Last month, Kim Kardashian donned Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress and ascended the front steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Met Gala. The red carpet fashion choice sparked outrage among museum conservators who warned that the historic dress would not go unscathed. And this week, pictures posted on Instagram suggested that they were right. Images depicting what appear to be tears and missing sequins on the dress went viral, enraging the Internet.
In response to the photos, however, a new TikTok video appears to show that the dress may have been damaged before Kardashian even put it on.
The photos showing apparent damage were shared on June 13 by @marilynmonroecollection, an Instagram account run by Scott Fortner, a superfan who claims to own the largest private collection of Monroe’s personal and archival objects. They were taken by Fortner’s friend ChadMichael Morrisette, a Los Angeles-based mannequin maker and another Marilyn enthusiast who told Hyperallergic he captured the close-up of the dress on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not’s Hollywood location on June 12. Morrisette told Hyperallergic that he was familiar with the dress because he set up the display mannequin when it was auctioned at Julien’s in 2016.
For comparison, Fortner also posted a video of the undamaged dress, stating that it was taken at the 2016 auction where it sold for a record-breaking $4.8 million to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Ripley’s loaned the dress to Kardashian for the Met Gala this year, noting that Kardashian would change into a replica after her red carpet appearance.
But a TikTok video posted on June 14 attempts to clear the celebrity’s name. Using a screenshot from a video of Kardashian changing into the dress posted by Ripley’s on May 2, the 32-second TikTok appears to show that the dress was ripped and missing sequins before she wore it.
“The rhinestones are missing, the clamps are all messed up, so how do we know the dress didn’t look like this when clamped or closed?” asked TikTok user @gaymanwithaspraytan, referencing the photos posted by the Marilyn Monroe Collection on Instagram, which portray the dress clamped shut.
Ripley’s remained silent on the controversy for days before finally issuing a statement on Thursday, June 16 — in which the company denies the accusations that Kardashian is responsible for the damage, which it says was visible on the dress as early as 2017.
“Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is not the first owner of this dress,” the statement says. “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.”
But regardless of whether the wear and tear signs on the dress are casualties of Kardashian’s outing, Morrisette believes that her wearing it at all was not only an act of disrespect to Marilyn Monroe, but a destruction of American history.
“It’s like she ripped the constitution in half and walked out,” Morrisette told Hyperallergic.
The dress is indeed an iconic fragment of Americana. Monroe wore it in 1962 when she sang a breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. She died shortly after. The performance, and its seeming affirmation that the movie star and the president did in fact have an affair, went down in pop culture history. So did the dress, a rhinestone- and sequin-adorned silk gown created by esteemed Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis and based on a sketch by Bob Mackie — himself a legendary designer for old Hollywood stars who went on to become the mastermind behind the most iconic outfits worn by Cher, Madonna, and Elton John.
No one wore the dress after Monroe, and last month, Mackie called loaning the dress to Kardashian a “big mistake.” He wasn’t the only one: Museum conservators voiced concerns and criticized Ripley’s for breaking standard museum practice (although Ripley’s Believe It or Not is not an accredited institution).
Some pointed to the Costume Society of America’s 1986 resolution banning clothes accessioned into collections from being worn. The Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising’s museum curator Kevin Jones curator told the Los Angeles Times that “whenever you move, something is giving way, even if you can’t see it.”
The dress is back on display at Ripley’s in Hollywood through the summer.
Editor’s note 6/16/22 2:30pm EDT: This article has been updated to include comment from Ripley’s.