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Jun 21, 2011

The $4.6 Million Dress

Friends, by now you've all probably heard about the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood costume and memorabilia auction that happened last weekend.  The big news: Marilyn Monroe's infamous "subway dress" went for $4.6 million.

For that price it should have sleeves.

(NOTE: you can download a PDF of the auction catalog here, and I highly recommend you do.  It was an amazing collection  and beautifully documented in this catalog.)

Ten years ago I saw the soon-to-be auctioned Marilyn Monroe memorabilia collection on display at Christies and saw the famous Jean Louis "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" barely-there gown.  That one fetched $1,150,000, which seems like a bargain by comparison.  And it was beaded.

As you know, I am a huge old movie fan and melt at the sight of costumes from classic films.  I've blogged about the Diana Vreeland costume exhibit I saw in the Seventies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child, as well as some of my favorite movie gowns.

Debbie amassed her collection over more than forty years, with a dream of founding a Hollywood memorabilia museum that never quite happened.

The whole thing makes me sad, for Debbie and for us Americans.  What larger cultural contribution has America made than "the movies" a.k.a., Hollywood?   As I said to someone yesterday, with all the billionaires we now have in this country, couldn't somebody cough up, say, $100 million to keep Debbie's collection intact and viewable by the public?   The fact that a dress associated with a famous star could fetch millions reflects the huge, lasting interest in Hollywood history.

Wise readers, your thoughts, please.

Why is this (Marilyn) dress so valuable, other than that we've seen that image upteen times till it's embedded in our DNA?  Is it really all that?  Have you ever seen The Seven-Year Itch (the movie the dress is from)?  It has not aged well, to put it mildly.

Also, do you think these costumes belong in one place -- i.e., a museum -- or is it only fair that they go to those who have the most interest in owning them and perhaps chopping them up into quilting squares and throw pillows? 

Is it important, given that the costumes can be seen, as they were intended to be seen, in the films themselves?

I'd love to hear what you think.

I'm going to be gone the rest of this week as I'll be taking care of my mother who gets out of rehab after her hip replacement today.  My mother doesn't have a computer -- she tried to master one about five years ago and failed -- nor does she have DSL or any other type of Internet service.  Her neighborhood, moreover, though just a (long) subway ride from where I live, is a wi-fi black hole.  I will be thoroughly disconnected -- pray for me.  I hope to return to daily blogging next week.

BTW, please feel free to read other blogs during my absence. It's healthy and can only strengthen our relationship, in the long run.

Have a great week, everybody, and see you soon!


  1. Peter,

    Your blog is the first one I go to, fortunately you have previous entries which pre-date my discovering the wonder of you. So I think a retrospective immersion is in order.

    Debbie Reynolds is a visionary. Somewhere between the unceremonious ending and the decades-later-revival of anything related to popular culture, people who can see beyond the short-term are born preservationists and oft times our only hope in maintaining evidence of history itself.

    The designers, well-known, obscure, or uncredited, did many amazing things with cloth, beads, sequins, feathers, and accessories.

    It was my hope that well-endowed schools with textile and costume collections would have swooped in and selectively kept segments of what Ms. Reynolds amassed intact.

    Where ever the pieces end up, a least they were saved during the nadir of their existance, and all have a greater chance of surviving.

    Best to your Mother!

  2. Peter thanks for the pdf catalogue of the auction sale, it's so resourceful.
    I think the price paid for the 7 years itch is just insane.
    All the best to your mother. I suggest you aske Cathy for some help. I am sure she would be darn cute in a nurse outfit.

  3. I'm wondering if Debbie Reynolds thought about donating this stuff to the Smithsonian? I don't think they'd say "no" to it. Since she sold them to private buyers, it seems likely we'll never get to see them.

  4. Kristin, from what I've read, part of the money raised is to pay off the debt on a foreclosed potential property in Pigeon Forge, TN (Home of "Dollywood") that was meant to house the collection.

    Lots of financial complications, lenders owed money, etc.

  5. I think you're absolutely right about Hollywood being a rare case of genuine american culture and it's a shame that this collection hasn't been preserved. And thanks a lot for linking to the catalogue, it's great!

