The Story Behind Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” Dress
The sheer, glittering dress dazzled and scandalized America in 1962. We know who wore it, but who designed it, and where is it now?
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In May 1962, a certain rendition of a familiar tune took a song that people had heard sung countless times and turned it into a history-making moment. Marilyn Monroe’s breathy, seductive take on “Happy Birthday” at an event for President John F. Kennedy remains the most famous performance of the song of all time—and is probably up there with the most famous performances of any song of all time!
Monroe’s performance was truly iconic—so much so that the jaw-dropping classic dress she wore became a historical fashion piece that has sold for millions. Now, the legendary dress is in the news again after Kim Kardashian donned it at the 2022 Met Gala—but how much do we really know about it? Before we dive into details about the infamous gown, let’s talk about the event that cemented its place in history.
When did Marilyn Monroe sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”?
Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” on May 19, 1962, at a fundraiser for JFK and the Democratic National Committee. The fundraiser took place at Madison Square Garden, ten days before Kennedy’s actual 45th birthday. After Kennedy’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford gave a few “false” introductions where Monroe didn’t appear, and some audience members started to doubt that she was actually there, he finally introduced her for real. She took the stage, removed her white fur coat to reveal the breathtaking marquisette dress, and delivered the famous performance.
What does Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” dress look like?
Liliane Lathan/Getty Images
As the photo shows, the dress was sheer and form-fitting, dotted with dazzling beads. What the photo doesn’t specifically show is that there were more than 2,500 rhinestones on it, according to Worn on This Day: The Clothes That Made History. Nor does the photo show that Monroe reportedly had to be sewn into the dress because of how tight it was. She also chose to wear nothing underneath it, according to Vintage News, so that the fit would be flawless, actively courting the “scandalous” discourse that she knew would surround the dress and her performance.
Another lesser-known fact about the “Happy Birthday” dress? Its designer was just out of college. It was the first-ever post-grad project of a young Bob Mackie, who continues to design notable pieces and win awards to this day. Talk about starting strong! Mackie was working for already-acclaimed designer Jean Louis, who completed the piece.
How much is Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” dress?
Now, let’s talk about the cost of the dress. Marilyn Monroe paid $1,440 for it, which would equal around $13,700 in 2022 money. Sure, that’s a little pricey, especially when adjusted for inflation. But after Monroe’s performance, the value of the dress skyrocketed. It sold for $1.26 million at a 1999 auction, almost twice the estimated price, according to The Vintage News. But that’s still nothing compared to the $4.8 million that Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum paid for it in 2016, a purchase that cements it as one of the most expensive pieces of pop-culture memorabilia of all time. It remains at Ripley’s Hollywood Boulevard museum to this day.
Who has worn Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” dress?
Sean Zanni/Getty Images
Admittedly, it was hard to picture anyone but Marilyn Monroe in the infamous gown—until Kim Kardashian slipped into it. Kardashian wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress for the 2022 Met Gala, where guests dressed for the “Gilded Glamour” theme. 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. She changed into a replica shortly afterward. Still, those minutes in Marilyn Monroe’s gown were enough to make her Met Gala look one of the—if not the—most talked about of the night.
Written with additional contribution from Kelly Kuehn
- The Vintage News: “The dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ was so tight she had to be sewn into it”
- bobmackie.com: “Why Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ dress fetched a record £3.8 million at auction”
- Vogue: “‘He’s a Genius, That’s All’—An Oral History of Bob Mackie”
- Ripley’s: “See the World’s Most Expensive Dress!”
- NBC News: “Kim Kardashian wears Marilyn Monroe’s iconic ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ dress to the Met Gala”
- Vogue: “Kim Kardashian Takes Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ Dress Out for a Spin”