Many professional tricks of the trade went into the making of Marilyn Monroe. It was one of the reasons why ordinary women, including the pretty ones, couldn’t quite live up to her beauty. An essential part of the Marilyn myth was her wardrobe, off-camera and on. She worked for 10 years with William Travilla to design her movie wardrobe for 8 films. He was a brilliant
designer and developed design techniques specifically for Marilyn. Born on Catalina Island, just off the California coast, Travilla had a passion for art from a very young age. He attended the prestigious Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, where he was advanced to adult classes at the age of eight. As a teenager, the burlesque clubs that he passed on his way to school began to pique his interest. Before long he began to frequent the clubs where he took his artistic talent to the next level by selling costume sketches to the dancers.Years passed. Travilla eventually found work in Hollywood. Travilla won an Oscar award for his work in The Adventures of Don Juan in 1948. In the same year, Travilla met and began to work with Marilyn. According to his revelation, also had a brief affair. Sooner or later they all say that. One of the reasons i don’t believe Travilla is that he was gay and ended his life living with his partner Bill Sarris. Whatever. Travilla used specific techniques to enhance Marilyn’s confidence, image. and body.
Above all ye shall do no harm. Never did Travilla do harm. He never hid Marilyn’s curvacious shape. She had bodacious breasts and a serious bootie. Before you say “well that was hot in the 1950s” it’s rather like which came first the chicken or the egg. Marilyn made curves delicious. She refused to be bound by body types that didn’t work for her. Marilyn posed for cheesecake at the start of her career because she wasn’t tall or lithe enough to pose for a designer such as the house of Chanel (even though she is the posthumous face for Chanel No. 5). Travilla was wise enough to know that Marilyn’s wardrobe strength was in flaunting her curves, not hiding them. Hems were weighted to achieve the requisite cling, biases cut so tight that she could not sport underwear, a reputation that only added to her allure. I’ve never seen a picture of Marilyn or Norma Jeane in my life where she wore baggy clothes and tried to hide that gorgeous figure. Kudos to her.
On the other hand I never saw Marilyn wear anything too tight and unflattering. Yes her body was God’s gift but even the best figure can look dumpy in the wrong clothing. Travilla knew it and carefully avoided this mistake. Marilyn wore functional underwear with all of her tight dresses and skirt. She often wore a half or full-body girdle and/or an underwire bra to lift her bosom (or an underwire bra was built into her dress). It’s easy to tell she wore a girdle in many of her dresses. Take a close look at the waistline of the famous dress she wore when she sang happy birthday to JFK. You can see it has an obvious crease in the waist. It looks as though a panel was sewn into the dress to tighten her tummy or she is wearing a separate girdle. And those beautiful big breasts certainly had a little help from their friends – a built-in support most likely made of wire or a reinforced material similar to a girdle (no one’s nipples have a square tip).
Travilla was brilliant when it came to the idea to sew Marilyn into her dresses. It doesn’t get more figure-hugging than that. In that manner he ensured that the dress was perfectly tailored to every inch of her body. No one else would have fit her gowns. A dress with that perfect a fit would be stunning on most women. An off the rack gown, no matter how beautiful, just isn’t going to hold up to a tailor-made, sewn-on gown. The dresses were sewn in panels, just like working with a sewing pattern and making a garment that isn’t sewn onto the body. Have you watched Project Catwalk? When the designers are finishing their garments and preparing their models to go onto the catwalk they literally sew pieces on that they haven’t had a chance to finish. In this case, this technique isn’t the design idea; the designer has run out of time. In Travilla’s case, it was sheer genius.
Some of Travilla’s more notable dresses were the JFK dress, meant to look nude on the actress
which it certainly did while she was onstage. Beneath the dress was a thin sheath of ivory-coloured fabric so that the dress wasn’t actually transparent (although Marilyn wouldn’t have minded in the slightest). In 1955 Travilla supposedly designed the ivory sundress (it’s not white but looks it in the movie) from The Seven Year Itch but a Hollywood magazine declared he found it on a rack. Until he died, he denied that story. So spectacular was the dress that it nearly ended Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio.The scene seems to have echoed a 1901 short film entitled What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City, where a woman walked over a grate, the hot air lifting her skirt. This scene however is comical and not at all sexy. Whatever the case with the white cocktail dress, Travilla did design the gold lame gown that was cut to her navel and clung to her behind, She wore it to a People’s Choice award ceremony, infuriating most of the women and once again causing a rift in her marriage to DiMaggio. Actually Marilyn also wore the controversial gold lame gown in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but it was only filmed from the rear (where people were looking) because the front of was too revealing to get past the censor board. Now that’s a dress. Incredibly, Travilla used one long swatch of fabric to make this dress.
Some of his outstanding costumes for Marilyn’s movies include the blue bodysuit Marilyn wore as chanteuse Cherie in Bus Stop, and the pink gown Marilyn wore as Lorelei Lee for her singing number “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. About the latter, Travilla commented that the studio wanted “the sexiest, almost naked lady on the screen.” In response Travilla designed a mesh, black bodysuit covered in rhinestones in integral places. Just as filming was about to commence the director stated “wrong!” Marilyn’s nude calendar pictures had just been discovered. “Then I got a call. Throw the costume out. You have to dress her.” In response to that, Travilla “made a very covered dress with a big bow in back.”
The sheer glittery dress Marilyn wore as Sugar Kane when she sang “I Want to be Loved by You” with her “girl band” in Some Like It Hot was a miracle of engineering. The film was black and white, but the fit around her bosom and behind were so perfect the dress is still memorable. One trick Travilla used with this dress was to sew a string beneath the rear and pull it towards the front of the dress, making it tighter around Marilyn’s behind. Marilyn was crammed into this creation. The little number was so tight that her then pregnant form had to be lifted onto Sugar Kane’s piano.
Travilla also designed the gorgeous, white, glittering gown that Marilyn wore in How to Marry a Millionaire. It was another miraculous dress that was tailored to Marilyn’s gorgeous curves. The criss-cross ribbon beneath the bosom and at the waistline provided more support and emphasized her shape. Travilla stated “this girl was so beautiful, so terribly beautiful that hardly any other woman has been able to copy her.” Clearly Travilla appreciated this beauty and worked to enhance it. Together Travilla and Marilyn developed her own signature style. You just know whenever you’re looking at a dress that is “Marilynesque” (I love that word). It’s always slinky (except the sundress), emphasizes her hour glass body, isn’t too revealing (usually), and even when she dressed informally, always maintained that Marilyn Monroe image. Marilyn especially favoured white so we saw her in a lot of white skirts and blouses, dresses, mink stoles (she didn’t own them), etc Generally she stuck to a strict palette of neutrals: white, cream, beige and sometimes black. “White and cream lifts the skin,” stated one designer, “and complexion is part of the character – it was that luminosity that made Marilyn stand out among all the other blonde wannabes.” In her movies of course she wore a plethora of colours, all of which were very flattering, another smart move on Travilla’s part. No matter what character she played or what type of scene she did, the colours she wore were always magic on her. Of course no matter what character Marilyn played, she always played a dual role. She played Marilyn who was playing Lorelei Lee or Sugar Kane. Perhaps that was why Travilla was so successful working with her. The bottom line (pun) was he was still designing for the world’s leading sex symbol. Hard to lose sight of that.