Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I had the privilege of watching some of Marilyn Monroe’s costumes be sold on Sunday – along with other items from Debbie Reynold’s amazing collection. You may have seen that the “Subway Dress” from The Seven Year Itch (1955) sold for US $4.6 million – that’s more than US $5.6 million once you add the 23% buyers premium. A lot of money for one dress, but it’s one heck of a dress.
So, now that it’s clear that Miss Monroe’s dresses are probably the most valuable on the planet, it got me thinking about what other dresses are iconic? Marilyn was never much of a clothes horse – her career as a fashion model was short lived as she was best promoting her own product but there’s no doubt that she worked the dresses she wore and many are much copied and admired.
My passion for Monroe predates (and ushered in) my passion for fashion, so it’s no surprise that the first ’50s dresses I got to know and love were up there on my wall in large poster form. Here are some of my favourites – I tried to limit myself to no more than one from any particular film but oh, it was hard. Listed in chronological order…
As a teenager, my idea of the perfect little black dress was the one worn by MM in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). My version gets a mention in the introduction to my book Love Vintage and I still have it. Marilyn’s role was small in TAJ but it had a lot of impact and got her noticed. Like most of her best costumes, it was simple and effective.
Niagara (1953), the second MM film I saw, where she plays femme fatale Rose Lumis. This is the dress she wore for the scene where she requests her favourite record be played “Kiss”. She sashays through a group of young people, and one of them famously quips “For a dress like that you’ve got to start laying plans when you’re about thirteen.” Uh, huh, we know what she’s talking about.
Niagara is a filmic love letter to the young Monroe – there are numerous overly long shots of her walking away from the camera (not that anyone is complaining) including the longest walk in cinema – 116 feet as we watch her hips sway.
When I was 15 this poster sat above my bed and I would gaze up at her – I called it the Golden Goddess and it has Movie Star written all over it. It’s like she’s lost in a haze of self-adoration, offering herself to our delectation, perhaps offering a kiss. She’s open, vulnerable, strong and yet fragile. In one photo, you can see everything.
The dress was a costume from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) but it’s hard to see in the film. The plunging neckline scandalised Joan Crawford when MM wore it to an event – one of the reporters jumped on the table and howled like a dog – and she was also shocked that MM didn’t wear underwear. As a result, most of the scene in the film was cut and you can only see it from behind. A pity, as it’s a sensational dress and, I think, the most iconic of all.
Speaking of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, here she is in her big number, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. I painted a version of this shot when I was in high school and like the last one, she’s incandescent. Originally a different outfit was planned for this number: silk chiffon, painted to match her skin tone and encrusted with rhinestones, she was to be a Marilyn sized diamond necklace – but when news broke of her nude calendar, it was decided to tone down the sexiness and so this large, rather shapeless dress was substituted.
Of course, MM’s famous curves wiggled out and we have one of the most famous costumes of all. By downplaying her appeal, she’s elegant and classy. If you haven’t seen the clip, I recommend you pop over to youtube – it’s pure Golden Age of Hollywood.
We’ve seen a lot of the Subway Dress lately but all of the costumes in The Seven Year Itch (1955) are pretty good and most seem designed to make the most of her curves, including this one. Tom Ewell’s character has undone her straps, but they cross over and go over her shoulders: as you can tell, the style begs to be undone.
MM was a bona fide star at this point, although TSYI hasn’t dated as well as her other films and it kind of irks me that her character doesn’t have a name, being pretty much a male fantasy. All the same, MM excels in the role, it could almost have been written for her she’s so well cast. The Rachmaninoff scene is particularly good.
After TSYI, MM decided she’d had enough of the dumb blonde typecasting and became a Method actor to expand her roles. In Bus Stop, she sings Cole Porter standard “That Old Black Magic” dressed as a cut-price showgirl. The original costume was spangly and flash but MM rejected it for an old damaged one she found in Wardrobe. She accessorised it with ripped fishnets saying that her character wouldn’t be wearing something new and pristine. She was right, of course.
It’s probably the least attractive role she played with Marilyn also insisting on the pasty white make up of a performer who sleeps through the day. Her beauty, of course, shines through. It was a great part of her charm that MM could easily play normal, working class characters.
Perhaps her masterpiece, Some Like it Hot (1959) was a difficult film to make for all involved. She wisely chose a percentage of the film’s box office and a smaller salary, a big reason why Marilyn still earns a great deal many decades after her death as it continues to be shown around the world.
Orry Kelly won the film’s only Academy Award for her costumes but this one is my favourite – the one she wears to sing “Running Wild”. Made of fringed black satin, it looks deceptively simple but when I saw it at London’s Museum of the Moving Image I was amazed to see an intricate construction with many darts and panels.
Her costumes only nod in the direction of authenticity of course – those flat frontted flapper frocks would have done nothing for Marilyn’s figure and her stilettos are pure ’50s fashion but she looks darned cute in her ’20s woolen swimsuit.
The first time I ever saw MM on screen this is what I saw – not a dress at all, she’s wearing tights and a heavy cable knit jumper in the 1960 film “Let’s Make Love” as she sings “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. I was 11, it was daytime TV and my mum had tried to ban me from watching the film – which of course made it a must-see.
MM wears some great outfits in this film – another favourite is the belted trench coat she power walks through New York in, but it’s this one that I always remember. She’s at her plumpest, but she looks great – I have a soft spot for Monroe in casual clothes, her appeal shines through even more strongly than when she’s glammed up.
In her last completed film, Marilyn wore the dress that’s inspired a thousand rockabilly reproductions: curvy and fitted, cherries on a white background. The Misfits (1961) was conceived as a love token by her third husband, Arthur Miller. Written originally as a short story whilst he stayed in Reno awaiting his divorce from his first wife, so he could marry Marilyn, the film was her swansong.
She’s wonderful as Roslyn, the divorcee’ who falls for Clark Gable’s cowboy. It’s the most modern of her films but a flawed one. The portrayal is closest to her real character or at least how Miller saw her, before the love soured.
In her last major public appearance (1962), Marilyn say “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy who replied “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way”.
It wasn’t wholesome of course – Marilyn was sewn into her see-through dress made of silk souffle’ and entirely encrusted with crystals. Underneath she wore – nothing. Wife Jackie stayed home. Marilyn looked fabulous of course, and the gown remained in her estate until it was auctioned in 1999 for US $1.26 million.