William Travilla’s stunning costumes for Marilyn Monroe

The 1953  musical comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, screened at the Auckland Film Festival a few years ago, so I took my mum and daughter along to watch it on the big screen. There is a particular scene where Marilyn and Jane enter the ship’s ballroom and literally bring it to a standstill as they look so stunning. It had the same effect on the movie audience, who actually gasped as they appeared onscreen.

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell render everyone speechless just by walking into a room.

Although they are extraordinarily beautiful women, seeing Marilyn on the big screen brought home why she was such a massive star. No matter who she is with, she just steals the screen with a luminous beauty and presence that I don’t think has been replicated since.

Still looking gorgeous

The pair dazzle from the opening dance number where they burst through curtains in stunning red dresses that any woman would give her eye teeth to wear, to the closing scene when they appear again in matching wedding dresses, which although somewhat prim in design, only highlight the gorgeousness of Marilyn and Jane Russell.

In fact, throughout her early career, Marilyn had stunning costumes. The reason for this, I discovered, was her close relationship with costume designer William Travilla. I am fascinated by costume design and while browsing in a second-hand bookshop found Dressing Marilyn,  a book that detailed his work with her. Author Andrew Hansford accidentally stumbled across Travilla’s designs when a friend sent him a number of Marilyn’s dresses for a PR campaign. He subsequently worked with the current owner of the collection, Bill Sarris, who inherited it when Travilla died in 1990, to write the book.

Although it looks white in the movie, it was actually cream coloured.

It is a fascinating account of a talented costume designer who understood how to create outfits that worked within the framework of film stock and lens format, which is why Marilyn looked so fabulous, including the iconic pink dress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the white halter dress in The Seven Year Itch.

Travilla also dressed many other actors and actresses, including Ann Sheridan in the 1940s, Barbra Streisand, Errol Flynn and Joan Crawford. In the 1980s, he was brought in to design for shows like Dallas and Knots Landing.

Travilla’s costumes for Dallas, Priscilla Presley in his signature sunray pleats

Costume design in the 1950s was far different from today, writes Hansford. “Unlike nowadays, when there is a huge back catalogue of designs to look back on for ideas, In 1950s Hollywood, Travilla and others like him did not have the option of borrowing from the past.”

His big break into Hollywood came when actor Errol Flynn asked him to design his costumes for The Adventures of Don Juan, reportedly commenting,“If he can make that old warhorse Sheridan look good, he can do it for Uncle Errol.”

Travilla first met Marilyn in 1950, when she was an emerging star and had done Asphalt Jungle and a few small roles. She made friends with him on the 20th Century Fox lot and frequently posed for him and took his advice on costumes. He would design her professional costumes until 1956’s Bus Stop when his contract wasn’t renewed by Fox.

He also designed many of her personal outfits. One of the most beautiful was for the 1953 premiere in  How to Marry a Millionaire, where she looks unbelievably gorgeous. The dress had a sheer underdress with an overlay of embroidered lace with hundreds of crystals sewn onto it. In black and white, it is stunning, but under the lights, she must have been radiant.

Marilyn dazzling at the premiere of How to Marry a Millionaire

The key to Travilla’s designs for Marilyn and others, recounts Hansford, was his ability to create designs that worked for their body shapes. If you look at the red dresses from the opening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn and Russell are opposites in height, colouring and shape. Marilyn is a platinum blonde with an hourglass figure, while Russell is a willowy brunette who towers over her. Yet the dresses look fantastic on each of them. In the image, the sequins show up as a design, but under the movie lights, the effect was dazzling.

The Red Dresses

At the time, the Cinemascope system was in full sway, so Travilla’s designs had to work with that and the intensely saturated colors produced by the Technicolor process. Pictures of the pink gown Marilyn wore to sing for Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend show it as a soft pink, not the vivid pink in the movie.

How on earth is that dress staying up?

The dress itself was extensively boned so that it wouldn’t slip down when Marilyn’s arms were raised, or allow underarm flesh to escape. Travilla also had to work around the rigid censorship of the time. No cleavage could be shown, so he cleverly boned her dresses so they were slit to the waist – but no cleavage!

Marilyn had very clear ideas on what suited her, and liked her outfits skin tight. In fact, the white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch was one of the few times she was in a flowing skirt. Usually, she had to be sewn into her outfits.

However, this worked particularly well for her, as the Cinemascope camera lenses, which created a wide screen effect also unflatteringly squashed the actress’s bodies, which was an issue for the actresses Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, her co-stars in How To Marry a Millionaire.

“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 Gable eventually relented but Marilyn did not – she demanded she wear tight skirts throughout most of the movie.”

Look! No cleavage

My favourite is the gold dress, which is only glimpsed from the back in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but was widely used in publicity shots.

The dress is a halter sheath made from a single circle of sunray pleated gold lame, and slashed to the waist. Two thin iron bars in the front from waist to bust keep everything intact without revealing too much cleavage – a handy technique that modern actresses should use.

Marilyn loved the dress – and she looks stunning it – so much so that she begged Travailla to let her wear it to accept a 1953 Photoplay awards. Initially, he refused, saying: “… it was fine for the movie, but for real life, it was way too sexy and flashy.”

The front slash has been modified from the original version

Marilyn, being Marilyn, got her way, and by all reports caused a huge sensation, generating enormous publicity for herself when a photo of her in it hit the front page. Photos from the evening showed that Travilla had prevailed slightly, with the front only cut down to below the bust instead of to the waist

The book details most of the stunning costumes Travilla made for Marilyn and is chock full of gorgeous photos. If you are a student of costume design or just have an interest, Andrew Hansford has written a fascinating account of Travilla’s work and process.   I highly recommend it, not for just for the stories Marilyn’s career but as a detailed insight insight into a gifted designer who understood how the medium worked and made the most of it for his clients.

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