Gilded Glamour: Kim Kardashian and Marilyn’s ‘Birthday Dress’

Reality TV star Kim Kardashian caused a sensation last night when she arrived at the Met Gala in New York wearing the world’s most expensive dress, as Vogue reports (the annual ball is hosted by magazine editor Anna Wintour.)

“The idea really came to me after the gala in September last year. I thought to myself, what would I have done for the American theme if it had not been the Balenciaga look? What’s the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe,’ says Kardashian. ‘For me the most Marilyn Monroe moment is when she sang Happy Birthday, to JFK, it was that look.’

When I speak to the reality TV star and entrepreneur over the phone this past Sunday afternoon, she is in the midst of getting her hair bleached blonde. ‘I’m spending the whole day just dyeing my hair, 14 hours straight,’ she says laughing.

Based on a sketch by Bob Mackie for the French-born Hollywood costume designer Jean-Louis, the dress caused a stir when the actress wore it to serenade President John F. Kennedy on his 45th birthday in 1962 … Fresh out of college and just 21 at the time, Mackie remembers the moment vividly. ‘After the day the sketch was drawn, I had no idea what it was for until photos of the event appeared in the newspaper,’ he says.

Monroe is said to have paid Jean-Louis $1,440 for the custom piece, which was first sold at auction in 1999 for over a million dollars as part of a sale of her estate with Christie’s. It then sold for a whooping $4.8 million at Julien’s Auctions in 2016, and was later acquired by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. To this day, it holds the record for being the most expensive dress sold at auction. ‘I’m a big fan of auctions and I own several JFK pieces so I know the owner of Julien’s. He was able to connect me [with Ripley’s] and that’s how the conversation started,’ says Kardashian.

Stored in a darkened vault that’s controlled at the optimum 68 degrees and 40-50% humidity, the multi-million dollar dress has rarely been separated from its muslin-covered dress form, let alone worn by anyone other than Monroe. Before Ripley’s would agree to loan Kardashian the piece, she was invited to try on a replica for size. It fit perfectly. Soon after, the original dress was winging its way via private plane from Orlando, Florida to Kardashian’s home in Calabasas. And yet somehow the second fitting didn’t quite go as planned. ‘The dress was transported by guards and I had to wear gloves to try it on,’ she explains. ‘I always thought she was extremely curvy. I imagined I might be smaller in some places where she was bigger and bigger in places where she was smaller. So when it didn’t fit me I wanted to cry because it can’t be altered at all.’

With only a few months to go before the gala, there were only two choices: slim down to fit into the dress or find something else to wear. In her mind, there was only one real option. ‘It was this or nothing,’ she says flatly. In the weeks that followed, Kardashian would adhere to a strict diet to get closer to her goal … A month later, she was inside the Ripley’s vaults in Orlando for the final fitting. This time around, the dress fit like a glove. ‘I wanted to cry tears of joy when it went up,’ she says.

The truth is Kardashian only actually wore the original dress for a matter of minutes. Given the fragile nature and historical value of the dress, she wasn’t about to take any chances. In fact, her whole process of getting dressed reads like a highly sophisticated military operation. First, she left her hotel in a dressing gown with barricades set up outside to obscure the view of any waiting paparazzi. She then arrived at a small fitting room by the Met Gala steps that was especially organized for the occasion. There a conservationist from Ripley’s was on hand to assist her in white gloves. ‘I’m extremely respectful to the dress and what it means to American history. I would never want to sit in it or eat in it or have any risk of any damage to it and I won’t be wearing the kind of body makeup I usually do,’ says Kardashian, who changed into a replica of the dress also owned by Ripley’s once she successfully climbed the stairs. ‘Everything had to be specifically timed and I had to practice walking up the stairs.’

As it turns out, the ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ dress isn’t the only Monroe replica Kardashian has available for the evening. It’s one of three. Though it’s unclear which, if any, of the other two will be seen by the world at large. ‘I have a replica of the dress she wore to the Oscars in 1962,’ says Kardashian proudly of Monroe’s stunning green sequin number by Norman Norell. ‘I think I might just wear that one to eat pizza in my hotel room.'”

However, Sarah Scaturro, former Chief Conservator at the Met’s Costume Institute, now at the Cleveland Museum of Art (which featured Marilyn prominently in their 2020 exhibit, PROOF), shared a scathing riposte on Instagram

In an article for Buzzfeed, Ellen Durney argues that ‘though she isn’t your average movie star, there’s no one better suited than Kim to embody one of Marilyn’s sexiest and most infamous moments.’

“Ten years ago, fashion folklore told that Anna Wintour had sworn Kim Kardashian would never be invited to the Met Gala, citing concerns that her reality star status would lower the tone of fashion’s most prestigious night. However, against the odds in 2013, she got in on a technicality — stepping out as the plus-one of her boyfriend at the time, Kanye West.

Now, nearly a decade since her highly controversial debut in the shadow of her A-list partner, Kim has masterfully solidified her status as one of the Met’s most exciting guests, bending the rules and breaking the internet in the process … And so, expectations were high yesterday evening when a bleached-blonde Kim took to the carpet in the highly coveted last slot, draped in Marilyn’s glittering gown.

