A Look at the Fashions That Helped Us Love Marilyn Monroe
This August 5th, will mark the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. It is difficult to believe it’s been 50 years since this iconic star passed away. Her popularity has not waned and, in fact, it seems as if she has never left us—her presence is almost as ubiquitous as when she was alive. With the anniversary of her death approaching, I am sure there certainly will be an increase in the coverage of her life, career and death. Fans are still enchanted with Marilyn as they ever were.
There are so many reasons to love Marilyn, but I’d like to take this opportunity to look back at her most iconic movie fashions and share a bit of their background and through them add a little more to the Marilyn story.
Most of you won’t know that Marilyn was often dressed by well-known American costume designer of the time, William Travilla. Known just as Travilla, he dressed Marilyn for eight of her movies, including: The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop, Don’t Bother to Knock, River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, How to Marry a Millionaire, Monkey Business and Gentleman Prefer Blondes. He also dressed many other leading ladies, like: Jane Russell, Betty Grable, Judy Garland and Barbara Stanwyck among others.
But, back to Marilyn. Without a doubt, the most well-known Hollywood dress of all time is the pleated ivory cocktail dress Marilyn wore in the 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch. Everyone can recognize those photographs of her over a subway grate wearing it. There is some controversy over the design though. Travilla claims the design as his own, while others say it came from off-the-rack. It’s unlikely we will know the real provenance, but we do know, sadly, that photo shoot was credited with leading to the demise of Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio.
Turning back to those iconic film fashions of Marilyn’s created by Travilla, let us take a look at the pink gown she wore in the 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, while performing Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. This design was actually a replacement for an earlier one that was discarded by the studio for being too risque (see the replaced design below).
I am glad it was replaced, as I love the pink gown so much better, don’t you? Often described as being “shocking pink,” the design was floor-length, strapless and satin. It also featured a straight neckline, side slits and was decorated with a large bow on the back. It was also worn with a matching pair of long gloves and copious amounts of diamonds… that is, after all, what the song was about.
The final design we will look at today is the Sunburst design from Travilla. Originally intended for Gentleman Prefer Blondes, but which was also cut by the censors for being too risque. Marilyn did appear very briefly in one scene in the is dress, but later wore it to the 1953 Photoplay Magazine Awards, and created quite a stir by doing so. Travilla advised Marilyn against wearing the dress to that event. He felt it was not the right dress for the occasion. As he sewed her into it, his advice to her were, “To walk like a lady.”
After the event, Joan Crawford blasted Marilyn in the papers the next day, calling the dress “vulgar” and equating Marilyn’s wearing of it to a “burlesque show”. In addition, the journalist James Bacon was quoted as saying, “When she wiggled through the audience to come up on the podium, her derrière looked like two puppies fighting under a silk sheet.” Later, Marilyn also wore the dress in photo shoot, which is probably how the design is best remembered today.
Never an uncomplicated woman, it makes sense that the fashions Marilyn wore were not without complications and elaborate backgrounds themselves.