Friday, November 16, 2012

The Personal Style of Marilyn Monroe

Millions of blogs and articles have already been given over to discussions about the William Travilla-created white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch, the pink column dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by the same designer, and the cherry print day dress from The Misfits by Jean Louis -- all iconic outfits donned by Marilyn Monroe in her films.  These ensembles immediately come to mind when one imagines Monroe.

These pieces, however, were not her personal style… they were props, things worn as a uniform for her job, extensions of the characters she played.  While Monroe did often borrow from her studio wardrobes when in need for more formal apparel, her personal style was much simpler and far more stylish.

Jill Taylor, costume designer for 2011’s My Week With Marilyn, was pressed with the task of recreating the off-screen looks that Monroe favored.  In her research, she found that real-life Monroe was a far cry from the bedazzled glamazon who graced the Silver Screen.  “I really wanted to get across her simplicity of dress,” Taylor has said. “When you look at photos of her off-duty, she was ahead of her time. She dressed for comfort – simple lines, nothing fussy. In an era where women were really dressed up in big petticoats and nipped little waists, she was in capri pants, T-shirts, pumps. She was a Calvin Klein girl before there was a Calvin Klein girl.”

Biographers have repeatedly found that those who knew her were well aware of Monroe’s ability to turn “Marilyn” on and off at will.  The Marilyn Appeal was shrewdly calculated by Monroe and was brought out when necessary – at events, for cameras, and even just when bored. There is an oft-told tale of Monroe walking down a New York City street, incognito in a simple sweater and headscarf, turning to her companion and saying, “Do you want to see her?” With that, she threw off all vestiges of Norma Jeane and miraculously transformed herself. There were no grand gestures, no change of clothes, no make-up. It was a simple shift, a light switch being flicked. 

The late Anne Francis began her Fox Studios acting contract in 1952 and had several run-ins with Monroe on the lot.  “She really was like two different people,” Francis said in 1978.  “That’s not an exaggeration.  One time she would be overly-made up, and every movement calculated to push the sex image.  The next time she would be clean and scrubbed – maybe just wearing a little pale lipstick – and down to earth and terribly sweet.”

Regardless of chosen persona, Monroe had a knack for knowing exactly what garments worked for her body.  “Decades before stars would not make a public appearance without the services of platoons of stylists and designers,” wrote British journalist Meredith Etherington-Smith, “Marilyn was a truly great stylist.  She knew exactly how to get the effect she wanted with black jersey, fine silk-crepe, or a solid nimbus of skin-tight sequins.”  

One example would be the Norman Norell dress chosen for the 1962 Golden Globes at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, seen below.  The deep emerald green jersey floor-length evening gown was covered in matching sequins with an inset waist band.  The odd bust line of this dress was a subject of conjecture immediately following the ceremony – did Monroe not realize her arms were supposed to go through the slots on either side of her chest?  The original design shows the dress to be a high-necked number with two back straps.  Truth be told, because she had lost weight, Monroe’s bust had lost a bit of their bulk.  She worried that if she wore the dress as designed, the bodice might flatten her… and a flattened chest was one thing Monroe would not stand for in an ensemble.  Therefore, she had a dressmaker add a small strap to behind her neck to turn the dress into a halter, which left it looser, creating a much more flattering cowl neck.  She wanted nothing to detract from her bare back, so the side straps were left unused and were incorporated into the front of the dress as a feature.  

Another example would be the John Moore skintight fishtail dress, seen at right, with long matching stole worn to the New York premiere of The Prince and The Showgirl at Radio City Music Hall on June 13, 1957.  Moore had presented Monroe with samples of material for the gown she was to wear in shades of burgundy, an embossed Kelly green, turquoise, and a champagne beige.  The burgundy was dismissed by Monroe as a “dowager’s color,” the green was too typical for a movie star, and wisely, Monroe chose the beige.  She knew that the dress could have easily overwhelmed even Marilyn had it been made in anything more vivid than beige.  Aware that the gown was glamorous enough on its own, Monroe donned a free-flowing hairstyle and  kept her make-up natural.

