Kim Kardashian is no stranger to a fleeting moment that becomes viral news coverage. But her recent appearance at the Met Gala, wearing the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John Kennedy in 1962, proved particularly divisive, with the 41-year-old outraged by costume enthusiasts for wearing what many consider it to be a museum exhibit rather than a dress.
Designed by Jean Louis, from a sketch by a young Bob Mackie, the dress has more than 2,000 crystals hand-sewn into blown silk, a fabric that has since been banned due to its flammability. Monroe was sewn into it and only wore it while she was on stage. Kardashian borrowed it from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, which bought the garment for $4.8 million for the garment in 2016 — making it, as her website puts it, “the most expensive dress in the world.” world “.
Whatever your feelings about Gala-gate, the fury has you wondering about the fate of other coveted — and increasingly valuable — outfits in Hollywood history. Another highly publicized costume has also hit the headlines recently: the gingham dress worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Up to 10 dresses were made for the production and one was auctioned off by the Catholic University of America in May after being found in a long-forgotten shoebox. However, it was quickly pulled from auction when a niece of Father Gilbert Hartke, who worked at the university, claimed it was hers. No wonder she made a claim: it was expected to be between $800,000 and $1.2 million.
John Fricke, an expert on Oz and Garland, says that’s just one point of interest in the film. Her five pairs of ruby slippers have also had adventures. One pair is in the possession of the FBI: the agency recovered them after they were stolen from an exhibition in 2005. The most pristine pair was to be sold at an MGM auction in 1970, but it was been preserved – with one of the dresses. – by Kent Warner, a costume designer hired to catalog the lots. “Through divine intervention,” says Fricke, “they ended up being bought by a consortium of Hollywood majors [including] Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio. These slippers were then donated to the Academy Museum in Los Angeles because, as Dorothy says, there’s no place like home.
Movie star Debbie Reynolds has acquired a huge costume collection, starting with this MGM sale, where she bought Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits from National Velvet, Leslie Caron’s schoolgirl costume from Gigi and ruby slippers. But where she saw treasures, others in the industry saw waste. As her collection grew — including the black and white outfit Audrey Hepburn wore in My Fair Lady and the white dress Monroe wears over the air vent in The Seven Year Itch — she asked several times to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to help her preserve them and to present some of her pieces in her long-awaited, but always refused, museum.
Reynolds ended up selling key pieces to collectors in 2011. Monroe’s dress fetched $4.6 million while Hepburn’s took $3.7 million. Reynolds died in 2016 and, four years later, her wish was posthumously granted. The Academy Museum – which finally opened in 2021, having first been mooted in 1929 – worked with Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, to display the remaining pieces from his collection.
Costume designer-turned-academic Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who collaborated with Reynolds in organizing the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibit in 2013, says these outfits were overlooked because they were seen as primarily of interest to women and therefore less important. “It’s sad,” she said. “But I have to talk about gender. Costumers were conflated with art directors until 2013, when the powers that be finally changed what Landis calls “this misogynistic, dynastic incongruity.”
It turns out that gender thinking is still very much alive. “Marilyn’s DNA was all over the dress that went to the Met Gala,” Landis says in disbelief. “I know that sounds like heresy, but would you take something from the Getty Museum or the British Museum and have wine there? »
Fricke believes the film establishment was the last to receive the costume popularity memo. “Hollywood didn’t know that. The world knew it. And they still know it. He says some collectors are only in their thirties, so were born well past their golden years, but they are devoted to stars like Garland.
Back to the Kardashian controversy. Although the star claims she only wore the blown silk for four minutes on the red carpet, then transformed into a replica, critics claim it was damaged beyond repair. Images of the post-gala dress, appearing to show wear around the straps and zipper, have been circulating on social media, along with a video from Ripley’s that shows several people carefully adjusting the dress to Kardashian.
Ripley’s has since denied any resulting damage, saying in a statement: “Kim Kardashian wearing the ‘Happy Birthday’ dress was hotly disputed, but the fact remains that she did not damage the garment in any way. in the short time it was worn at the Met Gala. Kardashian herself said the same thing. When asked if there was any damage when she appeared on NBC’s Today talk show, she replied, “No…Ripley’s [and I] worked so well together. There were handlers with gloves who put it on me.
Scott Fortner, who runs The Marilyn Monroe Collection Instagram account, is the man who posted images of the apparently damaged dress. He blames Ripley rather than Kardashian and says that within a day of posting the images, his subscriber count jumped from 60,000 to 80,000. He hopes this exposure will change the way these objects are viewed and preserved. “It’s not just a dress,” he said. “It’s part of American culture. »
Martin Nolan is executive director of Julien’s auction house, which originally sold the dress to Ripley’s, and brokered the introduction with Kardashian. He agrees on its importance, but thinks the star who wears it has only increased Monroe’s legendary status. “When she came to see us, I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ Because it was 60 years ago that Marilyn wore it – and it was going to take on a new life.
The life of Monroe’s dress after her death should have given the industry an idea of how sought after these things were. Nolan said he first met him in his former life as an investment banker on Wall Street in 1999. “I used to follow an investor named Martin Zweig,” he says. , referring to the analyst who predicted the crash of 1987. “I read in the New York Times that he bought a dress for $1.2 million for an investment. I couldn’t understand that. »
Once at Julien’s, Nolan sold the dress for Zweig’s widow in 2016. “His only request, he says, is that we sell it for more than [he paid for it] because she wanted to prove him right. Considering it sold for $4.8 million at Ripley’s, she’s done it four times.
These days, costumes — especially those worn by Monroe, Garland and Hepburn — are so popular that auction houses have departments dedicated to restoring them. The search for famous clothes has taken Helen Hall, director of popular culture at Bonhams auction house, to some interesting places.
“I was called once to do an assessment of a gentleman who had passed away,” she says. “He had 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 get around for things — and he’s been living there since the ’70s.” Hall was responding to a tip that he owned a dress worn by Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. After doing some serious detective work, she found it and checked it out, and it sold for $120,000.
According to Landis, 90% of Hollywood costumes are now in the hands of private collectors, partly because of what they might fetch at auction, but also because maintaining them is expensive and time-consuming for museums. Of course, these owners have the right to do what they want with their property. “A collector, who got rid of a lot of material a few years ago, was very generous in putting it on display,” says Fricke. “But he was terrible to maintain it. He carried costumes across the country in a large duffel bag. Because of this, the clothes were damaged.
Carelessness is a rarity, however. Collectors have more in common, Hall says, than deep bank accounts. “They can really see why these things are historically significant. I think they see themselves as temporary guardians, passing them on to the next generation. »
This may explain why collectors such as Scott Fortner are so saddened by the alleged 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 is a jacket won at auction in 2013 when Anna Strasberg sold the remaining Monroe pieces to her husband, Lee. “I’m pretty sure it had his hair on it,” Fortner said. “It is fragile and brittle hair that has been broken. And people said her hair was kinda messed up from all the dyeing.
He also owns Monroe’s high school yearbook, which contains what is believed to be the star’s first published photo. How did he figure it out? Apparently, this is all due to its considerable online presence. “A woman just texted me and said, ‘You know, I’m 70. I rest. I get rid of things. I would love for a true fan to have this.