  6. My mind is still like putty from the wedding. I can't put a full sentence together yet, but I wanted to send my thoughts to your mom and to you. Will miss you this week, especially since it is the first week in a long time where I can actually catch up on my blogging.

  7. Peter,

    I wish you mom gets well! And thanks for the link! I will be also a good resource for me!


  8. Costuming is an art form and should be preserved--especially when we it has such a hold on our imaginations. It's too bad that the collection had to be dismantled--but poor Debbie has had so many financial problems, no one should have to bear that burden in their 'golden years'.

    Hope your mother has a speedy recovery (BTDT)--you're a good son :)

  9. Give your Mother all our love and admiration.. She raised a good son and we will be rooting for a speedy recovery for her.

  10. Another take on the value of movie costumes -

    Worth a read!

  11. I live in Hollywood, and let me tell you, its sad to see that the idea of Hollywood and America being an iconic unified front is gone. I do agree with you, this collection that no one else in the history of the world will ever own should have been marked as a national treasure. I mean, the city of Hollywood could have taken the collection and used one of the MANY vacant buildings that are in this area and just made it a public attraction. How awesome would that be!? The commonwealth of the city would have benefited greatly from it.

    This auction (I didn't get to attend the open house) has been a sore spot for a lot of my vintage friends. I guess we see this all as not just history, but a piece of national culture. Miss Reynolds idea was so genuine and in the right place. Hell, Oprah could have helped her out!

    It makes me angry that everything of value has to be 'private' in order for it to be relevant. I mean what is the collector going to do with it? It cant be worn, its a costume garment, and they are not really of the soundest construction. They are going to put it in a case on a mannequin and look at it. Why can't that be done by millions of people from all over the world?

    Sorry, this touches a sore spot with me.

  12. For 4.6 million dollars, the dress should be gold plated and encrusted in precious jewels. Sorry, I think its ridiculous that any garment, no matter who wore it could be worth that much money.
    It's too bad that collector couldn't help Ms. Reynolds build her museum so everyone could view the collection!

  13. I feel the same as you, very strongly. I have also always wondered the same about our old building, our elders, etc.

  14. Best wishes to your mom, Peter.
    I would rather see this collection in a permanent place rather than the "Mob Museum" our mayor has been touting.

  15. It's always sad when an iconic object goes into private hands rather than being maintained as part of the common heritage and put somewhere where ordinary people can marvel at it isn't it? That said, I think the subway dress is not madly interesting qua garment and that there are probably lots more inspirational pieces in the catalogue. (BTW this is the first time I've been able to work 'qua' into a sentence!)

    I hope you manage to enjoy the enforced holiday from daily blogging and that your mum's new hip works well. I'm sure there'll be lots to tell us when you get back on line!

  16. I'm hoping some of these buyers will at least have enough heart to lend them to exhibits and museums. What a sad end if they ended up in a bag in someone's attic.

    Best wishes for a quick recovery to your mum.

  17. My best wishes for your mother's speedy recovery. She's so lucky to have you to care for her! Don't you think a brief vacation from the internet might be interesting? I'll miss this blog, the only others I go to are about Moms cooking with their kids.

  18. According to CNN you missed the price by 1 million $... The headline reads 5.6M$

  19. Oh... sorry, I didn't read it through. it's 1M$ commission... SORRRRRY

  20. ...and for a frock without a petticoat at that! We shouldn't be too hasty to judge - how do we know the purchaser isn't going to donate it to the Smithsonian or somesuch anyway? Sydney University had a funny old bloke shuffle in with a carrier bag, talk to the bursar and in exchange for setting up a medical research foundation anonymously donated said bagful of PICASSOs!!!! ( American bloke, too...
    I hope your Mummy is soon back high kickin' and her first action is to boot you back to blogland. Wonder if you can last a week without internet - I know I sure as hell couldn't, best of luck with it all. Hugs, Jasmine in Oz

  21. Gosh, yes, why not a Hollywood costume museum? No-brainer, surely.

    I have to toot the trumpet and blow the bugle for my local establishment, the American Museum nr Bath, UK, currently running a lovely expo of Marilyn's costumes, including that pink wiggle dress from Niagara (the film which really established her - a glimpse of her rear in it made one commentator quip that she had a great future behind her...):
    A comment on her stature - she was tiny! That came as a bit of a surprise. But with a touch of bigness in all the right places: the dresses do NOT hang the same way on the mannequins!

