Marilyn Monroe's gown was not damaged by Kim Kardashian, Ripley's argues

Kim Kardashian in the dress at the Met Gala
The dress is continuing to dominate headlines as its owners dispute claims the garment was damaged by Kim Kardashian. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ripley's Entertainment has denied allegations that a historic gown once worn by American silver screen icon Marilyn Monroe was damaged after Kim Kardashian donned the dress for last month's Met Gala.

Images surfaced on social media earlier this week that appeared to show "significant damage" to the 60-year-old gown, which became a piece of pop culture history when Monroe wore it in 1962 to sing 'Happy Birthday, Mr President' to John F. Kennedy. She died less than three months later at the age of 36.

Photos reportedly taken on June 12 by a visitor to Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum in Los Angeles - where the dress is currently displayed - appear to show small tears in the material as well as several missing crystals, with some hanging by threads. Additional photos taken by author Darrell Rooney have also been circulated online, which appear to show damage to the gown's shoulder straps. 

Sharing the purported evidence to his social media, Scott Fortner, the owner of the world's largest private collection of Monroe's personal property and artefacts, castigated Ripley's Entertainment - the owner of the dress - for allowing Kardashian to wear the garment to last month's gala, a prestigious annual fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

"Just in case you missed it… missing crystals, and some left hanging by a thread," Fortner captioned an image that presented a side-by-side comparison of the gown before and after its Met Gala debut. The left-hand side showed the dress in seemingly pristine condition in 2016, while the right presented the apparent damage post-event.

The emergence of the evidence that the dress was supposedly damaged by Kardashian has led to widespread outrage on social media, with many condemning Ripley's for allowing the reality television star to wear the fragile gown - which was custom-made for Monroe - in the first place.

Kardashian's decision to wear the dress - and infamously losing 16 pounds in three weeks to fit into it - has already courted significant controversy, proving highly divisive among curators, historians and commentators alike. The primary complaints were that historic garments should not be worn by public or private figures, as well as concerns about the handling of the dress and threats to its condition and preservation, including fragrance, makeup, jewellery, stage lighting, humidity and photographic flashes.

But Ripley's has rejected the purported evidence that the dress was damaged, arguing a "calculated risk" was made in bringing the dress out of retirement. They also claimed the dress had not been damaged "in any way" during its brief return to the spotlight.

"From the bottom of the Met steps, where Kim got into the dress, to the top where it was returned, the dress was in the same condition it started in," Amanda Joiner, Ripley's vice-president of publishing and licensing, said in a statement.

The company has also said the signs of wear-and-tear presented in recent photos may date back years, citing a condition report in 2017 that noted a number of the seams were "pulled and worn".

"This is not surprising given how delicate the material is. There is puckering at the back by the hooks and eyes," the report said, as cited by Ripley's.

Ripley's purchased the gown for US$4.8 million (NZ$7.57 million) in 2016, setting a Guinness World Record for the most expensive dress sold at auction. It is now estimated to be worth more than US$10 million, according to the museum.

Adorned with more than 6000 hand-sewn crystals, the barely-there gown was designed by lauded French costume designer Jean Louis.

Speaking to the BBC this week, Fortner called the decision by Ripley's to allow Kardashian to wear the dress "irresponsible", claiming it was motivated by "publicity".

"When you buy something of such significance, you really need to stick to your word to protect and preserve it… and clearly that didn't happen," he told the outlet.

"This is a significant piece of American culture, celebrity culture, political culture - it's probably the most famous gown in the world and definitely the most expensive. So why they would allow it to be worn is really the question."

It's reported that Kardashian attended two fittings for the dress and during the first, Ripley's initially declined her request to wear the gown as it was too small for her frame. However, Kardashian controversially lost more than seven kilograms in three weeks to ensure she could wear the dress, which was so tight on Monroe, she reportedly had to be sewn into it.

Due to the fragility of the fabric, Kardashian only wore the original garment for her arrival at the gala, posing for photographs on the red carpet and ascending the steps of the Metropolitan Museum before changing into a replica for the rest of the evening. Kardashian also teamed the original gown with a fur stole to hide the back of the dress as the zipper would not close, according to reports.

She has previously claimed she wore the dress for a matter of minutes, did not sit down in it and did not wear body makeup that could have stained the fabric.

Fortner told the BBC that Kardashian should not be held responsible for the damage or be targeted by a campaign of harassment and outrage, claiming the blame falls solely on Ripley's for allowing the decision to proceed.

"It's the most famous dress in the world. Who wouldn't want to wear the dress if they were given an opportunity to do so?" he said.

Following the Met Gala on May 2, the International Council of Museums said in a statement that although the dress was part of a private collection, "historic garments should not be worn by anybody, public or private figures". However, Ripley's has argued that Kardashian only highlighted the historical importance of the dress and introduced "the legacy of Marilyn Monroe" to a new generation.

Dr Kate Strasdin, a senior lecturer in cultural studies at Falmouth University in the UK, has worked alongside curators and conservators of historic dresses for more than 25 years. Speaking to the BBC, she noted that since the 1970s, specific guidelines have been in place in a bid to prevent these controversies from occurring in the first place.

"One of them is you absolutely cannot wear historic garments, you just can't," she said. "You can't even handle a dress like that without damaging it in some way, let alone wear it, so it was inevitable that there was going to be significant damage just by even wearing it on the red carpet."

Repairs would cost tens of thousands of dollars, she added, noting that the fabric in question is no longer produced.

Fortner is now calling for the dress to be removed from Ripley's collection - where it is displayed behind glass on a mannequin made to Monroe's measurements - and sent to the Smithsonian in Washington DC, where the likes of Abraham Lincoln's top hat and Judy Garland's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz are housed.