Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cinema Style File--Marilyn Monroe in 1955's Style Essential THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH

As we have just celebrated Memorial Day, I could think of no one hotter to kick off our Summer than Marilyn Monroe in the 1955 Style Essential The Seven Year Itch.  The Style Essentials represent iconic costumes and style in the movies, and this is perhaps the best known of them all.  It is Marilyn at her blonde bombshell best...two years after she made both Niagara and the nearly equally iconic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  In Seven Year Itch, she wears a dress so famous it has become a part of popular culture.  Everyone knows the "subway dress," the white halter whose pleated skirt blows up around her waist from the breeze of the subway below.  Both the dress and moment are transcendent...known by men and women, young and old, film fanatics as well as those who have never even seen the movie.  And its design continues to inspire dress after dress after dress--including flat out copies--in fashion today.

The subway scene was a sensation even while it was being filmed.  Such a crowd gathered on location that they ultimately had to move production back to the Twentieth Century-Fox lot to finish.  One of those in the crowd was Marilyn's husband--Joe DiMaggio--who apparently hated the dress, the scene, and the attention on his wife so much it was rumored to have sparked the end of their marriage.  Interestingly, Marilyn's provocative moment got its inspiration from a much earlier time in cinema's history--a 1901 short film called What Happened on 23rd Street, which depicted a girl having her skirt blown up while walking over a subway grate (below).

Everyone may know the image of Marilyn in her "subway dress," but few know the man behind the design--William Travilla.  Since 1952, Travilla--as he was credited--was a friend and frequent collaborator with Marilyn.  He was celebrated for his body conscious cuts, though this is perhaps an understatement when it comes to his dresses, especially for Marilyn.  He was responsible for the pink strapless gown she wore when singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is a Style Essential as well.  But even that cannot surpass the impact of the halter dress and all the other outfits Marilyn wears in Seven Year Itch...a wardrobe of mostly angelic white, but one that reveals so much of her fantastic figure you can't help but feel a little bit the devil.

But even those who appreciate the talent of Travilla may not know he was not alone in creating costumes for Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or any of the other Oscar-nominated hits for Twentieth Century-Fox like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).  Though the lead actress' costumes were often assigned to one designer like Travilla, the Executive Designer and Director of Wardrobe at Fox was Charles LeMaire.  LeMaire was involved in supervising costumes for Niagara as well, where Dorothy Jeakins designed for Marilyn rather than Travilla.  LeMaire was a talented designer in his own right, too...his solo efforts include Desk Set and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, costume design that beat out Edith Head's self-professed "best work" in To Catch a Thief  for the Academy Award.

Together LeMaire and particularly Travilla accomplished something extraordinary in Seven Year ItchDebbie Reynolds, famed collector of movie memorabilia since the earliest studio auctions in the 1970s, owned the "subway dress" and had it originally appraised at $1-2 million before going to auction in 2011.  This was remarkable enough.  But there was such a buying frenzy that the dress ended up selling for $4.6 million.  This truly shows the value, significance, and impact of great costume design.  And as I will show in upcoming posts, the influence of the style from this movie continues to be perennially popular in fashion.

Seven Year Itch is a Style Essential from the very beginning...the opening credits are done by the great Saul Bass.  Saul did the graphic design and iconic opening title sequences for many of Hollywood's greatest directors, including Otto Preminger and Stanley Kubrick.  He also changed graphic design by evolving from static credits to kinetic ones such as those he created for Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960).  Martin Scorcese grew up admiring Saul's work so much that he asked him (and wife Elaine) to create the most innovative of Scorcese's opening credits, from Good Fellas (1990) to Casino (1995).  Sadly, Seven Year Itch is the only time that Bass worked with director Billy Wilder.

