In the story of the life of Marilyn Monroe, 1953 was an exceptional year. It is perhaps the greatest year of her tragically short life. 1953 began with her star on the rise from some successes of the year before; it ended with Marilyn being the biggest star in the world. Niagara premiered in January with two firsts for Marilyn—Technicolor and top billing. Though that top billing wouldn't extend to the next picture that premiered in July—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—there is little doubt that she became the star of the show. The publicity that surrounded the film seemed to focus on her and continued through the end of the year when How to Marry a Millionaire made its debut. The public couldn’t get enough and things would never be the same for the former Norma Jeane Baker.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of those movies where everything was in alignment. At its helm was the great director Howard Hawks, one of my favorites and best known for manly movies like the original Scarface (1932), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and the first of the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall collaborations To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). But he was also equally adept at comedy and loved strong women--as shown in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940)--so he was the perfect person to take this Broadway musical onto the big screen. A signature of all his films is the strong relationship of the leads and their witty dialogue, and he couldn't do much better than he did in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes--he had the language of the great Anita Loos and Charles Lederer for stars Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.
Without question, another signature of any Hawks production is its style. His films feature some of the best costume design and designers of all time, including Howard Greer, (Robert) Kalloch, and Milo Anderson. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is no different...in fact, what people seem to remember most about the movie is its style. Marilyn is luminous as lead Lorelei Lee in costumes by her longtime friend and legendary costume designer William "Billy" Travilla. Travilla was highly respected and regarded; he had already won an Oscar at Warner Brothers before coming to 20th Century Fox and was known for being a real gentlemen. Marilyn was in awe of his talent and introduced herself to him when only a contract player at Fox in 1950. She was thrilled when they were paired for her first lead in 1952's Don't Bother to Knock. Niagara would have been next if it had not been for his heavy workload and too many pictures in production at once. Their partnership would pick up again with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Marilyn would then never be without Travilla by her side...both on and off the screen.
Though The Seven Year Itch has THE most iconic costume design of all time with Travilla's "Subway" dress for Marilyn, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is not far behind with three iconic looks of its own--the strapless pink column gown (for the performance of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend"), the slinky gold "sunburst" gown, and the long-sleeve red sequin gown (for the performance of "Little Rock"). These designs were hugely popular with the public, and their influence began to immediately trickle down into fashion. We all know that they have had a lasting impact as well--Travilla's design legacy can be seen in red carpet fashions by designers like Badgley Mischka, Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, Naeem Kahn, and many more today. You’ll see some examples below. The costume design from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so good that it’s even transcended fashion and become a part of our public consciousness. There aren't many people who won't recognize at least one of these gowns for Marilyn. And, as I've seen in person, all seem to elicit a similar awestruck response.
It is the fact that these gowns are so well known that we might feel we know everything about this film. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to bring you an even greater appreciation of the costume design from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I turned to the foremost expert on Travilla--Kimberley Ashley. Ashley is an author, founder of the Ashley-Travilla Foundation, and steward of the great costume designer's legacy. With an ongoing career in couture, she is both informed and insightful in our conversations. Last year I spoke with her about Travilla’s talent, his relationship with Marilyn, and his adventurous life on and off the screen. This time I turned our talk to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and what the year 1953 meant to Marilyn Monroe and her magician Travilla.
Costume designer William "Billy" Travilla
and expert Kimberley Ashley
Kimberley, my first question is about 1953, which was a very important year to Marilyn and of course Billy Travilla as well. She went from Niagara (released January 21) to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (released July 18) to How to Marry a Millionaire (released November 5) all in that one year.
What was 1953 like for Marilyn and Travilla as her star ascended so quickly?
It was fascinating for them to watch the meteoric rise of her 'star.'
Billy was already famous as a designer in the film community due in part to his earlier work for Hollywood’s 'Golden Boy' Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan. But Marilyn went from being obscure to the seemingly instant “It” girl [in 1953].
According to her most accurate biographer, Donald Spoto, Marilyn began 1953 by making a pact with her then-boyfriend Joe DiMaggio that she would not wear such “revealing dresses.” He was horrified that Billy designed such salacious costumes for Marilyn's roles. I imagine Joe was NOT a Travilla fan.
To say that 1953 was an outstanding year for Marilyn and Billy is a severe understatement. Here are even more of the events that happened that year.
