Sixty years after the world first saw Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress, it’s still causing conversation. But questions about the appropriateness of the attire are now focused on a different celebrity. This year, Kim Kardashian wore the iconic sparkling garment to the Met Gala. Assuming that none of the various owners of the dress ever secretly tried it on, Kardashian is now the first person since Monroe to put on the gown. And that has sparked perhaps the most heated dress-centered controversy since the great black-and-blue versus white-and-gold debate, mostly because Kardashian has now been accused of permanently damaging the garment. But why exactly do people care about this dress and whether Pete Davidson’s latest boo should have been allowed to wear it? From President John F. Kennedy to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, here’s the history of the “Happy Birthday” 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 asked 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 ten 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 makes the decision to promote the expansion of one of his grocery chains. Luseland’s mayor tells the National Post that the town is “very thankful and gracious.” According to WESH, the dress eventually finds its home in “a vault” in Ripley’s Orlando museum.
2022: Per the Daily Beast, Kim Kardashian asks Ripley’s if she can borrow Monroe’s iconic dress a couple of months before the Met Gala in May. 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 later 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.”
November 9’s episode of The Kardashians shows some of the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding Kim getting permission to wear the dress, and it is revealed that Ripley’s at one point said no. “I flew all the way to Florida to try on the Marilyn dress at Ripley’s. They were not going to let me wear this dress, they weren’t even going to let me try it on until Kris Jenner calls …” Kim said in a confessional. Jenner refused to explicitly recount what she said to Ripley’s. “I can not tell you my secrets,” she evaded. “But if somebody says ‘no,’ you know what I say: ‘You’re talking to the wrong person.’”
After debuting the look at the Met as her take on this year’s “gilded glamour” theme, Kardashian publicly thanks Ripley’s for loaning her the dress. (The museum apparently has also given her a wad of Monroe’s hair.) According to 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 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.”
“A report written on the dress’s condition in early 2017 states, ‘A number of the seams are pulled and worn. This is not surprising given how delicate the material is. There is puckering at the back by the hooks and eyes,’ among other instances of damage,” a rep from Ripley’s tells TMZ on June 16. The “he said, she wore” may never come to an end.
This post has been updated.