She also preferred to keep her jewelry simple, to the point of almost non-existence.  “Flashy earrings, necklaces, and bracelets detract from a lady’s looks,” she said.  “And even if I have to wear that stuff, I don’t have to own it.  The studio lends it to me whenever they want to show me off.”  She was seldom photographed wearing more than button earrings, very fashionable for the time, and preferred to keep her breastbone bare for maximum exposure.

Other favored accessories would be a wealth of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, gloves of all lengths, and a vast collection of fur coats and stoles.  Like other Hollywood icons (i.e. Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo), Marilyn adored wearing Ferragamo shoes – she owned dozens of pairs, each with a simple design and not one without a stiletto heel (though they were a little more reasonable in height than the sky-high versions worn today).  

She loved a good peep-toe pump, and stuck with basic black, white, and nude.  When a formal occasion arose, she would often have her pumps dyed to match the color of her dress.  Though she may have had dozens upon dozens of various pairs, she is repeatedly photographed wearing the same few styles over and over.  This is not indicative of one pair being favored over another; much like her dresses, if she found an article she liked, she would snap it up in every available version.  

To complete the transformation into the glamour icon expected of her, Monroe would typically don a fur of either mink or fox to top the outfit.  

An evening stole of black silk jersey, trimmed with white fox fur.
Hollywood premiere of Call Me Madam on March 25, 1953. Dress by William Travilla, paired with satin gloves and white fox stole.
             Monroe wearing the brown ranch full-length mink coat given by DiMaggio as an early wedding gift.              This was one of the few furs that Monroe actually owned, as most were borrowed from the studio for special occasions.

Montgomery Clift escorts  Monroe to NYC preview of The Misfits at the Capitol Theater on January 31, 1961.  Dress by John Moore with fox hem, paired with matching stole and kid gloves.

For such formal affairs, Monroe leaned towards figure-hugging dresses of sequins, lavish beadwork usually made of tone-on-tone bugle beads set in a vernicular pattern, velvet, or gold lame (preferably knife-pleated).

SEQUINS -- JFK Birthday Celebration, dress by Jean Louis.
SEQUINS -- Entering a party at Waldorf Astoria hotel following premiere of Baby Doll, December 1956.  Dress by Normal Norell, navy blue jersey with bare back.
BEADWORK -- Monroe with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Hollywood, 1953.  This eggplant purple Ceil Chapman dress, typically worn sans bolero, was a favorite of Monroe's.  She wore this piece while singing for the troops in Korea on her 1954 honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio. 
BEADWORK -- LEFT: Summer of 1957, attending a party at the Barbizon Plaza Theatre following a performance of Noel Coward's Conversation Piece.  Ceil Chapman cream beaded dress.  RIGHT: Monroe just before hitting the stage in Korea, 1954.  Ceil Chapman eggplant purple beaded dress.
BEADWORK -- NYC premiere of Some Like It Hot, March 28, 1959.  Back-baring dress by John Moore, ivory crepe embroidered with silver bugle beads.  This gown, and one Moore made in black, became two of Monroe's favorites.  She would wear this one in her next movie, Let's Make Love, to perform "Specialization."  She is seen in the black version in Philippe Halsman's famous 1959 photo series of celebrities jumping into air.

