Book Review: Dressing Marilyn

Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla

By Andrew Hansford

Applause Theatre & Cinema Books (April 2012)


I was understandably excited to delve into this coffee table book of 192 over-sized pages of Marilyn and Travilla, Monroe’s not-as-well-known-as-he-should-be-designer in films and life — who doesn’t love Marilyn Monroe, or more specifically, Marilyn Monroe in pretty, sexy clothes? Though this book is a blockbuster topic and packed with 200 photos, the accompanying text is light, the picture selection is sometimes questionable (a photo of a 5-word, illegible note about dress lining gets a half page for some reason), and the photo quality is irregular (pixels are clearly visible in a couple). Some of this can be explained by the fact that the bulk of fledgling author Andrew Hansford’s career has been in modeling and hairdressing. To his credit, Hansford owns up to his own knowledge deficit of Marilyn and Travilla upfront in the introductory Interview with the Author, and though this is honest, it shouldn’t be a substitute for rigorous research (this is, after all, a product of several Marilyn / Travilla costume exhibits Hansford has organized after Travilla’s business partner, Bill Sarris, entrusted Hansford with Travilla’s costume collection). The book’s flow is light and conversational, but often clunky and repetitive. In his effort to retell a variety of personal remembrances of Travilla, many of these stories feel incomplete, out of context, and confusing (he devotes several dubiously relevant paragraphs to Errol Flynn’s sexual pranks), and he conspicuously neglects to include details of Monroe’s life or career.

William “Billy” Travilla (1920 – 1990) was born off the coast of California; he was exposed early to show business: his father and two uncles performed as the traveling “Three Travillas” on the vaudeville circuit (with a seal!). As a young man, Billy Travilla landed a sketching job at the famous Western Costume Company, and after a couple lowly costume-related jobs, his friend Ann Sheridan brought him to the Warner studio as her personal costume designer. A second big break came when Edith Head’s designs were rejected for The Adventures of Don Juan with Errol Flynn and Travilla took over the project. Travilla met Monroe in 1950, when Marilyn was still playing supporting roles; she would use his changing room to try on clothes for publicity shots (apparently the first item she tried was a bikini whose strap failed and she flashed Travilla). Travilla offered his opinions and ended up selecting clothes for her; their relationship deepened and they had an affair, remaining life-long friends (what is not mentioned is how awkward it must’ve been, designing not only Monroe’s costumes but wedding ensembles like the DiMaggio wedding jacket, which Travilla added the fur collar and jeweled buttons to). Travilla designed for eight of Monroe’s films, favoring pleated and bias-cut styles “that draped and moulded themselves to the actress in a suggestive yet censor-eluding manner.” Every chapter of the book focuses on one dress, the chapter titles identifying them by their color: “The Red Dress;” “The Gold Dress;” “The Purple Dress;” etc.

The Red Dress(es) was from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) starring Monroe and the phenomenal  straight-woman brunette Jane Russel. This red dress was in the opening scene, a musical number of the leads in their cabaret show (I highly recommend watching it). Hansford rightly points out that the women were physical opposites: not only blonde and brunette, but coloring, and Russel appears to be about 4 inches taller. He oddly attributes Travilla’s ability to visually unite the women: “…by choosing such a vivid red, he [Travilla] managed to design a dress that suited them both beautifully.” I don’t get that logic exactly, but ok. The plunging neckline is illusion netting, supported with Travilla’s signature elaborate boning, which eluded the censor’s cutting scissors, even while being form-fitting.


The Gold Dress is the lamé number seen only briefly, but memorably, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It is made of a complete circle of pleated fabric, plus lining (and a photo of a note instructing someone to “send out for sun burst pleating” is pictured, in case that memento of mundane busywork thrills you). There are two iron stays (or “bars” as Hansford calls them) in a V from Monroe’s waist to her breasts, molding the dress to her body. The radiating sunburst pleat was a favorite of Travilla’s, as it hugged the curves of every woman (and he preferred the curvy ladies, Hansford tells us). Against Travilla’s protests — he thought it too sexy for real life use — Monroe was sewn back into the gold dress to accept an award at the 1953 Photoplay awards. Several versions of this dress were made, and Jayne Mansfield and Betty Grable wore versions of it in subsequent films.


