Dressing Marilyn

On November 8th, property from the estate of William Travilla will go on auction: http://www.juliensauctions.com/auctions/2013/icons-and-idols-fashion/william-travilla.html. The public viewing of his iconic creations begins today. Below is an excerpt from Dressing Marilyn, by Andrew Hansford and Karen Homer.

Travilla might have dismissed the stunning dress he designed for Marilyn Monroe to wear in the famous subway scene from the movie The Seven Year Itch (1955) as “that silly little dress”, but to many it is the most famous dress in cinema history. It is one of those images that has permanently lodged itself in the world’s subconscious, re-awakened at the oddest moments, and it is so iconic that there is virtually no one who has not seen it. But why has this particular image has become so legendary? Is it the fact that Marilyn is showing a lot of flesh, so scandalous in the 1950s, or simply because of who she is and the drama that surrounded her life? Whatever the combination of factors that propelled this image to stardom, the one thing that has been overlooked is the dress itself.

Many people have viewed and marvelled at this glamorous dress, wanted a copy for themselves or worn a poor imitation at a fancy dress party but the real story behind it, both in the dress’s inception and in achieving that memorable shot of Marilyn wearing it, is far more complicated.

For a start the original filmed sequence, where the dress blows up around Marilyn’s wide-planted legs as she stands over a subway grating, never made it to the screen. The footage was shot on Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue at 52nd Street on 15 September 1955 at 1.00am. Five thousand onlookers whistled and cheered through take after take as Marilyn repeatedly fluffed her lines. Witnessing the scene was an increasingly embarrassed and angry Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s husband at the time. Some believe that this night was the start of their marriage breakdown and that dress and that image proved to be too much for a man who wanted his wife to cover up, not show off. The noise of the crowd made these first takes unusable. Director Billy Wilder subsequently restaged the scene on the 20th Century Fox lot and got a more satisfactory result.

…The design that Travilla created for the dress was far quicker than the filming of the scene; he was so inspired that he produced the entire costume ensemble for The Seven Year Itch out over one weekend. When asked to create the costumes for this movie Travilla had been delighted on many levels. First, there was the obvious pleasure in working with Marilyn but, as important, was that the movie was shot in New York. Travilla loved New York and spent a lot of time there and he knew just how to evoke the feeling of the Big Apple.

After his frenzied weekend of designing Travilla showed Marilyn his ideas and, as she always did, she approved them all. The role she was to play was simply “The Girl”; sensuous and beautiful, her character still had to possess a sweet and innocent demeanour. So Travilla had to portray Marilyn as pure and lovely, almost talcum-powder clean. Achieving this effect on a humid, sunny afternoon in New York was not an easy task.

The script presented challenges too. Travilla knew the halter-neck dress with its sunburst pleats would have to blow up at some point in the movie. So the fabric he chose was an ivory coloured rayon-acetate crepe, heavy enough to flow beautifully as she walked but still light enough to blow up in an interesting way. It is clear just by looking at the pictures that the dress did not blow up vertically like so many of the copies have done; instead it billowed, allowing her to pose seductively among the pleats of the skirt. Travilla never normally used manmade fabric, but with pleating this posed a challenge, as 100 per cent natural fabric would not hold such stiff pleats so, for all his pleated creations, a special fabric with just a small amount of manmade fibre in it to maintain the structure had to be made.

And there was one other problem, characteristic of Marilyn. The fact that the actress never wore underwear and point-blank refused to wear any until the scene was shot, had to be taken into consideration. According to Travilla, “she hated wearing underclothes… but if you are that perfect why spoil the line?”

The Seven Year Itch dress was boned, not in pliable polyester as it might be today, but in metal. As a result the halter neck lay flat against Marilyn’s chest and the bodice was moulded exactly to the contours of her body. This allowed her to move totally freely without the worry of anything falling out. The attention to detail did not stop there: the skirt had a rolled hem and each pleat was hand-formed then sewn into place. The original pattern clearly shows the number of pieces that make up this dress.

Bill Sarris recalls: “In those days you were not allowed to show cleavage, but Bill always talked about how, because of how Marilyn’s breast were, you could cut a dress fairly low and still not show breast. Sarris also revealed another trick Travilla employed: he would take a little half-ball button and sew it inside the costume where the nipple would be so that Marilyn’s nipples always appeared pert. According to Sarris, Travilla “had all kinds of tricks up his sleeve. When he worked up the sketch for the skirt-blowing scene I’m sure he didn’t think it was going to become the most famous dress in the world.”

Dressing Marilyn 

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 thrillerDon’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.



Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on November 4, 2013, in Film & TV, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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