Kim kardashian is no stranger to becoming viral news for a fleeting moment. But her recent appearance at the Met Gala, the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John Kennedy in 1962, proved particularly divisive, with the 41-year-old outrageous dress lovers for the game, which many believe Huh. A museum exhibit instead of a costume.
Designed by Jean-Louis based on a sketch by a young Bob Mackie, the dress features over 2,000 crystals that are hand-stitched into soufflé silk, a fabric that has been outlawed because of its flammability. Monroe was reportedly sewn into it and only wore it for the time she was on stage. Kardashian called it Ripley’s Believe It or Not! which bought the garment in 2016 for $4.8m – making it the “world’s most expensive dress” as of its website.
Whatever your feelings about the gala-gate, the ruckus makes you wonder about the fate of other iconic — and increasingly valuable — outfits in Hollywood history. Another high-profile outfit also hit the headlines recently: the gingham dress worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy for The Wizard of Oz. Up to 10 fabrics were made for production and in May was put up for auction by the Catholic University of America after it was found in a long forgotten shoe box. It was swiftly removed from auction, however, when a niece of Father Gilbert Hartke, who worked at the university, claimed it belonged to him. It’s no surprise she’s making a claim: it was expected to go for somewhere between $800,000 and $1.2m.
Oz and Garland expert John Frick says it is the only object of interest in the film. There are some thrills in its five pairs of ruby slippers, too. A pair is in the possession of the FBI: the agency recovered them after they were stolen from an exhibit in 2005. The oldest pair were to be sold as part of an MGM auction in 1970, but were put up—along with a dress—by Kent Warner, a costume designer hired to list the lot. “Through divine intervention,” Frick says, “they were eventually being bought out by a consortium of Hollywood majors. [including] Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.” These slippers were then donated to the Academy Museum in LA because, as Dorothy says, there’s no place like home.
Movie star Debbie Reynolds amassed a huge costume collection, starting with an MGM sale, where she bought Elizabeth Taylor dresses from National Velvet, a Leslie Caron schoolgirl dress from Gigi, and some ruby slippers. But where he saw the treasure, others in the industry saw the garbage. As her collection grew—eventually the black-and-white dress Audrey Hepburn wore in My Fair Lady, and the white dress Monroe wears over a hot-air vent in The Seven Year Itch—she repeatedly won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Academy Awards. Sciences asked to help preserve it and display some of its pieces in its long-awaited museum, but it was always turned down.
Reynolds sold important pieces to collectors in 2011. Monroe’s dress fetched $4.6m while Hepburn took in $3.7m. Reynolds died in 2016 and four years later, his will was granted posthumously. The Academy Museum – which eventually opened in 2021, having been first brought back in 1929 – worked with Reynolds’ son Todd Fischer to display the remaining pieces in his collection.
Costume designer turned academic Deborah Nadulman Landis, who collaborated with Reynolds when curating the V&A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition in 2013, says such outfits were overlooked because they were seen as primarily of interest to women. was seen and therefore less important. “It’s sad,” she says. “But I have to talk about gender.” Costume designers were linked with art directors until 2013, when they were eventually turned to the forces of what Landis called “this misogynistic and dynastic inconsistency”.
This gender-based thinking, it turns out, is still alive and well. “Marilyn’s DNA was on the dress going to the Met Gala,” says Landis, incredulous. “I know it sounds like heresy, but would you be taking something from the Getty Museum or the British Museum and then wine in that?”
Frick believes the film establishments were the last to receive the memo on the popularity of the costumes. “Hollywood didn’t know it. It knew the world. And they continue to know it.” He says some collectors are only in their 30s, so were born long after the Golden Age, yet they like Garland Dedicated to the stars.
Back to the Kardashian controversy. Although the star says she wore soufflé silk for only four minutes on the red carpet, later turned into a replica, critics claim it was damaged beyond repair. Photos of the post-festival dress, which appeared to show breakage around the straps and zip, were circulated on social media, along with a video from Ripley, in which many were seen awkwardly changing the dress for Kardashian. Shown to fit.
