Did you know that Marilyn Monroe passed away fifty years ago this month? I didn’t, until I was trying to figure out why so many books on her came out this year. I know, I know – I’m perceptive (sarcasm intended). Either way, one of the coolest books is this one — Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla, by author Andrew Hansford.
An excerpt from the book (used with permission) is below. For more information, please go to the publisher’s website: Applause Books.
The Most Famous Dress in the World
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 of publisher.
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.”