VELVET -- January 1952, Monroe started her first fashion controversy when she made this entry at the Club Del Mar in Santa Monica.  Deep garnet gown purchased at Oleg Cassini's private salon and worn with mink stole, which does nothing to conceal her daringly exposed chest.  Photographs of her with a nearly bare chest hit the newspapers the next day, inspiring conservative columnists to scold freely.
VELVET -- February 3, 1956.  This dress by John Moore suffered a highly publicized wardrobe malfunction when one strap gave away during a press conference for The Prince and The Showgirl held at the Plaza Hotel. When the strap failed, Monroe was offered a safety pink by reporter Judith Christ, but alas, that also didn't hold.  Monroe was offended when it was suggested that the stunt had been planned.
LAME -- LEFT: 1948, at Florentine Gardens in Hollywood.  RIGHT: 1953, William Travilla gown, worn to receive an award from Photoplay magazine at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
LAME -- Wearing gold with soft ohre gloves while meeting Queen Elizabeth II, October 1956, England. 
LAME -- March 1955 at the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway.  Copper dress by Norman Norell.
Regardless of material, all dresses were designed to be shoulder- and back-baring.  No sleeves for Monroe, and many outfits would be altered to accommodate her specifications for exposure.  Even while on set, Monroe would make costume demands to allow for a more figure-flattering silhouette.  If they were not skintight, the costume would be refused.  Although enormously full skirts were the prevailing style of the time, film historian David Chierichetti notes: “All three stars of How To Marry A Millionaire refused to wear them [due to the unflattering distortions of Cinemascope].  [Fox Studios Head of Wardrobe] did not want to appear ignorant of current fashion, so he called a meeting.  Betty Grable finally agreed to wear a cancan petticoat under a very full dress in the first scenes; Lauren Bacall wore a full-skirted printed shirtwaist in the fashion show scene; Monroe was completely intransigent and insisted on tight skirts.”

Designer George Nardiello met Monroe in New York City shortly after her East Coast arrival in 1955.  For the next few years, he worked with her closely.  In a 1991 interview, he said “She was very difficult to design for because she wanted everything to look like a slip.  Everything had to be skintight; you had to reinforce every seam or everything would break.”

Due to their second-skin nature, it’s no wonder Monroe favored floor-length column dresses or fishtail ensembles.  Aside from shape, she was also well aware of how to make the most of design detailing.  One of her favorite designers, Ceil Chapman, was known for her ability to drape and twist fabric for maximum figure-flattering results.  In a photo taken during a Hollywood charity fundraiser in 1953, Monroe is seen in a Chapman dress which she described to Modern Screen magazine as “black silk with a big puff at the side… [it] drapes tightly around my legs.  I like its slimming effect.”  She knew that tight outfits with side trains and bustles would enhance her sex appeal.  Many of her chosen formal outfits featured asymmetrical waist draping and bodice ruching, gathering at the hip to emphasize her hourglass figure.

Preparing for the premiere of Monkey Business, September 1952, Stanley Theatre in Atlantic City.  Dress by Oleg Cassini in fire-engine red with royal purple sash. 
Ceil Chapman silk jersey dress from Monroe's personal collection, auctioned via Christie's. 
Joe DiMaggio and his fiance pose with General William F. Dean during a Hollywood charity fundraiser in 1953.  Dress by Ceil Chapman.

Early on in her career, Monroe was criticized for her rather “obvious taste.”  In an era of Peter Pan collars, matching gloves, handbags and propriety, she flaunted her curves.  In a 1953 article entitled “I Dress For Men,” Monroe shared her fashion philosophy: “I believe your body should make your clothes look good – instead of using clothes to make the body conform to what is considered fashionable at the moment, distorted or not.”  She hated the big skirts of the 1950s and much preferred body-hugging designs.  In the prim '50s, Monroe's bombshell image was a bit repulsive and offensive to some women who viewed her breathy voice, skimpy outfits and blatant sexuality as improper.

Regardless of vulgarity, Monroe’s early taste did lean toward the garish.  Upon signing her 1951 contract to Twentieth Century Fox, she indulged in a few new pieces to expand her wardrobe.  She bought an evening gown off the rack at I. Magnin’s department store -- one of strapless red silk taffeta, snug from the bodice down to just below the hips, and covered in black French lace.  The taffeta underskirt is finished with a ruched balloon hemline.  Pairing the dress with black gloves and a black fox boa helped to tame some of the gaudiness, and Monroe wore the dress on several occasions.  She considered it her lucky dress because of the attention it always brought her, both good and bad.  “This was the dress that provoked so much comment… it was proof positive, they claimed, that I was utterly lacking in taste.  I’m truly sorry, but I love that dress.”

