MARILYN MONROE’S ITCH TO BE FAMOUS- HOW A PRICELESS TRAVILLA DRESS CEMENTED HER FAME
She had an immense itch. It was this intense drive that drove Marilyn Monroe to cement her fame.
Legendary costume designer, Billy Travilla, a man I was aligned to apprentice with in 1990, ultimately helped Marilyn Monroe to scratch that “itch.” And, in 1954, the daring designer would accomplish that for Marilyn in a number of ways.
As a young girl, Norman Jean Baker had little idea that she would actually one day grow up to become the likes of “Marilyn Monroe.” The young dishwater blonde had a mother who worked as a studio film-cutter, completely obsessed with Hollywood’s first platinum-headed film star, Jean Harlow. There was a barrage of on-going influence from home that ensured Norma Jean would have an insatiable drive to become famous.
I find it ironic that a film actually entitled “The Seven Year Itch” would end up helping the fame-starved actress to scratch her own itch. After starring in a few films for 20th Century-Fox that had begin to launch her star and give her some ‘muscle” of film-choice, the actress set her sites on one role. Marilyn had seen the phenomenal success of the Broadway play version of The Seven Year Itch. It had been enormously successful, with a long run. Because Marilyn was so dead set upon landing that role in its film version, she reluctantly agreed to star in the Fox film she abhorred, There’s No Business Like Show Business. She did so in order to bargain her way into “Itch.” Fox Studio finally agreed to let her have that coveted role.
So in early September of 1954, Billy set about designing a particular “little white dress.” When placed upon a certain curvy body, and tossed about by a strong underground gust from a subway breeze, that dress would rock the world and create an image that endures to this day … precisely six decades later.
The illustrious Billy Wilder both directed and co-produced that film (along with Charles K. Feldman). Co-starring actor Tommy Ewell as Richard Sherman, Marilyn Monroe played a character that has no name. In the script her only name is “The Girl.”
As a kindly nod to Marilyn Monroe’s burgeoning fame, at that exact moment in time, a unique situation took place on the night of shooting that subway scene in New York City. On that evening in 1954, Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida happened to be in the city having dinner with her husband and PR man and his wife. When her PR man mentioned that Marilyn was shooting a film late that evening, the foursome decided to stop by the “set” and meet her. After being escorted to an indoor staircase between filming scenes, the pair of international sex symbols were introduced. When the Italian was introduced to Marilyn, Gina explained to her, “They say I am the Marilyn Monroe of Italy.” The ever-witty blonde replied with “that’s funny … they say I am the Gina Lollobrigida of America!”
Of great fascination to me about the photo the pair posed for that night, is the fact that Billy’s now-iconic white pleated halter dress Marilyn was wearing, was eerily matched by the summer dress Gina was donning. The Italian star’s white halter dress sported an equally voluminous pleated skirt, with a horizontally draped halter-top, while Billy’s design on Marilyn sported a voluminous pleated skirt, featuring a vertically draped halter-top. Considering Billy’s costumes for Marilyn were unseen by anyone yet, the coincidence is stunning.
On the weekend that Billy designed that dress at his Hollywood home, he could not have foreseen how important that costume would become. He explained that he designed it in white, because New York is hot and sticky in the summer. “I wanted my baby to be clean and fresh,” he once said. He also engineered those sunburst pleats into the skirt because they would function well to lift the skirt and keep it aloft for the subway breeze scene.
Even more capable of fluttering someone’s skirt than a gust of wind, was the amount of money someone recently shelled out for that little white number Marilyn wore that night … nearly six million dollars! Paying that amount of money for “a dress” could certainly ruffle some feathers. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting near Debbie Reynolds when she auctioned Billy’s design off. That competitive “volley” was one of the most thrilling 20-minute-bidding-rides I have ever had at any auction house.
When all was said and done and the auctioneer’s gavel came down, legally, no one was allowed to discover who the new owner of Billy’s Little white dress was. So it came as an utter disappointment to costume designer Deborah Landis (best known for her Indiana Jones Costumes), when she discovered she could not be privileged to the location of that dress. For six years, that costume had been planned to be the centerpiece for Landis’ Hollywood Costume exhibit. Only days before she planned to open in London, Landis interviewed Meryl Streep, who utterly stunned her by locating that Travilla-designed Marilyn Monroe dress, as a surprise.
Not only did Travilla’s Marilyn Monroe ‘Itch’ dress show up in the London exhibit, it was also showcased here in Arizona when that same exhibit, traveled to the Phoenix Art Museum in 2014.
Now more famous today, over half a century after her untimely death, everybody, it seems LOVES Marilyn Monroe and THAT iconic priceless dress. The Seven Year Itch image has permanently etched her name into our hearts. The way in which Marilyn cemented her fame is an emotional imprint.
So … while that white pleated halter dress may have caused Marilyn Monroe’s then-husband, Joe DiMaggio, to divorce her for showing off her body in public; and it might have been seen as too salacious to audiences of the day; and it might have ruffled a few feathers that anyone would pay so much for a dress; it was brilliantly, lovingly designed by Billy Travilla to caress his beloved friend with beauty and style.
As the dress worn in the single most famous image associated with the blonde bombshell today, one could even say Billy Travilla helped scratch Marilyn’s “itch,” and cement her fame.
To see the collections of KAHC and more photos of Travilla and Marilyn Monroe visit her FB Page KAHC/ Website / About.me
[This article is the sixth of a 12-part series of articles by Kimberley Ashley for 2015. Next month see her article, “A Rodeo Roundup Of Star Style- Travilla Designs Dallas.” Stay tuned for her upcoming articles on Billy Travilla and his design muse Marilyn Monroe.]
Marilyn Monroe cement
Debbie Reynolds auction
Phoenix Art Museum last year.