Monroe's Couture: The Most Expensive Dress Ever Sold At Auction

Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr.President” dress sold for $4.8 million in 2016—but its place in history and today’s world is as interesting as its record-breaking price. 

Some items are so legendary that they carry an equally impressive price tag, one example of this being Marilyn Monroe’s rhinestone-covered dress. The actress wore the recognizable piece while performing for the late John F. Kennedy, and it’s been a pop culture staple ever since. 

The garment carries a legacy of high auction sales: the first instance was when it sold for more than $1.2 million dollars in 1999, and the second was when it fetched a jaw-dropping $4.8 million in 2016. In both cases, the dress broke records as the most expensive one sold at auction. 

The Jean Louis “Happy Birthday Mr.President” dress that Marilyn Monroe wore
The Jean Louis “Happy Birthday Mr.President” dress that Marilyn Monroe wore/Photo from the Ripley’s website

READ ALSO: Treasures Of A Legend: Freddie Mercury Auction Fetches A Total Of $50.4 Million

But why is this dress so special, and what’s its story? Turns out that it’s more than just a relic of Hollywood’s golden years, as it also got the internet buzzing in recent years due to Kim Kardashian. Read on to learn more about the intriguing and glamorous piece:

Birthday Serenade 

Designer Jean Louis created Monroe’s famous dress, which he covered in 2,500 pieces of hand-stitched rhinestones on a sheer, skin-colored bodice, as per Time. According to news outlets, the dress was so tight that Monroe had to wear it while people were sewing it. In other words, Jean Louis quite literally made it for her and her alone. Artnet News added that the piece originally cost $1,440 dollars at the time. 

The venue of John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday charity gala
The venue of John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday charity gala/Photo from the JFK Library website 

The actress wore the garment to former president John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday charity gala in 1962, which took place in Madison Square Garden, according to the Rolling Stone. The event would go down in history as Monroe serenaded the president with the tune “Happy Birthday, Mr.President.” Her performance was so provocative that the press speculated the actress and the former president had an affair. In later years, more pieces of literature further supported the rumor.

Marilyn Monroe wearing the Jean Louis dress while serenading Kennedy during the event
Monroe wearing the Jean Louis dress while serenading Kennedy during the event/Photo from the JFK Library website

Besides representing this touchstone moment in Monroe’s life and American pop culture, the dress also marks one of the actress’ final public appearances before she died in August 1962. 

If the Price is Right

In 1999, the dress broke records when it fetched $1.2 million dollars in a Christie’s auction, then did it again in 2016 under Julien’s Auctions. The latter auction house sold it to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and the dress is still in its possession. Ripley’s initially put the piece on display in its main Hollywood branch before exhibiting it in different locations around the world, according to The Guardian.

Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire”
Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire”/Photo by Sam Shaw via Wikimedia Commons

The garment’s recent auction record surpassed that of the previous most expensive dress. This was another Monroe piece, this time a white halter-neck that she famously wore in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch, which actress Debbie Reynolds purchased for $4.6 million in 2011, as per Time

“In the 20th century I cannot think of one single item that tells the story of the 1960s as well as this dress,” shared Edward Meyer, Ripley’s vice president, after acquiring the piece.

The Kardashian Controversy

For better or worse, depending on who people ask, Monroe’s dress became the focus of public attention once more during the 2022 MET Gala. Kim Kardashian had chosen to wear the original piece in line with the gala’s “gilded glamor” theme. However, this act drew widespread criticism from fashion conservators and historians alike, as the garment reportedly sustained a considerable amount of damage after Kardashian wore it. 

Photos showing the alleged damage from Kardashian wearing the dress
Photos showing the alleged damage from Kardashian wearing the dress/Photo via Instagram @marilynmonroecollection

The official Instagram account for Monroe’s largest personal property and archives posted before and after pictures of the dress, indicating “missing crystals, and some left hanging by a thread” after Kardashian wore it. This, of course, upset many in the fashion industry, including Bob Mackie, the American designer who did the initial sketch for the dress back when he was an assistant for designer Jean Louis, as per Artnet News

The Bob Mackie sketch of Monroe’s famous Jean Louis dress
The Bob Mackie sketch of Monroe’s famous Jean Louis dress/Photo from the Ripley’s website

“[Marilyn] was a goddess. A crazy goddess, but a goddess. She was just fabulous,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “Nobody photographs like that. And it was done for her. It was designed for her. Nobody else should be seen in that dress.”

Kardashian’s Efforts

Ripley’s, however, attempted to assuage the public outcry by telling its side of the story. The museum stated that the damages shown in the photos had existed even before Kardashian wore the historic piece. In an early 2017 report, the museum noted that the dress’ seams suffered from wear and tear, and that its back experienced puckering by its hooks and eyes, as per Complex

Kim Kardashian wearing Monroe’s dress to the MET Gala
Kim Kardashian wearing Monroe’s dress to the MET Gala/Photo via Instagram @kimkardashian

Amanda Joiner, Ripley’s vice president of publishing and licensing, claimed that Kardashian returned the same condition in a New York Post feature.

News outlets acknowledged Kardashian’s efforts to preserve the dress. According to Artnet News, she attended two pre-gala fittings and lost 16 pounds to fit in the delicate garment. She also opted out of body makeup and changed into a replica of the piece once she entered inside the MET. 

Courtesy to History

Still, despite the reports from Ripley’s, many experts remain displeased with the outcome of the historic dress. In fact, the controversy surrounding Kardashian’s choice was so large that the International Council of Museums (ICOM) made an entire clothing preservation committee in response to it. Still, Ripley’s is an unaccredited museum, and such measures are likely to affect their decisions. 

“The media frenzy following the MET Gala highlighted the fragility of textile and clothing heritage in the face of the responsibility of museums in charge of this type of collection,” shared Corinne Thépaut-Cabasset, chair of ICOM’s Costume branch, with Artnet News

Marilyn Monroe wearing the dress in the company of John F. Kennedy
Monroe wearing the dress in the company of John F. Kennedy/Photo via Instagram @kimkardashian

Fashion experts are also concerned about possible restoration efforts, which could prove to be difficult. Jean Louis made the dress using marquisette or “French soufflé fabric” —a delicate material that’s highly flammable. As such, most countries have since outlawed its use; so any efforts of replacing damaged fabric may be impossible, as per Artnet News

The dress was already in a fragile state even under Ripley’s, as the museum kept it in a darkened vault at 68°F, with a  humidity level of 40 to 50 percent. Despite Kardashian’s best efforts, the dress wasn’t in the same conditions during the MET gala. In fact, preservationists say that even touching older clothing pieces can damage them, added Artnet News.

Lessons from the World’s Most Expensive Dress

In a separate statement, Ripley’s stated that the incident contributes to the dress’ historical relevance, regardless of outcome and debates. 

“Our mission is to both entertain and educate, and sparking conversations like the discourse around this dress does just that. No matter which side of the debate you are on, the historical importance of the dress has not been negated, but rather highlighted,” wrote the museum, as per People.

Banner photo via Instagram @kimkardashian.

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