Another example would be the William Travilla orange chiffon gown worn in the movie Gentleman Prefer Blondes.  The dress is a body-conscious number trimmed with crystal beading, ruched to just below the knee, where a skirt then flows to the ground.  As a costume, it can be forgiven, but Monroe chose to borrow the dress for a benefit performance at the Hollywood Bowl in July of 1953.

All of this changed in 1954, when Monroe walked out of her Fox contract.  Retreating to Manhattan, she joined forces with photographer Milton Greene to form her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions.  She grew close to Greene’s wife, Amy, a former model who would become Monroe’s most influential fashion advisor.  The seventy garments Monroe brought with her from storage in Los Angeles failed to impress Mrs. Greene.  “It dawned on me what pitiful clothes she had,” she told biographer Anthony Summers.  “She had to rummage through my drawers every time we wanted to go out.  We brought [designer] Norman Norell to dinner… and had him design an elegant wardrobe for her.” Prior to this relationship, Monroe had subsided with a just a few revolving permanent pieces and relied heavily on borrowing outfits from Fox Studios for public events. 

On film, Monroe was dressed by Oscar-winning designers.  She frequently took advantage of these designers as her personal couturiers, wearing their costumes off the studio lot for highly publicized evenings.  “Film clothes must be designed to fit beautifully and are tailored so every seam and hem will look flawless in a close-up.  Fox, like every other major studio, had only the most talented designers and tailors on staff,” says Greg Schriener, an expert on the subject and owner of a Monroe collection that includes several of her costumes.  “The clothes Marilyn wore from studio wardrobe were superbly crafted and fit her as if they were from a top designer’s salon.”  Monroe continued the tradition of borrowing outfits right up until her death in 1962, even though by then she had established a vast designer collection of her own.

Monroe's penchant for wearing her costumes away from the set started here, when she chose this nude crepe / off-white lace outfit by Renie from Let's Make It Legal to wear to a press party attended with Sidney Skolsky.
Monroe chose this magenta Dorothy Jeakins dress worn to sing "Kiss" in Niagara to wear to a press party at the Hollywood Hills home of bandleader Ray Anthony (pictured to the right of Monroe) on August 3, 1952.
In a Jean Louis beige wool suit with mink trim and beret, screen shot of Something's Got to Give.  Monroe borrowed the entire outfit to make her final public appearance on June 1, 1962 (her thirty-sixth birthday).  Pictured running onto the field of the newly opened Chavez Ravine (later named Dodger) Stadium with L.A. Angels outfielder Albie Perason, to make a pre-game appeal for the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation.
Ivory silk created by Jean Louis for The Misfits, not worn on-screen.  However, Monroe liked this dress and wore it to two parties located in Reno -- a press reception to launch production, and later at a joint birthday party for Clark Gable's wife and director John Huston, 1961.

Starting with the Norell connection, Monroe was finally able to develop a personal style not borrowed from studios.  Over time, she developed relationships with other designers such as Jean Louis and John Moore, both of whom heavily influenced her choices in evening wear.  Eventually, Monroe settled into a wardrobe consisting primarily of blacks, whites, beiges, and sheer flesh-tones.  It wasn’t until 1961 that she re-introduced color into her wardrobe, thanks to a newfound love for the designs of Emilio Pucci.

Marilyn collected Pucci items in multiples; if she didn't have a dress in every color, she certainly had one in every other shade.  By the beginning of the sixties, Pucci oufits had replaced the capri pants and matching shirts she had worn throughout the mid- to late fifties.  Pucci was so engrained into her wardrobe that she was buried in a green shift dress from her collection, perhaps even the one shown below.

Monroe at a press conference, Mexico City February 1962.  INSET: Departing a Manhattan hospital following gallbladder surgery, July 11, 1961. 
In July, 1962, just weeks before her death, Monroe poses for photographer George Barris in what would be her final full photo session.  She wore the pictured silk Pucci blouse a year earlier when she visited DiMaggio in Florida (inset). 
Pucci dress, worn 1962.

