It is perhaps the most famous dress in the world.
Gone too soon, Marilyn Monroe’s short life was dotted with both extremes of luck and misfortune. The harsh scrutiny of living under the public eye and rigorous filming schedules led to her untimely death at only age 36-years-old. 3 months before her death she sang the most seductive “Happy Birthday” ever performed on live TV to President John F. Kennedy, while wearing the most seductive dress that had ever been shown on live TV. This dress signaled a sea change in fashion and to this day is still causing waves. Here are some facts you might not have known about this shimmering, glittering, barely-there dress.
The gown in question was produced by Jean Louis. You may remember this name from old movies, as he was a staple costumer and often appeared with the credit “Gowns by Jean Louis”. In fact, the more pedestrian costuming of films, using off-the rack clothing, has been decried as the beginning of the end of the glamour of Old Hollywood.
While it’s Jean Louis who got the credit for actually making the dress, the gown’s first drawings and the concept of an “invisible” dress were straight from the mind of Bob Mackie, who was a new hire at Jean Louis’ firm and recently graduated from college.
Mackie went on to design for the likes of Cher, Diana Ross, and Madonna, and created the pivotal costume for Carol Burnett in the 1967 TV skit, “Went with the Wind”, parodying Gone with the Wind.
The “Happy Birthday” dress was embellished with 2,500 crystals- each sewn on by hand. The crystals and sheer-look fabric were exposed when Monroe threw off her white mink stole to sing at Madison Square Garden in front of 15,000 people. The bright stage lights only emphasized the illusion of nudity, proving that the gown had very much lived up to its later name of the illusion dress.
The sheer material left little to the imagination and that’s also in part because it was too tight for Ms. Monroe to wear the normal undergarments of the era. You may have also heard the old legend that it was so snug that she had to be sewn into the dress, and according to Julien’s Auctions, which sold the dress in 2016, that part is very much true.
The dress was purchased in the aforementioned auction for $4.9M by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, now an “attractions” franchise somewhat removed from the original World War I era cartoon strip and the later TV program. The dress is believed to be the most expensive garment in the entire world. When questioned as to why they purchased the garment, the vice president of Ripley’s, Edward Meyer, stated that the gown was “the most iconic piece of pop culture that there is.”
It was Ripley’s that allowed reality TV star Kim Kardashian to wear the dress to the 2022 MET Gala, the theme of which was “Gilded Glamour” (as in the Gilded Age). In an interview Kardashian said she was surprised that they made her wear gloves to her first fitting of the dress, owing to dress’ age and value. Since the dress was custom made for Marilyn Monroe this posed some problems. Not only is Kardashian of different proportions than Monroe, but Monroe was also 3-4 inches taller.
It's the moment we've all been waiting for… #KimKardashian is here, wearing Marilyn Monroe's original “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress ❤️👏 #metgala pic.twitter.com/meO9f7j905
— British GLAMOUR (@GlamourMagUK) May 3, 2022
Because of their differences in body shape, Kardashian had to very quickly lose 16 pounds to be able to fit into the dress. She wore it for the MET Gala red carpet, and then changed into another dress so as to avoid sitting or eating in the 1962 dress. 60 years after it was made, the dress has gained a new level of appreciation and fame thanks to Kardashian. At the same time, the custom-made dress being worn by a more recent celebrity angered some fans of Monroe, as it is seen as a sort of sacred artifact of the troubled actress’ life.
Conservators also are taking issue with the dress going for a stroll on the red carpet. It was pledged by many museum experts starting in the 1980s that historical garments should not be worn again once preserved. The wearing of historic fashion, garments that hold significant history due to who wore them and when, is not seen as best practice in the conservation world. It is feared that the publicity of this occasion may encourage other celebrities to try and wear other historic garments, which in turn might one day lead to some dire consequences.
Of the dress being worn by Kardashian, representatives from Ripley’s stated that she had been able to “add cultural significance” to the gown.