THE STORY OF: Marilyn Monroe’s Iconic “Happy Birthday” Dress

Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion moments…

By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak

Marilyn Monroe had her fair share of history-making moments. One of the most universally well-known is her breathy, seductive take on “Happy Birthday,” which she sang at an event for US President John F. Kennedy in May 1962 while wearing a sheer, glittering dress that both dazzled and scandalized the world. The performance, which was given at New York’s Madison Square Garden, was truly iconic, and it has been referenced and parodied countless times since that evening, while the jaw-dropping seemingly “naked dress” has become a historical fashion piece.

Despite being asked to wear something discreet, Monroe wore one of the most scandalous dresses of her life—a conscious decision on her part. In fact, she had commissioned the controversial barely-there dress specifically for the event. It was based on a sketch made by a just-out-of-school costume designer named Bob Mackie and then created by famed Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis. Monroe’s performance that night would be one of her last appearances before her death just three months later.

In the years that followed, the dress made fashion headlines and garnered record sums at auction. It returned to the public eye in 2022 when Kim Kardashian donned it at the Met Gala, sparking outrage among many Monroe and fashion fans. Here’s the story of Monroe’s legendary gown, how it was created, how it got her fired from the unfinished film Something’s Got to Give, and how it cemented its place in history.

It’s all an illusion
Jean Louis (1907–1997) was a French-American costume designer who found fame designing some of the most memorable costumes worn by the biggest Hollywood stars both on and off the screen during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Over his four-decade career, he created designs either for the films or the personal closets of almost every star in Hollywood: some 200 of them, including Lana Turner, Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and, of course, Monroe.

Nominated for 13 Academy Awards throughout his career, Louis took home only one, for the Richard Quine–directed film The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) starring Judy Holliday and Paul Douglas. Accolades aside, these days Louis’ name is most commonly associated with the glittering “beads and skin” dress that Monroe wore for her breathless rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. However, it wasn’t the first time that he had created the dress.

Louis had originally designed a version of the now-famous nude illusion dress for Marlene Dietrich, who wore it in her Las Vegas cabaret act during the 1950s and ’60s. According to Dietrich’s correspondence with the costume designer, the idea for the seemingly “naked dress” was her idea. Monroe was impressed when she went to Dietrich’s show and saw her appear seemingly naked, glittering under the lights, and asked Dietrich about it afterwards. Dietrich shared with her how the dress’s illusion worked, and referred her to Louis.

Monroe had an occasion in mind for the dress, and commissioned the dress from Louis after approving a sketch that was made by 21-year-old Bob Mackie, who was working for the designer (his first job right out of school).

ABOVE: Designer Bob Mackie’s sketch of the illusion dress for Marilyn Monroe, which would be created by Jean Louis

Monroe is said to have paid $1,440 for the custom dress, equivalent to around $13,700 in 2024.

While Dietrich had been seen and photographed wearing her version of the illusion dress before Monroe, the press coverage surrounding Monroe’s appearance in her own version on May 19 at Madison Square Garden swept the globe.

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President”
A few months earlier, Monroe, who had been absent from the big screen for over a year, signed on to star in the 20th Century Fox film Something’s Got to Give, directed by George Cukor. Before shooting began in the spring of 1962, Monroe let producer Henry Weinstein know that she had already been asked by the White House to perform for President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in honour of his 45th birthday. The producer granted her permission to attend the gala, believing that there would be no problems on the set.

Monroe had recently undergone gallbladder surgery and had lost more than 25 pounds, reaching the lowest weight of her adult life, and she was dealing with a slew of mental and physical health problems. In fact, on the first day of production for Something’s Got to Give on April 23, 1962, Monroe telephoned Weinstein to tell him that she had a severe sinus infection and would not be on the set that morning. It wouldn’t be the only time. Filming continued over the next month, but production fell drastically behind schedule because Monroe showed up only occasionally due to fever, headaches, chronic sinusitis and bronchitis. As Kennedy’s birthday approached, no one on the production side thought Monroe would keep her commitment to the White House because the film was so far behind, but she opted to attend the event.

The president’s birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden was a fundraising gala for the Democratic Party, and more than 15,000 people attended. After Kennedy’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford gave a few “false” introductions where Monroe didn’t appear, some audience members started to doubt that she was actually there, but he finally introduced Monroe. She had been asked by Kennedy’s team to wear something discreet, but when she took to the stage, she removed a white fur coat to reveal a breathtaking marquisette dress that, under the lights, ensured Monroe looked nearly naked. In the brief film footage of her performance, you can hear the audience gasp as she peels off her white fur coat to reveal the sparkling translucent look embellished with thousands of crystals.

Monroe’s hair was styled that night by Kenneth Battelle and her makeup was done by Marie Irvine. As photo and video from the appearance show, the nude sheath was sheer and form-fitting, dotted with more than 2,500 rhinestones. Monroe reportedly had to be sewn into the dress by Louis that night because of how tight it was. She also chose to wear nothing underneath it, so that the fit would be flawless, actively courting the “scandalous” discourse that she knew would surround the dress and her performance. There were already rumours of Monroe’s affair with the president at the time of the performance, and this would surely stoke them.