Pucci seemed to awaken a new appreciation for casual clothes in Monroe.  In a quote from 1961, Monroe explains: “Another new thing is shopping.  I was never much interested in clothes, except for public appearances… but the other day… I bought a pale yellow sweater.  I never wear yellow, but now I will.  And, I never used to wear blue, but I do now… I’ve found out it’s fun to go shopping.  It’s such a feminine thing to do.”

Monroe had always leaned towards comfortable and simple pieces, even prior to her preference for Pucci.  While these early “off-duty” garments were much more understated than her formal attire, all were still carefully chosen to accentuate the figure.  She favored the “wiggle dress”, which is, very simply, an exaggerated form-fitting sheath dress that tapers from the hips to the hemline; the hemline can fall to the knee or just below the knee.

A sheath dress, for those who don’t know, is a form-fitting dress with a defined waist. Both the sheath and the wiggle highlight the classic hourglass silhouette and were very intentionally designed to accentuate the curves and “the wiggle” of a woman’s walk with its body-hugging design and tapered hem. The wiggle dress can also feature slits or kick-pleats and may even flare out after it narrows.  To clarify, the main difference between a shift and wiggle is the tapering of the hem. If it doesn’t taper, it’s just a sheath dress, and while sheath dresses are pretty…the “va-va-voom” comes from the wiggle hem.

Needless to say, Monroe wore them almost exclusively when choosing an informal day dress. 

Rehearsing an early scene from The Misfits, filmed on the streets of Reno, Monroe wears a Jean Louis silk crepe dress with a scoop-necked bolero jacket.  As was the industry standard, more than one copy of this outfit was made, and as was Monroe's standard, one was kept for her personal collection.  A year after completing The Misfits, she was photographed wearing it on a date with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas.  Her copy, including the jacket, was sold at Christie's Monroe auction in 1999.
July 13, 1956: The Millers board a plane to Londom to begin filming of The Prince and The Showgirl.  Over her beige John Moore sheath, Monroe draped a favorite white silk trench.  She very much preferred to drape her coats as opposed to wearing them in the traditional manner.
Galanos and Bergdorf Goodman wool crepe dress with chiffon midriff.  Designed for Monroe on June 22, 1956, this outfit was worn while in London promoting The Prince and The Showgirl in July 1956.

Monroe also had a strong selection of suits for the times when an outfit called for a more conservative look.  All were, of course, form-fitting.  

Charles Lemaire two-piece dress in blue gabardine with a black sequined collar and detachable bow, worn while giving a press conference in Japan.  Accessorized, of course, with a black mink coat.
Departing a Santa Monica courthouse, shortly after receiving her DiMaggio divorce decree on October 22, 1954. Seen here wearing a Charles Lemaire black wool gabardine suit topped with a portrait collar.
Monroe chose this Nardiello suit in black wool with a black satin skirt and tie to return to Hollywood in triumph after walking out on her Fox Studios contract.  Fox had acceded to her financial and artistic demands, renewed her contract, and cast her in Bus Stop.  She gave a brief press conference upon her arrival at Los Angeles international airport on February 26, 1956.  When one reporter said, "You're wearing a high-necked dress now.  Last time I saw you, you weren't.  Is this a new Marilyn?"  Monroe elicited laughs with her reply: "No, I'm the same person, but it's a different suit."
Emerging from a screening of Some Like It Hot in February 1959.  Monroe is in a tailored Irene for Gunther Jaeckel, New York charcoal grey fine wool suit, trimmed in fox fur.

Less publicized is Monroe’s fondness for slacks.  She single-handedly brought the brand name Jax to the forefront of 1950s fashion.  Jax founder Jack Hanson was an unapologetic butt man and he thought post-war women’s slacks lacked oomph. Taking matters into his own hands, he sketched up some ideas, borrowed $500, and opened Jax in the coastal town of Balboa, CA.  His snug pants zippered up the back, calling attention to the rear end, and they sold for $60 – a hefty amount in the late ‘50s.  Hanson even eliminated back pockets so nothing would distract from the derriere.  These were pants that only women with superb shapes dared to wear, yet they were a smash and soon he was adding stores in Beverly Hills and NYC… coincidentally near Monroe’s apartment. 

