Ripley’s Denies Any Damage to Marilyn Monroe Dress

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Ripley’s Believe It or Not! said the garment was already fraying before Kim Kardashian wore it to the Met Gala. And everything else you need to know about the continuing drama.

Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson arriving at the Met Gala in May.
Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

Vanessa Friedman

The long-running saga otherwise known as “Much ado around Kim Kardashian’s decision to borrow Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ dress for her Met Gala entrance” continues, more than six weeks after the event itself.

On Thursday, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, the organization that owns the dress, posted a statement on its website denying allegations on social media that Ms. Kardashian’s appearance in the gown had damaged the dress, stretching it out of shape around the zipper close and shedding some of the rhinestones.

Ms. Kardashian’s entrance in the dress “did not, in any way, damage the garment,” the statement said, noting that after Ripley’s had purchased the gown in a 2016 auction, a report on the gown’s condition stated that “a number of the seams are pulled and worn” and “there is puckering at the back by the hooks and eyes,” among other damage.

Whether that will put the controversy to rest remains to be seen. Indeed, the only thing that is certain amid all the conspiracies that have sprung up around the reappearance of the dress is that it has become a potent symbol of celebrity past and present. As a result, almost everybody feels they should have a say in the matter. Rarely has one dress elicited such strong opinions.

For those who haven’t been following the brouhaha, here is a quick primer about what happened and why.

The dress was worn by Marilyn Monroe for her appearance at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday bash at Madison Square Garden in 1962. There she sang a very breathy, suggestive “Happy Birthday” to the leader of the free world while wearing a dress that reportedly was designed to make her look naked under the lights. At the time she was rumored to be having an affair with the president, so the gown, combined with the rendition, set the gossip mongers aflame. Three months later, Monroe was found dead.

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Credit…Getty Images

Jean Louis, the designer responsible for Monroe’s garb in “The Misfits” and who was working with her on the film “Something’s Got to Give” (it was never finished), made the dress, which had been sketched by his assistant Bob Mackie. Made from souffle, a sheer fabric that is no longer in use because it was highly flammable, in a shade chosen to match the color of Monroe’s skin, and covered in a few thousand rhinestones to refract the light, it was sleeveless, backless and — rumor had it — intended to be so body-conscious that Marilyn was sewn into the dress before performing (and couldn’t wear any underwear beneath). There are no pictures of that sewing actually taking place, so it’s hard to know how literally that was meant, but the account is repeated in pretty much every story about the night.

Well, there was a hidden zipper in the back, but that’s a good question.

Monroe left her estate to her acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who died in 1982, who in turn left his estate to his second wife and widow, Anna. In 1999, Anna commissioned Christie’s to auction off 510 lots of Monroe memorabilia, including plaster floor lamps, jeans — and the “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress. The Times reported that it sold for $1.15 million (before commission) to Bob Schagrin, one of the owners of Gotta Have It Collectibles, a store on East 57th Street in New York.

Its next owner was Martin Zweig, a financier famous for predicting the 1987 stock market crash, and kept in a climate-controlled display case in his penthouse atop the Pierre hotel. Mr. Zweig died in 2013, and three years later his estate contracted with Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, Calif., to sell the dress as part of a wider Monroe sale. Estimated to go for about $2 million, it ultimately sold for $4.8 million to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, which later advertised it as “the world’s most expensive dress!” and kept it in a vault in its museum in Orlando, Fla.

She asked! Seriously. As she recalled in an interview with Vogue, while musing about the theme of the Met Gala, which was American fashion, she thought: “What’s the most American thing you can think of? And that’s Marilyn Monroe.” And for her, the most Marilyn thing was the dress. So she went to Ripley’s, and it agreed to let her try it, subject to some stringent requirements, some charitable donations and her actually being able to physically get into the dress.

Presumably, both sides understood the publicity power of the combination.

It would seem so, but Ms. Kardashian said she shed 16 pounds to fit into the dress. She still couldn’t zip up the hidden zip at the back, so she draped a white fur stole around herself to hide the fact that the two sides were held together with a tie. Also, unlike Monroe, Ms. Kardashian did wear what looked like Skims underneath the dress.

She didn’t. She changed into a replica dress as soon as she got up the Met steps.

And how.

First, Ms. Kardashian’s entrance in Marilyn dress inspired the kind of breathless excitement that accompanies most of what she does, thus connecting Ms. Kardashian forevermore to her sex symbol celebrity forebear. (That this particular forebear met a tragic end not long after wearing the dress, and hence it may have some pretty complicated implications, does not seem to have occurred to most.)

Shortly thereafter, however, came the backlash: to her extreme weight loss at a time when health and wellness is prized above crash diets, and to the idea that a garment that had come to symbolize a classic moment in political and pop culture history should be worn as a party stunt.

A number of experts and conservators (and Mr. Mackie himself) criticized the risks inherent with exposing a vintage dress to the elements, no matter how briefly, as well as the unavoidable human wear and tear. Questions were even raised about whether the dress was authentic at all. It didn’t look exactly the same in the pictures, did it? Then came the charges of damage.

Of course, if you subscribe to the theory that all publicity is good publicity, none of this matters. Certainly, this seems to be the case for Ripley’s. (For her part, Ms. Kardashian has remained mum and declined to comment for this article.) After denying any further damage to the dress, the Ripley’s statement added: “Our mission is to both entertain and educate visitors and fans, and sparking conversations like the discourse around Marilyn Monroe’s dress does just that.”

Assuming you consider social media screeds and memes “discourse.”

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