Fifty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains a luminescent movie star and legendary sex symbol. But who knew that she also had an enduring impact on the fashion world?
No one could forget Marilyn’s pink satin Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend gown, the pleated white dress that billowed skyward in The Seven Year Itch, or the revealing nude sheath worn to sing Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy. But beyond creating timeless, unforgettable looks during the 1950s—an era of Peter Pan collars, poodle skirts and repressed sexuality—Marilyn’s ability to spot up-and-coming designers made her a fashion visionary.
Before they were household names, she wore Ferragamo pumps, carried Louis Vuitton bags, and donned the designs of Norman Norell, Emilio Pucci and Lanvin. On film, Marilyn was dressed exquisitely by Oscar-winning designers Jean Louis, Orry Kelly and William Travilla, who dressed Monroe in eight of her films.
The transition from Norma Jeane Baker to Marilyn Monroe was certainly a striking one. Having attracted wolf whistles since early puberty, Marilyn was well aware of the power of her looks, especially to men. Although her various style and beauty advisors pushed her to change her smile, her hairline, and famously her hair colour, Marilyn quickly grew comfortable in her role as pin-up girl. A myriad of imitators sprung forth soon after Marilyn’s first hit movies—and ever since—but no one quite possessed the singular Monroe magic.
At the Hollywood premiere of Call Me Madam on March 25, 1953, Marilyn wore a sleek white satin strapless column dress, belted at the waist. She wore white satin elbow-length gloves, white satin pumps, and carried a lush white fox stole. No distracting jewellery was needed. The design was by William Travilla, a former child prodigy who was part of Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox.
He was introduced to Marilyn in 1951 and for the next five years, Travilla created some of the most recognisable movie costumes of all time for her. She became his muse and even for a brief time, his lover. “Marilyn has the most fantastically perfect figure in the world,” he told Screen Life in 1954. “No matter how you dress her, she looks sexy.”
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Marilyn wore another creation by William Travilla at an awards reception when she was named ‘Fastest Rising Star of 1952’. As has happened in the past, her choice of attire overshadowed the event. The dress was made from knife-pleated gold lamé, with a halter neckline and style lines that are somewhat Egyptian.
The entire gown was created from ‘one complete circle of fabric’. The authors of Marilyn in Fashion, Christopher Nickens and George Zeno, write: “By twenty-first century standards, the dress seems tame (especially since the neckline had been altered upwards several inches for this event), but it was so tight Monroe had to be sewn into it. That, combined with her sexy walk, created pandemonium at the award presentation.”
“When she wiggled through the audience to come to the podium,” wrote columnist James Bacon, “her derriere looked like two puppies fighting under a silk sheet.”
Recently, ‘updates’ were seen on Naomi Watts, designed by Thierry Mugler, and on Elizabeth Hurley in a variation by Valentino.
Nearly everything Marilyn wore for the premiere of How to Marry a Millionaire in Beverly Hills in November 1953 was on loan from the studio. The Travilla gown, reminiscent of a sexy fair-princess style, is white lace over nude crepe with the lace embellished by thousands of tiny opalescent sequins.
A sash of white satin and a matching train added extra pizzazz. The gloves, earrings, shoes, and even the platinum polish on her finger and toenails, were all property of Fox. The fur, an unusual combination of a muff on the end of a stole, was Marilyn’s. What she called the “happiest night of my life” ended up with Monroe returning her glittering finery to the studio. But the night had been a supreme triumph, nonetheless.
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One of the most famous images of Marilyn Monroe is from the ‘subway’ scene in The Seven Year Itch. When the subway rattles beneath her, Marilyn stands over a vent that swirls her skirt around her waist. In Marilyn in Fashion, the authors write: “The photographic images from that night continue to be some of the most reproduced in history.
They struck a nerve immediately upon publication and signalled Monroe’s ascension to pop culture queen. Even in the midst of the buttoned-down 1950s, few could resist the unique combination of creamy beauty, sexual allure, and playfulness that Monroe conveyed so naturally in this scene and the photographs it generated. (This shoot was one of the first in which a major star’s exposed panties were showing in mainstream studio publicity).”
Marilyn in Fashion, published by Running Press, details the designers of Marilyn’s ensembles, where she wore them, and their influence on fashion in the decades that followed. Behind-the-scenes stories reveal how the star worked to create looks befitting the Marilyn Monroe image.
Part One: The Designers profiles the illustrious men and women who dressed Marilyn both for her personal wardrobe and films. Part Two is a miscellany covering accessories and more fashionable highlights, including the Monroe mane and signature makeup. Illustrated by hundreds of rare photos, Marilyn in Fashion fabulously traces the style evolution of the ultimate Hollywood icon.