds in three weeks to fit into the dress.
In June, photos begin circulating on social media that appear to show permanent damage to Monroe’s dress. Mackie, the creator of the original sketch of the dress, tells Entertainment Weekly that “it was a big mistake” to allow Kardashian to put on the actual “Happy Birthday” gown. In addition to concerns about preservation and structural integrity, he takes issue with the principle of wearing a garment so closely tied to Monroe. “It was designed for her,” Mackie says. “Nobody else should be seen in that dress.”