Today marks the 50th memorial of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Marilyn Monroe was an actress, model and singer who became a sex symbol and fashion icon in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Born Norma Jean Mortenson, she dyed her hair from brunette to blonde and changed her name to Marilyn upon her first movie contract. Marilyn went on to gross over $200 million in films. Today, her legacy lives on as a popular icon for style and beauty.
William Travilla is one of the best costume designers of all time and Marilyn Monroe his most famous client. Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla focuses on the striking dresses that Travilla designed for Marilyn, from his early work on the thriller Don’t Bother to Knock and the gorgeous pink dress in which Marilyn sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to the legendary white dress from The Seven Year Itch, which arguably contributed to the collapse of Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio. Featuring Travilla’s original sketches, rare costume test shots, dress patterns, photographs of Marilyn wearing the dresses, plus exclusive and never-before-seen extracts from interviews with Travilla, this book offers a fresh insight into the golden age of Hollywood.
Designer and How he Overcame it
The following is an excerpt from Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled
by William Travilla by Andrew Hansford (Applause Books), reprinted with permission
During the making of How to Marry a Millionaire the Cinemascope filming technique
presented a serious problem for Travilla. The new format required the use of a special
anamorphic lens and wider screens. Despite the fact that it produced an intense
and vibrant picture, from a costume designer’s point of view the magnification of
Cinemascope was a nightmare as it was so difficult to flatter the figures of the actresses
in this new, artificially wide format.
Travilla explained, “The heads of the studio and technical departments insisted that
there were no distortions with ‘scope’”. But, in truth, the distortions were terrible, so bad
that they could not shoot close-ups at all and everyone most definitely appeared wider.”
Travilla’s female leads were unhappy with the landscape and magnified effect, especially
as they were all asked to wear voluminous 1950s skirts. Bacall and Grable eventually
relented but Marilyn did not – she demanded that she wore tight skirts throughout most
of the movie and Travilla had to work with this.
The purple dress Travilla created for a particular scene from the movie has become
another very famous image of Monroe. The scene sees the three girls all on different
dates at the same venue. They all meet in the glamorous bathroom to exchange notes on
their respective companions. All three are wearing totally different dresses that show off
each of their figures perfectly. However, Marilyn steals the show, as she plays a girl who
is hilariously nearsighted, but hates to wear her glasses when any man might see her. As
she puts it, “Men aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses.” As the other women leave,
Marilyn is on her own, standing in front of a bank of four mirrors that shows her and the
dress off beautifully.
Created out of purple, or “dahlia” as Travilla called it, silk satin, there is a serious
amount of construction to this dress. The bodice is extraordinary and almost architectural
in a design that begins under the right arm. When you first look at it, the bodice appears
to be straight across the bust line but it is not. In fact, it is considerably lower on the right
side, which is where the sequin strap starts, and higher on the left side. This is because of
the strap coming diagonally across the neckline. The dress gives the illusion of being
straight across, but, if it had actually been cut straight across the bodice, the sequin detail
would have made it appear lopsided.
There is, as always with Travilla, more unusual boning: on both sides a bone starts
at the waistline directly above the hip and goes straight up to below the underarm,
moulding to the body as it goes. Then, attached to the bottom of the first bone, another
goes out to the centre of the each breast. Where the shoulder strap starts under the right
arm the fabric is pleated, first with small pleats that travel horizontally across the bust
line, then with larger pleats that are wrapped and sewn over the shoulder strap and under
the arm, travelling diagonally around to the waist. These larger pleats are then attached to
a separate train, also pleated, giving the illusion that the train starts by being attached to
the shoulder strap and continues through in one complete length of fabric. A sequin belt
is stitched on to hide the seam.
The Cinemascope technique attracted as much comment as the movie itself,
and its stars came in for much scrutiny. But Marilyn Monroe was praised both for her
appearance and her acting ability as illustrated in this quote from the New York Herald
Tribune at the time: “The big question ‘How does Marilyn Monroe look stretched across
a broad screen?’ is easily answered. If you insisted on sitting in the front row, you
would probably feel as though you were being smothered in baked Alaska. Her stint as a
deadpan comedienne is as nifty as her looks. Playing a near-sighted charmer who won’t
wear her glasses when men are around, she bumps into furniture and reads books upside
down with a limpid guile that nearly melts the screen… How To Marry A Millionaire is
measured, not in square feet, but in the size of the Johnson–Negulesco comic invention
and the shape of Marilyn Monroe – and that is about as sizable and shapely as you can