The Pink Dress is from the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The backstory of this was of particular interest to me: an utterly different outfit had been designed by Travilla that was an outrageously skimpy fishnet body stocking (though still no cleavage), with crystal-encrusted brassier and hip-hugging girdle, both dripping with more crystals:

But during post-production of the film with the original costume, a nude photo surfaced of Monroe from several years earlier; it was a calendar project she’d accepted after Fox cancelled her contract and she needed money. To dampen what the studio believed was a brewing scandal, they insisted Monroe be more covered-up in the film, and only then was the pink strapless number conceived. There are some fun close-ups of the three supportive layers needed to structure the bodice to reduce excessive fleshy jiggle—the whole thing was lined in felt to further reduce the details of Monroe’s legs. The color is also less vivid in person and photos because the Technicolor filter enhanced colors.


How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) was apparently the first comedy to be filmed in wide-screen Cinemascope, previously reserved for dramas and landscape-heavy productions. After a few paragraphs about the absence of feuds between starlets (that frankly could’ve been skipped), Hansford discusses how problematic it was for costume designers to design for Cinemascope, which widened objects in distortion—not the way most actresses want to be stretched. For this reason, Monroe insisted on wearing tight skirts in an attempt to reduce the extra volume of “scope” that was only exacerbated by the voluminous skirts popular in the early ‘50s. Enter the Purple Dress, a single-strapped number, displayed to tremendous effect in the powder room mirrors. Again, there is a discrepancy between the color of the garment in photos and its color in the film.


For Bus Stop (1956), Monroe played a saloon singer struggling to support herself as she treks to Hollywood. Marilyn purportedly ripped her fishnets and deliberately had them sloppily repaired, and Travilla purposely left some sequins off, rubbed some of the netting bare, and discolored the green satin of Monroe’s showgirl costume to reflect the character’s poverty.


The White Dress is perhaps the most famous, as the pleated halter Monroe wore over a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955), but Hansford doesn’t provide much new information, except this general tidbit: Travilla would sew a half-ball button inside the costume where the nipple would be so that Marilyn’s nipple always appear pert. Reminds me of the nipple bra of the ‘70s. Also, the “white dress” was not actually pure white, but cream or “bone;” this was a necessarily compensation for the coloring distortions of celluloid film.


Feeling more like an afterthought, Hansford also discussed are the less famous “Heat Wave” song in There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), in which Monroe wore a multicolored, patterned bikini top with slit flamenco skirt that apparently “outraged” the censors and did not thrill new husband Joe DiMaggio either. Similarly, the chapter on “The Stripper” was fully expendable, as a Marilyn vehicle designed by Travilla that only came to fruition years later with Joanne Woodward; little more information is supplied, but original sketches of Marilyn costumes are included.


While this book delivered on many ravishing images of Marilyn Monroe, it was uneven and un-critical. The photos, too, are numerous but poorly edited, with equal page space given to Travilla’s sketches, publicity photos of Marilyn, and illegible notes scrawled on envelopes. Hansford is unrelentingly complimentary about Marilyn and Travilla: everything is “beautiful,” each new costume is a “new high” with excessive exuberance in the form of exclamations, often about his own rather superficial discoveries (“Reportedly much craziness happened and you can just imagine seeing them all trotting out of the hotel ready for a day’s filming!” “…it is impossible to make a judgment on who looks better as they both look equally amazing”). At its best, Dressing Marilyn is light and anecdotal; at its worst, Dressing Marilyn is overly simplistic, typo-ridden, and inaccurate (“top three blondes” supposedly pulled together for How to Marry a Millionaire are Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall who was very much brunette). In an early chapter Hansford mentions the complexity of designing costumes when studios, producers, directors, budget constrictions, and strong-willed actors may all have different demands, but these topics are not really fleshed out over the course of the book. For a man who is now responsible for Travilla’s admittedly important, gorgeous, technically impressive collection of costumes, I wish he’d spent some more time at the library.


Further Reading:

  • Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe by Christopher Nickens, George Zeno
  • Hollywood Costume Design by Travilla by Maureen E. Lynn Reilly

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