I frequently discuss the importance of costume design and style to the longevity of classic film and The Seven Year Itch is a prime example.  It is not the screenplay or directing that keep people watching this film; even screenwriter-director Billy Wilder was not a fan of the final script since it had to be altered so significantly from George Axelrod's original play to suit the censors.  The appeal of The Seven Year Itch is not entirely about Marilyn either since there are other movies of hers that are not as memorable.  Instead, it is the iconic costume design--custom made for her and her character--and overall style of the film that attracts audiences and prompts them to watch it again and again.  I speak from experience.

And now, I give you Marilyn Monroe's sexy summer style in The Seven Year Itch.

At Grand Central Station to say goodbye to the family for the summer
and hello to the seven year itch

At the office as a publishing executive,
Richard often sensationalizes the covers of literary classics to sell in paperback

At home alone, Richard's summer starts out with a surprise...
the doorbell rings and he is introduced to his new neighbor

Travilla is famous for his body-hugging dresses, and this seemingly innocent polkadot halter
really shows off Marilyn at her peak and the extraordinary figure she was famous for

Boom!  A tomato plant falls onto Richard's patio and almost kills him,
but his anger is abolished when he sees who is responsible

After inviting The Girl downstairs for a drink, Richard fantasizes that she's a femme fatale
complete with predatory tiger-stripe strapless gown and gloves

Instead, she arrives in innocent pale pink silk pants and matching belted blouse

The main attractions of Richard's apartment are cool cocktails and air conditioning

While grabbing her birthday champagne upstairs, The Girl makes a quick change
into another halter dress...this time in white sequin that requires help with the straps

This cocktail dress is so modern, it continues to inspire designers today

In addition to the iconic costumes in this movie, it's important to note
Marilyn's hair and makeup here that also continue be copied

Reality does not bear out Richard's piano fantasy,
and he and The Girl simply tumble to the floor

Guilt-ridden, Richard ends their evening together

Due to his failed attempt at romance, Richard (wrongfully) fears that
The Girl uses her toothpaste commercial as an opportunity to warn other women about him

Instead, The Girl is eagerly looking forward to their upcoming evening out

The dress that everyone in the world seems to know--Travilla's off-white halter dress for Marilyn
with a fabric belt criss-crossed over a wide cinched waist and accordion pleated skirt

Perhaps the most iconic moment in movie history

Once again, air conditioning lures The Girl into Richard's apartment and extends the evening

Though The Girl is also thinking of ways for her to spend the night,
it is only for sleeping in the comfort of air conditioning

A late night surprise visit from the building's janitor 

"What a living doll!"

Richard asks The Girl to leave for appearance sake,
but she figures out a way to open the door on the stairs that connect their apartments

In the morning, Richard is finally resolved to end any affair and visit his family in Maine

Marilyn looking perfect even as she says goodbye


Anonymous said...

Didn't know Debbie Reynolds was a collector. Was delighted to see her in "One for the Money". One for the money was not a big hit, but a thrill to see home town author Janet Evanovich's novel on the big screen.

readerman said...

Just came upon your site recently. It's terrific. I noted it for a 7 X 7 Link Award. If not familiar, you can find the details at my site: http://wyatts-classics.blogspot.com/

This is one of my favorite Monroe films. Poor Tom Ewell. What a temptation!

Marline said...

I'm so glad you shared this, Kimberly! It's a great tribute to a movie that I'll bet most folks only know ONE image from! Loved the link to the old subway image, too...that's fascinating! And wow, you're right, that hourglass figure of MM's really shines in this film. Can't wait to see how you show us the modern versions of MM's sexy summer style! Love, Kay

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you so much, Wyatt! I really appreciate your giving me a 7 x 7 award. Interestingly, I also got one from Kay at Movie Star Makeover (whose comment is here as well), which you should definitely check out. She might be just as obsessed with classic cinema and serious style as I am. Love your site as well!

And you're right. Marilyn Monroe?! What a temptation and moral dilemma for any married man. lol

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you, Kay! You're so right...I'm not sure how much else people remember about SEVEN YEAR ITCH besides that iconic subway moment and dress. There are several dresses that are wonderful and pretty darn influential in their own right. More to come!

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