February 1953--cover of Photoplay magazine
June 1953--Marilyn and Jane immortalized at Grauman's Chinese Theater (in Travilla, one month before Gentlemen premiered)
and Marilyn at Chasen's after the event with then fiance Joe DiMaggio
September 1953--her first TV appearance and it's on The Jack Benny Show in skit that promoted Gentlemen
and being touched up by her friend and makeup artist Whitey Snyder at show (gown by Travilla)
November 1953--getting ready for premiere for How to Marry a Millionaire and
leaving the Wilshire Beauty Shop to a frenzy of fans (same gown by Travilla as Jack Benny Show)
December 1953--cover of Photoplay again,
this time photographed by future business partner Milton Greene
December 1953--first issue ever of Playboy magazine, which featured Marilyn in cover photo
from 1952 Miss America Pageant parade where Marilyn was Grand Marshall (gown by Travilla)...
...and this first Playboy also featured Marilyn as the centerfold
using the now iconic photo taken years earlier for a nude calendar
Marilyn's only strategy was to get out of Billy's way and let him work his magic. She trusted his talent so completely that Marilyn was the ONLY actress to let him sketch his croquis for her costumes without needing approval or any input. She only broke with that tradition [once] for Bus Stop when she did, indeed, give input.
Marilyn recognized the brilliant psychology [of] Billy...as a costume designer. Although she may have blurred the lines of using costumes in real life, as an actress, she realized...they are first and foremost tools to tell the audience about the personality of that role. Marilyn trusted Billy's brilliance implicitly.
Billy's strategy on all of Marilyn's films was to make her believable in that role, and yet, show her beauty. Fortunately for Billy, many of Marilyn's roles required glamour as they were that of a woman using her appearance to “catch a man.” Which, of course, was a very common theme in the 1950s.
Travilla and a costume from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes...
from sketch to his model Marilyn to the movie (look how even the jewelry is perfectly placed for the scene)
Let’s talk about the gowns now, starting with the pink “Diamonds” gown as it's probably the best known one from the film. What insights can you give us into its design origins? And how was the color pink chosen?
It is still not commonly known that the world-famous pink "Diamonds" gown was Plan B. Billy’s second most famous Marilyn Monroe costume [after The Seven Year Itch "Subway" dress] was a dramatic quick replacement...in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Plan A was an outfit that I consider the most stunning costume Billy ever designed for Marilyn. It was also the most costly.
During pre-production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the censors inspected every costume for the film. The Plan A costume was perilously close to being over-the-line sexy. Designed to look like a showgirl outfit from the Follies Bergere in Paris, Billy knew the costume was risky. He said,
It made it appear that her body was covered by nothing more than a pair of fishnet hose that traveled up her torso to just under her breasts. Then a harness of rhinestones traveled around her hips and fell into a ponytail at her back with black Bird of Paradise feathers. Marilyn had to stand for hours while the jeweler and I shaped everything to her (nude) body. Then we soldered the jewels on. We were very strategic, there was even a jewel in front of each nipple.
The Hays Code was in full effect in 1953 and rejected this risque costume
that was originally designed for the "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number
Courtesy of Kimberley Ashley
[Ashley continues] But as strategic as Billy was with wisely placing Marilyn’s “jewels,” the $4,000 costume representing weeks of work got censored. After spending such a longtime on Plan A, Billy had just two days to replace it with something “more within the limits of good taste.” I can only imaging how disappointed Billy must have been when he was forced to scrap it. He was told in no uncertain terms to COVER HER UP!
Plan A was scrapped in a panic only days before filming that scene. [Around this same time,] Marilyn's nude calendar, which sold more than a quarter of a million copies, was raising eyebrows and wrecking havoc with puritanical audiences.
Billy very swiftly and pointedly decided upon both the color and the gown style due to the crisis that was occurring....He wisely chose pink, the color of innocence so favored by little girls, in a fabric whose name means “skin of angels” to serve as her new costume:
I took a brilliant candy-pink silk peau d'ange and flattened it to (deep) green billiard felt. I crunched the whole thing in, with a belt at the waist, and a huge bow at the back. For oomph, we added full length gloves in a matching pink and loaded her arms with diamond bracelets.
But even though Billy covered her body, Marilyn's strutting had the same effect of being undressed.
Apart from two side seams, the dress was folded into shape, rather like cardboard. Any other girl would have looked like she was wearing cardboard. But on the screen, I swear, you would have thought Marilyn had on a pale thin piece of silk. Her body was so fabulous it STILL came through!
