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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. PRESIDENT
BY ELLIE SILVERMAN
It is 1962. It’s President John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday gala. The presence of a 5’6 slim figure with platinum locks shimmies onto the stage at Madison Square Garden. The woman peels off her white fur coat revealing a sheer, nude, rhinestone-embroidered dress that dazzled the crowd. Made by 2,500 hand-stitched sparkling crystals, the silhouette was so tight the woman had to be sewn into it moments before taking the stage. A soft and breathy “happy birthday to you…” fills the room. This moment and gown would become one of the most iconic moments in entertainment, fashion, and political history.
The blonde bombshell was one of the first women to claim tight silhouettes and seductive femininity, making Marilyn Monroe the sex symbol of the time. However, this “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress was different. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Never before had any woman exposed her body in such a way, but Marilyn was never afraid to stun people and do things that others had never dared to try.
The masterpiece was custom-designed and carefully crafted by famous French fashion designer, Jean Louis, based on a sketch by American fashion designer, Bob Mackie; Mackie was just twenty-one years old and at his first job with Louis after finishing school when he created the design. The gown drew inspiration from stage costumes Louis had designed for Marlene Dietrich and her Las Vegas cabaret act during the 1950s and '60s. Marilyn Monroe spent $1,440 on the custom gown (equal to $13,700 in today’s economy), and following her legendary performance, the value of the dress skyrocketed, selling for $1.26 million at a 1999 auction. The dress currently resides in Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and was sold to them for $4.8 million. This investment has landed the dress the title of one of “the most expensive pieces of pop-culture memorabilia of all time.”
Sixty years later, this dress is still making headlines. This past May, Kim Kardashian made her own jaw-dropping reveal after she took the historical piece out of its display and squeezed into it herself for the Met Gala; later revealing her inspiration behind this decision. “Nowadays everyone wears sheer dresses, but back then that was not the case,” says Kardashian. “In a sense, it’s the original naked dress. That’s why it was so shocking.” Kim similarly broke the internet back in 2014 when she appeared nude on the cover of Paper Magazine. While there was no internet at the peak of Marilyn’s fame, photos captured of her spread across the globe like never before, in a way “breaking the internet” before the internet could be broken. While Kim did receive substantial backlash following the Met Gala, it would only make sense for her to be the one to take the dress out of the museum. Marilyn and Kim are both women that strive to make headlines and break boundaries in Hollywood and fashion. While Marilyn was the sex icon of her generation, Kim has claimed this title for hers’.
“The dress is so much more than just an item of clothing,” said Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions. “It’s historical, it’s political, it’s a work of art. It’s Hollywood, it’s Marilyn Monroe. It’s the Kennedys. It’s everything wrapped up into one piece of fabric soufflé gauze ... This dress, this story, this momentous occasion represents a defining moment in history." Marilyn set the precedent for what it means to be tastefully sexy. She was not afraid to stun people or cross fashion boundaries, ultimately leading to her impressive impact on fashion and Hollywood. This performance and dress continue to be a topic of conversation to this day as it was a cultural movement for that generation as well as many to come.