Marilyn Monroe

Joanne B. Eicher

Article

DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA189

Abstract

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, sometimes using Baker (1 June 1926–5 August 1962), began her career as a model. Signing a film contract in 1946, she played minor roles, receiving attention for her beauty, curvaceous body, and mode of dressing. With prominence, she became a sex symbol. She adeptly helped create her visual persona by learning makeup and strategic wardrobe techniques. She relied on costumers like William Travilla to help construct her image in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, becoming a cultural icon for femininity and sexuality, even after her untimely death, into the twenty-first century.


Kate Moss modeling for John Galliano for his spring/summer collection of 1995. Photograph by Niall McInerney, Fashion Photography Archive

Fashion and Style

Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson, sometimes using Baker (1 June 1926–5 August 1962), began her career as a model. Signing a film contract in 1946, she played minor roles, receiving attention for her beauty, curvaceous body, and mode of dressing. With prominence, she became a sex symbol. She adeptly helped create her visual persona by learning makeup and strategic wardrobe techniques. She relied on costumers like William Travilla to help construct her image in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, becoming a cultural icon for femininity and sexuality, even after her untimely death, into the twenty-first century.

Monroe’s attention to detail for total appearance is the essence of her fashion and style. She spent two hours on perfecting makeup, dressed fastidiously for public appearances, and often borrowed studio garments, but carefully returned them. Her casual, tousled hairdo was prescient; she often wore no hosiery and no underwear to avoid panty lines. She wore designs of Cassini, Dior, Galanos, Norell, and Lanvin, but in that era, designer names were not featured; apparel emphasized her body and beauty. Iconic garments include the pleated white dress in The Seven Year Itch and nude silk soufflé gauze dress with rhinestones for singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy.

Defining Moments

Marilyn Monroe spent her early years in foster homes, spending hours at movies during childhood and teen years, dreaming about being a movie star. She saw the glamorous and slinky fashions of film stars such as Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford, wearing costumes intended to offset the dreariness of the Depression decade, which left an impression on her movie wardrobe choices. She was signed as a teenage model in the 1940s for “girl next door” ads and magazine covers. Emmeline Snively, manager of the Blue Book Agency, reported that Norma Jeane was disciplined and worked harder than others to follow directions for learning to smile advantageously and pose, practicing for hours in front of a mirror, getting electrolysis to define her hairline and, after protesting, agreeing to lighten her hair from brown to blonde. At age nineteen, she worked both as a model and on a factory assembly line; a photographer noticed her at the factory and took his shots of her to 20th Century Fox, resulting in a film contract. She changed her name to Marilyn Monroe and, as a starlet, undertook minor plastic surgery to shorten the tip of her nose, add cartilage to one side of her chin, and narrow her nostrils. She used weight lifting and diligent exercise to keep her body toned. She had flawless teeth, beautiful hair, and an engaging smile; she learned the art of makeup, often taking two hours to perfect it, shaping her lips with five colors of lipstick and highlights of Vaseline, because lip gloss did not exist. Her intention to get an effect by manipulating cosmetics and her body was as important as clothing and accessory choices.

Slim-fitting fashions at the time of her entry into modeling and films at the end of World War II, influenced by the L-85 fabric restrictions, along with Dior’s 1947 New Look, emphasized a woman’s bustline and small waist. Marilyn’s body showed off these silhouettes well in both modeling and movie worlds. Fashions of the 1950s continued to accentuate female contours; Marilyn’s development of her signature walk, swaying (some said “wiggling”) her hips and wearing high-heel shoes (usually Ferragamo), drew attention to her body as well as clothes. Her figure and breast contours allowed designers to create sensuous, décolletage gowns, showing no cleavage and thus avoiding strict censorship by the Motion Picture Association of America, as in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. Wanting to display her body to advantage led her to request being sewn into her costumes. Iconic examples, in addition to perhaps the most famous movie dress of all time in The Seven Year Itch, are Travilla’s designs for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, such as the red sequined one, the gold lamé, and the pink silk satin along with the purple or dahlia color in How to Marry a Millionaire. Her personal wardrobe was casual, as she often wore Jax slacks and tops, simple, single-color dresses by Pucci, sunglasses, and headscarves; she frequently went unobserved, unless she decided to “turn on” being Marilyn, flash a smile, and use her famous walk.

Style Legacy

Marilyn Monroe’s achievements as a film star and sex symbol were recorded in luminous still photographs and film, and according to curator David Wills, rested on “a perfect marriage of time, personality, and art.” In regard to time, the cultural setting of the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the early 1960s until her death continued styles of prim and well-fitting apparel from the post-World War II era, playing up women as the epitome of female. Body-conscious fashions, modified by her own twist of understanding sexuality, underscored her movie roles. She inspired many designers (Jean Paul Gaultier. John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Theirry Mugler, and Yves Saint Laurent) and many stars (Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Gwen Stefani, and Lady Gaga). Wills suggested Monroe’s career had five phases: baby-face model, quintessential starlet, ultra-glamorous star, toned-down actress, and finally, ethereal, pale blonde. Through it all, she emphasized her body. Authors Christopher Nickens and George Zeno call her “a style visionary whose fashion-forward choices have transcended any specific era.” Her personal characteristics of discipline and determination were key; she viewed her body as both art and artifact, which she controlled by single-mindedly attending to exercise, makeup, and clothes. Although married three times, she did not cater to, or ask advice from, her husbands or others about her look. In a 1952 article, she revealed her fashion philosophy, which never changed: “I believe your body should make your clothes look good—instead of using clothes to make the body conform to what is considered fashionable …” Although the end of her life included health problems, prescription drug and alcohol use, and unsympathetic treatment by high-handed movie moguls, she remained true to her own projected image of a sculpted and polished self. As her drama coach, Lee Strasberg, said in his eulogy, she was “the symbol of the eternal feminine.”

References and Further Reading

Christie’s New York. The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe . New York : Christie’s, 1999.

Find in Library Guiles Lawrence. Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe . New York : McGraw-Hill, 1969.

Find in Library Hansford Andrew, and Karen Homer. Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla . Milwaukee, WI : Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2011.

Find in Library Nickens Christopher, and George Zeno. Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe . Philadelphia : Running Press Book Publishers, 2012.

Find in Library Steinem Gloria. Marilyn . New York : Henry Holt and Company, 1986.

Find in Library Wills David, and Stephen Schmidt. Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis . New York : HarperCollins, 2011.