August 2013 marks the 51st anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Despite the time that has elapsed, the actress retains the power to intrigue like no other. Love her or loathe her (and no prizes for guessing which camp GdF falls into), everyone has an opinion on the blonde bombshell. Her mythical status is not simply the product of her creative output (in fact, Marilyn completed just 29 films during a career spanning 15 years), rather the intrigue that surrounds re-hashed conspiracy theories and Hollywood films and the countless books written about Monroe.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks is one of Monroe’s best-loved films. Released in 1953, it was based on the 1949 stage musical, and also starred Jane Russell, Tommy Noonan and Charles Coburn. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe’s first film as a ‘major’ star (following the success of Niagara, released in January of the same year) was a critical and commercial hit and was the sixth highest grossing films of the year. Monroe’s role as the diamond-loving, vivacious showgirl Lorelei Lee helped to cement the ‘Monroe’ persona and was a perfectly pitched balance of sex and humour.
In Niagara, Monroe (as Rose Loomis) was the ultimate femme fatale, her sexuality depicted as threatening, almost predatory. There’s nothing subtle about Dorothy Jeakins’ pink ‘wriggle’ dress, indeed there’s not a lot that’s subtle about Monroe’s character – including the longest walk in cinema history (116 feet) that made much of Monroe’s assets. In contrast, Lorelei softens her sexuality with a wit and that now-legendary whispery voice and feminine giggle. However, Lorelei never uses her sexuality or her wit as a weapon, the two work in tandem to create an unthreatening character, a girl who’s sexy and charming without even realising it.
Although Lorelei is a nightclub singer, Hawks wanted her to appear polished and sleek. According to Barbara Leaming this was in keeping with his personal taste in women, which ran to a much more sophisticated look than Marilyn had ever possessed. William Travilla was tasked with transforming Monroe from a small-time pin-up to a glamorous movie star. He designed a wardrobe that, whilst showy and flattering, was grounded in simplicity and finished with lady-like accessories. The costumes were flashy – but in colour and embellishment only – the emphasis was on clean and simple lines.
In terms of costume, the star of the show is another pink dress, albeit one that projects a completely different image. If Jeakins’ design for Niagara grabbed attention, Travilla’s asked for it. The elegant, floor-length silk satin dress (worn during the Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best Friend scene) was cut with a straight neckline and tied with an oversized bow stuffed with ostrich feathers and horsehair. Cut to flatter Monroe’s curves the boned bodice kept the dress up whilst allowing the actress to dance. A hidden zip and poppers fixed the final pieces in place. A few well-chosen accessories, including matching opera gloves, a black fan and diamond cuffs, chandelier earrings and a choker completed the look.
To make the dress easier to perform in (and to appease the censorship board) Travilla lined the garment with black felt. As Monroe dances the underlayer is revealed. Although it was a practical decision, it ties the costume into the black tuxedos worn by the male ‘escorts’ and ensures that the dress stands out against the red backdrop.
In Dressing Marilyn, Andrew Hansford suggests that this was not Travilla’s original vision for the scene. He had designed a dress with a jewel-encrusted fishnet bodice and a velvet and diamond ‘tail’ (see above image). Although the garment cost close to $4,000 to produce, Monroe never wore it – due to Fox’s concerns about how Marilyn (who had recently been embroiled in a nude calendar scandal) would be perceived – and that resultant publicity would force investors to back out.
Although the pink strapless dress is the one that will forever be associated with the film, Travilla designed an extensive wardrobe for Monroe and Russell, including red sequin dresses with thigh-high slits and slashed-to-the-waist V-necklines (with a flesh-coloured underlay, naturally), and a coral chiffon evening dress with to-the-knee ruching and a bead encrusted sweetheart neckline.
With Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Fox cemented Monroe’s status as a box-office star and established a ‘Marilyn Monroe’ persona that was loved by audiences across the world. The role was so successful that the studio decided to repeat the formula with How To Marry A Millionaire (also starring Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable). Production was initially scheduled to start four days after the completion of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. However, Monroe disliked the role both the studio and the public stereotyped her into, and worked hard to break out from her persona – a move that was to have serious repercussions for both actress and studio.