    Oh, we'll pray for you alright! Good luck with Mom in the black hole... you're a good son.

  22. Honestly? The seven year itch is only worth watching is you fast forward to Marilyn's parts. So dull! But there is something about her...There are women I thought to be more beautiful, or better actresses. But Marilyn has something. Some of it I think is her background. Read her Wiki page, it's Like Dickens, so very sad.

  23. The PDF catalog is really lovely! I can't believe one person amassed such an amazing collection of Hollywood costumes - it is sad that all her hard work and all these items that would make a fantastic museum... now will probably only be seen by their wealthy owners. Haha I will read other blogs in your blogging break, but MPB is still the funniest! Best wishes to you and your mother!

  24. I think that all classic films must be viewed with at the very least a grain of historical relativism. If you try to watch them with today's standards for anything (especially relationships) in tact, then of course they are a frustrating and giant fail. However, if you're able to lighten up and suspend disbelief for an hour or so (they were usually a lot shorter back then too), then you are in for a treat; an idealised view of men/women back then and you're certainly going to be treated with a visual treat in the form of styling (hair, makeup, clothing)...and fun language, campy comedy, melodrama. Everything that is good in the world.

    As for The Seven Year Itch, it remains one of my most favorite films from that period and it always will. The dress is iconic, and I find it completely depressing that the only people who were willing to pay for it were the Chinese. I heard that there were other "overseas bidders" as well - also disappointing.

    I agree that with all the money that goes down the toilet in the country, somehow enough funding could have been found to create a museum of Hollywood Treasures (That would surpass the Hollywood Museum - which currently is showcasing Jean Harlow's belongings). We have so few truly american cultural claims to fame. Hollywood is a big one. This auction made me a bit sad.

  25. I just read through some of the comments, and I really agree with the over-arching sentiment that 1.) this collection is a very important piece of American cultural history (after all: Hollywood still is considered *the* film industry in the world) and 2.) that 4.6 million is a lot for *that* dress. ;) Yes, it's an iconic piece worn by an even more iconic (and tragic) woman. But some of the other pieces in the collection I felt were worth more than they went for.

    I am really sad, most of all, that Ms. Reynolds' years of hard work acquiring these important pieces of US and movie history had to be broken up. What's even more sad is that people won't be able to see them. I know I would have loved to be able to see many of these pieces on exhibit! Just think about the Titanic costumes exhibit that went on tour for years--that drew a lot of people and I'm sure a lot of money as well. It's just sad that so many of these were dispersed to private collectors. Hopefully some of these owners will eventually donate their purchases to museums so the public can enjoy them one day.

    Sending get-well and quick recovery wishes to your mom! :) You are such a good son for going to spend time with her, Peter! :)

  26. Hi, I hope your mom has a speedy recovery


  27. I tried to comment yesterday and it got eaten. Anyhow, I agree that the costume collection should have been kept together but in this era of fewer and fewer museums, state parks, etc. being able to make their operating costs, I don't know how long an exhibit like that would have been able to run.

    Hope your mom feels better soon!

  28. All that money for the MM dress and I bet it would look so much better on Cathy.

    Thanks for understanding - if I visit other blogs, it will only be because you are away. It won't mean a thing!

    Hope your Mom recovers speedily :)

  29. what a great blog! love the post. :) now a treat for you! check out my most recent post. you're mouth will water. ;)

    follow me?

  30. it's a ridiculous amount of money for a dress! my guess would be dresses like these belong in a museum, but then again, they are not being worn... tough question...

  31. Thanks for the link, I've downloaded the catalog. There's a lot of good info and great pics. I was just checking out the costumes from the movie "Ben-Hur"...that was my fave movie back in the day.


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