“If any one person made us, it was Marilyn,” Hanson told Sports Illustrated in 1967. “She wore our things constantly, everywhere, and was always in the shop.  We designed a lot of things especially with her in mind.”  Hanson and his wife became personal friends of Monroe’s, and she encouraged them to add other items to their line.  Soon Jax blouses and dresses joined the famous pants. 

Head-to-toe in a Jax outfit, Monroe boards a plane in early 1962.  The silk blouse is black-and-white print with long-sleeves, which Monroe wore rolled.  Her white slacks are paired with her favorite Ferragamo pumps.
July, 1962, another photo from the George Barris session.  Seen here in Jax slacks and her favorite Pucci blouse, also pictured earlier.
Photo by Allan Grant, taken during Monroe's final interview (given to LIFE magazine editor Richard Meryman) , July 4, 1962.  Seen here in the dining room of her Brentwood hacienda wearing Jax pants and Ferragamo pumps.  This is quite literally her last sitting.

Labels aside, Monroe preferred the casual look and feel of wearing capris paired with blouses or sweaters.  She reserved the gussied up version of Marilyn for special occasions and stuck to the basics for regular day wear.

Monroe’s personal style choices took a while to be recognized – for years, her built-in sensuality, voluptuous figure, and provocative taste worked against her being taken seriously by most fashion critics.  Moreover, even when she appeared admirably chic, almost no one paid attention to the designer names responsible.  As time wore on and Monroe’s legacy grew, however, her lasting imprint on fashion has made itself clear.

Strangely enough, Monroe’s style anticipated the future.  She went sans underwear in a time when women’s bodies were on shapewear lockdown.  Her tousled bedhead hair contrasted sharply with the sleek bobs of the day, whereas now “morning-after” hair is seen gracing the runways on a regular basis.  She built loyal followings of certain designers based on her love for them alone, this at a time when label awareness was reserved strictly for the upper echelon of society. 

Perhaps one of Monroe's greatest contributions to fashion and beauty, however, was how she embraced her curvy and seductive figure.  “She had a huge impact on women's fashion,” said Ashley Bellet, professor of costume design at Oklahoma City University. “She really kind of made it OK to be sexually attractive. I think that, especially in costume design, we use some of those elements that are very specific to Marilyn to heighten a character's sexual attraction.”

While Monroe iconography in pop culture may be limited to that breezy white halter or the pink dress copied by Madonna for her Material Girl video, a further look at “Monroe the Style Icon” was long overdue.  As she transitioned from sweater-clad clean-scrubbed model to sizzling Hollywood sexpot, Monroe refined her persona and set beauty standards that still resonate more than fifty years after her death.  Her enduring influence cannot be denied, nor should it be.

Jean Louis black silk crepe wiggle dress, sans bolero, created for The Misfits.  1960.
Jean Louis beaded sheath, May 19, 1962.  Worn while singing "Happy Birthday" to JFK at his birthday gala, Madison Square Garden.
Quintessential casual Monroe... slacks, sweater, and tousled hair.


  1. Simply gorgeous. Her taste in fashion is timeless and my personal favorite. Great post!

  2. Thank you! Took forever to write, but I'm proud of what I pulled together.

  3. The dress from the Golden Globes 1962 is not the same dress as shown.

    For rare pictures see :

    1. Hello, Peter-Sneyder! I believe you might be thinking of her outfit from the 1960 Golden Globes ceremony, in which she wore a white stole. She was awarded a statuette for her performance in 1959's "Some Like It Hot".

      For the 1962 ceremony, she wore the emerald green sequined dress as pictured.

  4. I'm a HUGE fan's and just came across this, her taste in clothing is timeless and just never seem to go out of fashion. I have other friends who are fans that try to emulate her fashion! Great page! Thanks!

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  6. A wonderful synthesis. Thank You!

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  8. I simply love the Dorothy Jenkins Niagra dress! Its mind bogglingly sexy