Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood icon was styled by William Travilla 

by Andrew Hansford (with Karen Homer)

I love Marilyn Monroe movies, and while I think she was a wonderful actress, I have been actively avoiding reading biographies about her for the simple reason that the whole industry around Monroe is just a little bit creepy. This makes Dressing Marilyn a very handy book as it is predominantly about William Travilla, the designer of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous dresses, while still including bits and pieces from Monroe’s life.

The book actually came about through one of those amazing strokes of luck that you just wish would happen to you. Andrew Hansford mentioned to a friend that he needed some good PR for his business. A week later a box full of Marilyn Monroe’s dresses turned up on his door step, all borrowed from the collection of William Travilla designs owned by Travilla’s friend and former business partner Bill Sarris. Six weeks later, Hansford had organised the exhibition ‘The Lost Dresses of Marilyn Monroe’, which in turn formed the basis of the book. Amazing stuff.

It’s a little embarrassing that I had never heard of William Travilla, as he was one of the leading Hollywood costume designers of the 40s and 50s, and even designed costumes for Dallas in the 1980s. Travilla’s big break came when he was brought in to replace Edith Head designing costumes for Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan, as Flynn hated Head’s designs which were based on 17th century dress. Travilla created “his very own period look, putting Flynn in doublets with plunging necklines and tights… Travilla’s stamp has been on every pirate and swashbuckler film from that day forward” (p. 37). William Travilla actually won an Oscar for his Don Juan costumes.

One of Errol Flynn’s costumes from ‘The Adventures of Don Juan’

As a result of his successful designs on Don Juan, Travilla was offered a contract at 20th Century Fox, which is where he first met Marilyn Monroe. Monroe’s determination to become successful is apparent in her interactions with Travilla, as she clearly understood that looking good was a big part of her job and that the best way to do that was to find a good designer and keep (in this case) him. Over the years, Monroe and Travilla became very good friends, Travilla actually embellished the suit which Monroe wore to marry Joe DiMaggio.

The first third of the book details the research Hansford carried out after the first exhibition and includes a mini biography of William Travilla, while the rest of the book contains detailed descriptions of the dresses which Travilla created for Monroe, including some of her personal dresses, and how they were made, where they were worn etc. There are also a delightful amount of photographs, including of the dress patterns where they survive. A thorough description (with lots of pictures) of the Travilla dresses that Marilyn wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is over at I Get A Kick Out Of You.

I love all the little interesting facts scattered throughout the book, such as Monroe’s refusal to wear the fashionable 1950s circle skirts in How to Marry a Millionaire, as the movie was to be shot in Cinemascope which apparently made everything, actresses included, look wider. I honestly didn’t notice any distortion, but Monroe knew exactly how she wanted to be seen and wouldn’t accept any compromises.

The ‘Dahlia’ dress from How to Marry a Millionaire has a bodice which is also an optical illusion. The right side (where the shoulder strap starts) is actually lower than the left side as the diagonal strap would make a straight bodice look lopsided.

Travilla and Monroe also seem to have enjoyed messing with the film censors as there are quite a few costumes which managed to sneak through such as the red dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

The deep split is actually covered by nude coloured fabric and the bodice is boned to prevent anything moving about.

And the flamenco-ish costume from There’s No Business Like Show Business, which was initially rejected by the censors as there was nothing was covering Monroe’s belly button. Travilla added the little black strap across the middle and voila! It was approved.

Then there’s the colour differences in Technicolor, where “a beautiful blue may appear grey on film, requiring a screen test for every garment (p.124), so that the dress from ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blonde is actually a paler pink than it appears in the movie, while the iconic white dress from Seven Year Itch is actually cream.

It’s hard to believe that this dress is actually constructed from silk glued to green billiard felt, which prevented the dress from creasing as Marilyn walked up and downstairs. There were also three layers to the bodice to help hide the boning and to avoid any visible cleavage.

While I really enjoyed Dressing Marilyn, I am actually a little sad that it’s only through his association with Marilyn Monroe that I’ve come to hear of William Travilla when he was such an amazing designer, not only aesthetically but technically as well. But then it was the Monroe connection that got me to read it in the first place. Hypocritical much?


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