Billy's new “Origami” costume was also designed, with its wrapped back opening, to allow Marilyn to “strut.” Choreographer Jack Cole purposely designed that dance scene to minimize dancing because he said Marilyn didn't really dance per se. Cole said she "strutted" more accurately...skipped, ran, leaped, strolled, pointed, and flung her arms about as she was pursued by a throng of male admirers while caressing long strands of diamonds.
In only two days, Travilla designed this iconic pink column gown
as a replacement for another deemed too revealing by the production code
Absolutely everything about the design of this look--from the color to the belted gown
with a bow in the back to the hair and makeup--have become iconic
with a bow in the back to the hair and makeup--have become iconic
Travilla was genius for choosing to create pink gowns against a red background...
it's where I learned the lesson of how great this color combination can be
Travilla perfectly designed this gown for Marilyn so she could "strut"
in her "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number
in her "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number
What did he think of the popularity of the pink "Diamonds" gown, in particular, and how often it is woven into popular culture?
He was amused by it considering it was such a spontaneous creation. Everybody knows that gown. He gave the credit for its fame, however, to those curves of Marilyn's that lay underneath it.
Billy was amused that it continued to be copied by others up until his death. He was NOT amused, however, that Madonna had it copied it for her "Material Girl" video and didn't hire him to create it. He felt such a gesture was disrespectful.
The gown is, of course, considered iconic, and that performance has inspired homages by many [starting with] Madonna. It has also been duplicated by Christina Aguilera, Kylie Minogue, Nicole Kidman, Anna Nicole Smith, Katie Couric, and even actor James Franco during his stint as a co-host for the Oscars. I feel Franco would have amused Billy and Marilyn the most.
Two more descendants of Marilyn's pink gown--Natalie Portman in Lanvin for 2012 Golden Globes
and Kate Beckinsale in Donna Karan (with a bow in the back) for 2012 Total Recall premiere
Of course Madonna's video for "Material Girl" (1985) is the ultimate homage,
but she wrongly didn't turn to Travilla for her gown's design
Now let's move on to the gold "sunburst" gown. In the film, the glory of the gown is largely hidden because of the way it is shot, yet everyone knows it so well. Was the gown (in its entirety) used in a ton of publicity at that time?
It is little known that the gold plunging neckline dress that Marilyn made famous was NOT designed for her. Billy designed that costume for Ginger Rogers who wore it in the 20th Century Fox film Dreamboat [1952, below].
[Ashley continues] After Marilyn saw the gown hanging in Billy's office, she had a fit and demanded to wear it. So first, Billy let her wear it for a brief scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and for some publicity photos [for the film].
But when Marilyn was deciding what to wear for the Photoplay event--held in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel--she was set on wearing the gold dress again. To get her hands on it, she had to go through Billy. He wanted to protect her from her own ignorance of the fact that it was not designed to be worn in public.
My clothes for Marilyn were an act of love, because I adored her. I couldn't help but do my best for her. When Marilyn asked me for the dress, I told her she couldn't have it, 'IT'S A COSTUME!' [The fabric] was so delicate, it wouldn't even hold a zipper, we had to baste the back seam together by hand.
That’s why Billy refused to give it to her. Although he warned Marilyn that the fabric was too thin, too sheer, too tight on her, and that it would make her look fat, she stormed off and spoke with Fox studio head, Daryl F. Zanuck. The studio boss called Billy and said, “Let her have it.”
Billy relented and had the studio seamstresses carefully sew Marilyn into the gown. So when Marilyn went to receive the "Fastest Rising Star" award at the 1953 Photoplay ceremony in Beverly Hills, she did so wearing a Travilla costume.
When Joe saw what Marilyn was wearing that night before leaving, he stormed off and she was forced to attend the event squired by Sidney Skolsky. So much for her promise to Joe about dressing more demurely that year.
As Billy predicted, the revealing nature of her dress caused a whirlwind of controversy. Of course this story about the gold dress and the ruckus and headlines it created is now Hollywood legend. That drama actually ended up adding to the momentum of Marilyn's rising star. In 1953, Marilyn Monroe was receiving 25,000 fan letters each week at Fox, partly because of her bravado.
That gold lame pleated gown she wore is now an icon in itself.