Having been historically framed as someone who reached her celebrity status through simply ‘being famous,’ it came as little surprise that Kim’s lack of traditional Hollywood credentials made it difficult for some people to get fully on board with the moment. However, at a deeper glance, plenty of others were quick to highlight that Kim and Marilyn have more in common than just their hourglass figures.

Though Kim certainly didn’t face the same hardships as Marilyn — nor did she rise from ‘nothing’ — their trajectories to becoming two of the most famous women in popular culture incorporate a number of common threads, combating harsh criticism to embrace and capitalize on their sexuality. And with this in mind, placing Kim — arguably one of the most famous and divisive figures alive — in Marilyn’s dress makes sense. And whether we choose to believe it or not, the discourse and impassioned views on either side speak directly to both women’s ascendancy in pop culture.”

Reaction from Monroe fans has been extremely mixed – Laura Saxby’s latest post on the Our Marilyn Monroe blog is headlined #Dressgate.

“Although I understand the historical significance of the dress, a few things need to be considered:

    • Is it as bad as the movies and documentaries that surround Marilyn’s life? No. No way. The subject in question has not damaged Marilyn’s legacy in the least. It has however made people judge [Kim Kardashian] and her choices. She did it for publicity and she’s got it, positive or negative.
    • Would Marilyn have cared? Marilyn was not a materialistic person. This dress was a one-off item that was sold off at auction and eventually made its way to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for an extortionate amount of money. This was not a sentimental item to her like her piano.
    • Would the dress have any significance if there were no rumours of Marilyn and JFK having an affair? If she wore this dress at the Golden Globes in 1962 I doubt there would be as much hoo-ha. But because people have in their mind that Marilyn and JFK may have done the deed that evening or even just because of the ‘affair’, it seems to give the dress more significance.

Items like Marilyn’s dress aren’t sacred to the likes of celebrities … And yet the only effort made for this particular event by this person is starving herself (she lost 7kg in a month) so she would fit in it. What kind of message is that? That’s worse in my opinion than wearing a 60-year-old dress.”

And finally, Scott Fortner – who owns one of the world’s largest collections of Marilyn’s personal property (see here) – has spoken with People magazine.

“While I understand the appeal of wanting to wear such an iconic gown, it can’t be dismissed or overlooked that anyone other than Marilyn Monroe wearing the famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ dress might be cause for concern for several reasons. The dress was custom-made for Marilyn Monroe. It’s not an off-the-rack garment. It was created by Academy Award-winning designer Jean Louis, who had designed costumes for Marilyn’s final two films: The Misfits and Something’s Got to Give.

When Marilyn knew she’d be performing at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday gala she contacted Louis and said, ‘I want you to design a truly historical dress, a dazzling dress that’s one of a kind.’ She asked that it be a dress that, ‘only Marilyn Monroe could wear.’

Marilyn stood nude as the fabric for the dress was literally sculpted to her body to precisely match every curve. The fabric, which is a flesh-colored soufflé gauze imported from France, was layered strategically so she wouldn’t need to wear undergarments. [The dress] fit her perfectly. The gown worn by anyone else will not be a precise fit. In this case, Kim Kardashian’s measurements are somewhat different than Marilyn’s. It’s logically assumed the fabric and seams were stressed.

Was it able to be zipped and closed in the back? The fur she wore on the red carpet hid this area and so that’s an ongoing question. Yet, there are photos of her in the gown that show it fully zipped and closed in the back. One of the most enduring topics about Marilyn Monroe, aside from the manner in which she died, is her true size. What were her body measurements? What size did she wear? Was she plus-sized?

Several years ago, I wrote an article on the topic and I demonstrated Marilyn’s true size using actual clothing from her personal everyday wardrobe which I now own. Yes, she wore a size 14 Pucci blouse in 1962. However, a 1962 size 14 is not a 2022 size 14 due to vanity sizing.

There are limited photos from the Kennedy gala, and only low quality, black and white film footage of Marilyn in the dress. While I wouldn’t have approved anyone wearing Marilyn’s gown were it part of my collection due to its value and overall significance, at least now we have seen what it looked like ‘in motion’ when worn by Marilyn.”

UPDATE: As mentioned in her Vogue interview, Kim Kardashian did indeed wear a replica of Marilyn’s green sequined ‘mermaid dress,’ designed by Norman Norell, to the Met Gala after-party. Unlike the ‘birthday dress,’ Marilyn wore the Norell gown on several occasions, most notably to the Golden Globes in 1962 – not the Oscars, as Kim incorrectly stated in that interview. Marilyn also had alterations made to the dress, including the addition of a halter strap (possibly a repurposed belt.)

The image above, at left, possibly shows Kim trying on the original gown, which was clearly too long for her (at 5 ft 2 inches tall, Kim is 3.5 inches shorter than Marilyn.) The image at right most likely shows Kim in the replica dress, sans halter strap – and she is also holding the World Film Favourite award that Marilyn won at the Golden Globes, on loan from its current owner (it was sold for $250,000 at Julien’s Auctions in 2018.)