Ripley has since denied that the loss was a result, maintaining in a statement: “Kim Kardashian wearing a ‘Happy Birthday’ dress has been hotly contested, but the fact remains that she wore the costume in any way.” It was worn at the Met Gala in no time.” Kardashian herself said the same thing. When asked if he was at a loss when he appeared on NBC’s Today talk show, he replied: “No… [and I] Worked so well together. There were handlers in gloves who put it on me. ,
Scott Fortner, who runs the Instagram account The Marilyn Monroe Collection, is the man who posted photos of the apparently damaged dress. He blames Ripley instead of Kardashian and says that, within a day of posting the images, his number of followers increased from 60,000 to 80,000. He hopes this exposure will change how such objects are perceived and protected. “It’s not just a dress,” he says. “It’s a part of American culture.”
Martin Nolan is executive director of Julian’s auction house, which originally sold the dress to Ripley, and brokered the introduction with Kardashian. He agrees about its importance, but believes that the star wearing it only enhanced Monroe’s status as a legend. “When she came to us, I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ Because 60 years ago Marilyn wore it – and it was about to get a new life.”
The life of the costume after Monroe’s death should have given the industry some idea of how in-demand such things were. Nolan said that he first came to Wall Street in 1999 as an investment banker in his former life. “I used to follow an investor by the name of Martin Zweig,” he says, referring to the analyst who predicted the crash of 1987. “I read in the New York Times that she bought a dress for $1.2 million to invest. I couldn’t get my head around it.”
Once in Julian, Nolan sold a dress for Zweig’s widow in 2016. “Their only request,” he says, “was that we sell it for a greater [he paid for it] Because she wanted to prove him right.” Given that it sold Ripley for $4.8m, she did so four times as much.
These days, costumes—especially those worn by Monroe, Garland, and Hepburn—are so popular that auction houses have departments dedicated to catering to them. The search for famous clothing has taken Helen Hall, director of popular culture at the Bonhams auction house, to some interesting places.
“I was once called to evaluate a gentleman who had died,” she says. “He bought a lot of Hollywood costumes and memorabilia from the World’s Fair. He had a two-room apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. You couldn’t go for the stuff – and he’d been living there since the ’70s. Hall was responding to a tipoff that she had the dress worn by Hepburn at Breakfast at Tiffany’s. After doing some serious detective work, he found and verified it, and it sold for $120,000.
Landis says 90% of Hollywood costumes are now in the hands of private collectors, partly because of what they can bring to auction, but also because they are expensive to care for and time consuming for museums. Of course, such owners have the right to do whatever they want with their property. “One collector, who had deprived himself of a lot of material a few years ago, was very generous about displaying it,” says Frick. “But he was terrible at maintaining it. He used to transport the garments across the country in a big duffel bag.” This ruined the clothes.
However, neglect is a rarity. Collectors have more in common than deep bank accounts, says Hall. “They can see exactly why these things are historically important. I think they see themselves as temporary custodians, passing them on to the next generation.”
This may explain why collectors like Scott Fortner are so saddened by the suspected damage to the Happy Birthday dress. Fortner believes he has the largest collection of fan-owned Monroe memorabilia in the world, from documents to personal effects and clothing. A favorite jacket won at auction in 2013 when Anna Strasberg sold the remaining Monroe pieces to her husband, Lee. “I’m pretty sure he had hair on it,” Fortner says. “It’s fragile and brittle hair that’s broken. And people have said that her hair was somewhat damaged because of the dyeing.”
He also has Monroe’s High School Yearbook, which is believed to be the first published photo of the star. how did he get it? Obviously, this is all thanks to his considerable online presence. “A woman texted me and said, ‘You know, I’m in my 70s. I’m off. I’m getting rid of things. I’d love this for a true fan.'”