ABOVE: Marilyn Monroe following her rendition of “Happy Birthday” at President John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebrations (Image credit: Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum)

Mackie remembers the moment vividly. “After the day the sketch was drawn, I had no idea what it was for until photos of the event appeared in the newspaper,” he says. “Marilyn looked amazing and accomplished exactly what she intended to. Fox Studios would not let her wear anything too revealing in films, because of the previous nude calendar scandal. And she didn’t really care, because she had already been fired. Her figure was at its peak, the dress was a classic shape of fashion at the time.”

In this YouTube clip of Monroe serenading President Kennedy, you can see all of those hand-sewn crystals in action, glittering around her like thousands of tiny stars:

“…[I]t was Marilyn who was the hit of the evening,” read Time magazine’s 1962 recap of the event. “Kennedy plainly meant it when he said, ‘I can now retire from politics after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.’ ”

Following the performance, Kennedy and Monroe were all smiles…however, the producers of Something’s Got to Give were not. Yes, Monroe’s antic’s would inadvertently help with promotion of the film, but producers were already frustrated with the starlet and the publicity surrounding the Kennedy performance didn’t help. So when Monroe phoned Weinstein two weeks after her performance to inform him that she would not be on set once again because of a flareup of the sinusitis and a temperature that had reached 100°F (37.8°C), the studio endorsed her dismissal, and four days after her phone call she was fired from the project.

Monroe quickly gave interviews and photo essays for Life, Cosmopolitan and Vogue magazines to battle the negative press from 20th Century Fox. The Life interview with Richard Meryman, published on August 3, 1962—just one day before her death—included her reflections on the positive and negative aspects of fame. “Fame is fickle,” she said. “I now live in my work and in a few relationships with the few people I can really count on. Fame will go by, and so long, I’ve had you, fame. If it goes by, I’ve always known it was fickle. So, at least it’s something I experienced, but that’s not where I live.”

Symbol of an icon

Monroe died from an overdose of sleeping pills in her Los Angeles Brentwood home on August 5, 1962. Her death was ruled a “probable suicide,” though conspiracy theories continue to persist to this day.

Louis’ “Happy Birthday” nude illusion dress would ultimately be her last high-profile public appearance and become a symbol of the star herself. But its whereabouts remained a mystery for years, until the dress was sold at a Christie’s auction in 1999 for $1.26 million—almost twice the estimated price at the time—as part of the sale of Monroe’s estate. It then sold for an astounding $4.8 million at Julien’s Auctions in 2016, and was later acquired by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, which currently owns the piece. To this day, it holds the record for being the most expensive dress ever sold at auction, making it one of the most expensive pieces of pop-culture memorabilia.

“The dress is so much more than just an item of clothing,” said Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, before the sale in 2016. “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.”

It was reportedly stored in a darkened vault at Ripley’s Hollywood Boulevard museum that was controlled at the optimum 68°F and 40-50 per cent humidity at all times—until one day it wasn’t.

Kim Kardashian and the Met Gala
On May 2, 2022, Kim Kardashian famously wore Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” dress to that year’s  Met Gala in New York City, where guests dressed for the “Gilded Glamour” theme.

“The idea really came to me after the gala in September [the previous] year. I thought to myself, what would I have done for the American theme if it had not been the Balenciaga look? What’s the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe,” Kardashian told Vogue after she stepped foot on the red carpet wearing the unmistakable glittering dress, her hair platinum blonde and perfectly coiffed, the reference unmistakable. “For me the most Marilyn Monroe moment is when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to JFK, it was that look.”

According to Vogue, Kardashian wore the real dress only briefly (we’re talking mere minutes) while walking up the Met’s steps, taking extreme caution with the historic garment and changing into a replica shortly afterwards. Still, those minutes in Monroe’s gown were enough to make her Met Gala look one of the—if not the—most talked about look of the night. It also outraged numerous Monroe and fashion fans, who worried about the damage that could have been made to the now historic garment.

ABOVE: Kim Kardashian wearing Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Happy Birthday” dress to the 2022 Met Gala (Image credit: Instagram.com/kimkardashian)

Kardashian and Ripley’s maintain that there was no damage to the dress and that a great deal of care was taken with it. It was reportedly transported to Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, California, by private plane and accompanied by guards. In a statement, Ripley’s noted that they consulted with textile experts and historians on the best practice surrounding the dress, and that Kardashian showed it the “utmost respect.”

“This was no easy decision for Ripley’s; however, Kim Kardashian has continued to show the utmost respect for this opportunity and historic garment,” a Ripley’s spokesperson said in a statement after the Met Gala. “From extensive research to following guidelines such as no body makeup, only wearing the dress for the short red-carpet appearance, and making absolutely no alterations, she has become a steward—and added to—its history.”

Whether or not Kardashian added to the history of the dress is up for debate. For now, back to Ripley’s vault it goes—and may it remain a piece of fashion history for decades to come.

Want more? You can read other stories from our The Story Of series right here.

Tags: Marilyn Monroe, The Story Of, top story, topstory

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