Audiences got a sneak preview of the gold gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the press
when Marilyn won the "Fastest Rising Star" in 1953 from Photoplay magazine
Are there any secrets behind the gold gown and its incredible construction?
All of Billy’s costumes for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are made with un-seen engineering cleverly constructed inside. To morph Marilyn’s body to perfection, those costumes contain lots of “smoke and mirrors.” [Just like] the pink “Diamonds” gown has that green billiard felt lining to stiffen the hand of the fabric, the gold lame pleated gown has wires sewn inside the edges of the plunging neckline...to keep it from gapping. And, hand-sewn into its sheer and delicate gold fabric, it has under-cups [used for] false breasts (as does Billy's famed Seven Year Itch dress).
Finally the gown is seen in color as publicity shots from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes began to circulate
This is the only way we view the iconic gold gown in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes...
and what a view
Two descendants of Marilyn's gold gown--Beyonce in Elie Saab for the 2007 Golden Globes
and one from Zuhair Murad's collection for Fall 2013
Marilyn and Jane play best friends in the film and are often on screen together. This means that the costume design must work for each of their characters as well as co-exist beautifully onscreen. How did Travilla approach that challenge?
When Billy began designing costumes on any film, he would first meet with the set designer to collaborate on set colors and patterns. He did this to make sure that colors would not clash or be swallowed up onscreen by matching the set. This is a basic part of any costume designer’s practice no matter the film. Few people outside of the industry would be aware of this.
Then, as you point out, Billy would have to consider how Marilyn and Jane looked alongside each other for shared scenes. The character roles of Monroe and Russell were different in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Russell played the savvy, street-wise girl who was looking for love. Marilyn’s character wanted to use her sex appeal to snag a rich man. Billy designed beautiful unique styles for each character, but Russell’s outfits are a touch less feminine, less “girly,” and more confident.
For the duo’s [onscreen stage act,] Billy designed matching outfits, such as the red sequin gowns for the film's opening musical scene of “Little Rock.” [These gowns have] a nude colored piece of fabric sewn down the front plunging neckline, although audiences think they see skin and cleavage. Billy even has those bracelets on the red sequined sleeves sewn onto the fabric so they don’t move around as Marilyn and Jane gesture and dance.
Having had the blessing of inspecting it in person, my favorite detail on the "Little Rock" red sequin gown is the way Billy designed the sequins on the skirt fabric to increase in size as they get closer to the hem. It is a stunning detail that would be completely missed on camera, but which he added with love.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes begins with a bang...
the two stars in red sequin gowns tossing their white furs into the audience
When the ladies move and dance in their costumes,
you really begin to understand the true genius of Travilla
A shout out to Whitey Snyder for his luminous makeup on Marilyn
Here you can really appreciate the nude lining disguising the decolletage
and the tremendous detail of their outfits, including bracelets that are sewn onto the dresses
Two descendants of the red "Little Rock" gowns--Catherine Zeta-Jones in Elie Saab at the 2011 Tony's
and Pink also in Elie Saab performing "Over the Rainbow" at the 2014 Oscars
There are so many incredible gowns in the film, even beyond the three iconic ones we've already discussed. Orange is one of my favorite colors, so that gown of Marilyn's has always spoken to me. The bridal gowns are also highly influential. Did Billy have a favorite gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?
Billy was asked this question many times. And at different times, he gave different answers, so it’s difficult to say today. I know that he was very proud that three of his designs for Marilyn are now considered cinema icons. At the time of his death in 1990, the white Seven Year Itch dress was valued at several thousand dollars, and he was proud of that. If he had been alive three years ago and had watched, as I did, as Debbie Reynolds sold the dress at auction for nearly six million dollars, he would have died of joy.
The ladies love to make an entrance in this movie and do so again and again...
here they stun the room with Marilyn in orange chiffon and Jane in black sequins
Perfect makeup again by Whitey Snyder
Two descendants of Marilyn's orange gown--orange is the new black on Zuhair Murad's Fall 2009 runway
and Amy Adams in Elie Saab at the 2011 BAFTA Awards
Yet another grand entrance for Marilyn and Jane with their walk down the aisle
Lace was a huge trend in the 1950s after being unavailable through World War II,
and often used in wedding gowns such as these trend-setting ones by Travilla
The ladies live happily ever after
For those who wish to be notified about the release of Kimberley Ashley's upcoming book,
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This article is also part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's
Fabulous Films of the 1950s blogathon--check out the list through the link for more great articles on the era