The man who dressed Marilyn

Marilyn Monroe in Travilla's dress for 'The Seven Year Itch'
Marilyn Monroe in Travilla's dress for 'The Seven Year Itch'

“... A lush-bodied girl in the prime of her physical beauty. In an ivory georgette crepe sundress with a halter top that gathers her breasts up in soft undulating folds of the fabric. She’s standing with bare legs apart on a New York subway grating. Her blonde head is thrown rapturously back as an updraft lifts her full flaring skirt, exposing white cotton panties. White cotton! The ivory crepe sundress is floating and filmy as magic. The dress is magic ... ”

— From Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

THUS does Joyce Carol Oates describe Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway scene in The Seven Year Itch, when her dress is blown upwards by wind from the subway vent below. The footage of Monroe’s dress billowing seductively over a subway grate has become the definitive picture of Monroe. It has graced a million bedroom walls and been recreated endlessly by starlets and lookalikes, including Barbie.

Last Sunday week (Sept 15) marked the anniversary of the day Marilyn shot the scene, an image that is almost as famous as Monroe herself. The man responsible for the white dress was William Travilla, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated costume designers and a favourite of Monroe’s — he dressed her for eight movies and even enjoyed a brief affair with her. The Seven Year Itch dress is the most famous costume he ever made for Monroe and skilfully showcased her luminous sexuality and beauty despite its apparent simplicity.

With a career spanning over 40 years and more than 100 movie credits, Travilla was one of the most prolific Hollywood designers of the 20th century. He is best known for dressing Monroe, professionally and privately, and a unique collection of his designs is now on display in the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons until Sept 30, when they will return to Beverly Hills to form part of a Hollywood Icons auction at Julien’s Auctions.

Monroe memorabilia on display include a series of Monroe/Andy Warhol tribute dresses in the colours of Warhol’s screen prints that mimic The Seven Year Itch dress, a Travilla sketch of the original dress, a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes prototype of the gold lame sunburst halter gown, and a costume sketch from the movie.

Other pieces with Monroe associations include a copy of the red embellished gown that Marilyn and Jane Russell wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a replica of a white satin evening gown and fox fur trimmed stole and a white copy of the subway dress made by Travilla. The original dress was auctioned for €4.6m in 2011.

William Travilla with his muse, Marilyn.

No other designer knew Marilyn and her curvaceous 36-26-36 figure like Travilla. Travilla helped turn Monroe into a silver screen goddess and she in turn made his name famous. Her patronage meant his name became synonymous with style and sex. He dressed more than 270 celebrities during his career, but it is Marilyn who became his most celebrated muse. Iconic images of his billowing white dress, sheath of pink satin, and the gold lame sunburst dress will forever symbolise the epitome of glamour and the hourglass female form. Unsurprisingly, Monroe loved Travilla’s talent: such was her fondness for his designs that she inscribed a nude calendar to him: “Oh Billy dear, please dress me forever. Love Marilyn.”

The gold lame sunburst gown of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made from one complete circle of fabric is hand pleated, and was one of Monroe’s favourites. She appears in only one brief scene wearing the dress as it was deemed too revealing to pass the censor’s scissors.

However, Monroe decided it would be the perfect dress to create a stir at the 1953 Photoplay Magazine Awards. Travilla allegedly advised her against wearing the dress as he said she was “too fat”. But Marilyn was adamant and, after two sessions of colonic irrigation, squeezed into it. When the baseball legend Joe DiMaggio saw the dress he reportedly left in anger.


Sewing her into the gold lame dress, Travilla’s last words to her were “walk like a lady”. At the ceremony, her walk from the hall to the podium to collect Hollywood’s Fastest Rising Star of 1952 award caused uproar — Joan Crawford later publicly berated her over her “burlesque show”. The journalist James Bacon was quoted as saying: “When she wiggled through the audience to come up on the podium, her derriere looked like two puppies fighting under a silk sheet” The next day, columnist Florabel Muir reported: “With one little twist of her derriere, Marilyn Monroe stole the show... After Marilyn every other girl appeared dull by contrast.”

Monroe knew the power of a knockout dress and how to work it to maximum impact. Her curves and Travilla’s design talent made them a perfect match. Relations didn’t always run smoothly between them however. Travilla adored using bias cuts, he once said, “bias cut fabric subtly leans into the body, and touches the body... but it’s never vulgar.” His famous leading lady wasn’t afraid of a little vulgarity, however. Travilla once said “She liked to shock — she could look magnificent or hideous – like a dirty little bum or a sex queen”.

He claimed he constantly tried without success to stop her wearing clothes that were too tight for her. Some wags would observe that it must have been an interesting struggle. Travilla certainly had an eye for the female figure; he enhanced the female form to perfection with his sophisticated tailoring and cutting skills. Undoubtedly, Monroe would have always have been a sex bomb but with the skill of William Travilla she became so much more — a screen goddess and a myth.

*The William Travilla Collection is at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons until Sept 30.

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