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The story behind Marilyn Monroe's most expensive dresses

Nadja Beschetnikova
February 12, 2018

Despite all controversies her personality could provoke, you can hardly dispute the fact that Marilyn Monroe has significantly enriched the history of fashion with some outstanding outfits.
Her attitude, her elegance, and sexuality, which looked almost effortless and uncoined, influenced the whole generation of actresses and singers.

In the history of cinema of the 20th century, we know many examples of successful cooperation of stars and fashion designers.
The dresses they created became part of the iconic image and we inextricably associate some characters with certain items of the wardrobe.

That’s definitely a win-win situation for both designer and celebrity. While the creator utilizes celebrity’s audience, the star is declared a style icon and tastemaker.
One of the most well-known collaborations was a partnership of Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn.

‘His are the only clothes in which I am myself,’ she told reporters in 1956.
Givenchy formed her image that remained in our memory.

But not many of us know, that Marilyn Monroe also had her own private wizard with a needle and thread. For a man who created some of the most iconic dresses of the 20th century, William Travilla is surprisingly little known. It was he who dressed Marilyn Monroe for the screen.
The leading costume designer for 20th Century Fox, Travilla create the costumes for eight of the star's films, from Monkey Business (1952) to Bus Stop (1956). Travilla once said, 'My clothes for Marilyn were an act of love, I adored her.'

He knew how to create gowns that worked within the framework of film stock. Marilyn always looked fabulous on-screen. Travilla’s visions were synonymous with style, class, elegance and sex appeal. And all these characteristics are forever associated with Marilyn.

Every appearance of the dress from Marilyn’s wardrobe at the auction causes among collectors and fans a similar excitement which before could perhaps cause the appearance of the star on the red carpet.
And two of the most expensive Marilyn’s dresses ever auctioned were creations by Travilla.

1. Pink Dress from Gentlemen prefer blondes (1953)
Sold for $310,000 in 2010

Compared with the jaw-dropping bids for other dresses, the price tag of this satin robe looks like an offer from the Christmas sale. The shocking pink gown was worn by Marilyn Monroe as the gold-digging “Lorelei Lee” in one of cinema’s most memorable song and dance sequences as she performed “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. The reason for the ‘low’ price is that there were rumors that the dress was just a copy. Some people noticed differences in design, such as the absence of the felt, the original dress was lined with.

But even more surprising is the fact that this dress could have never been created.
Originally Travilla designed an incredible showgirl costume, embellished with a mass of diamonds, for the scene. However, the breathtaking outfit, costing close to $4,000, didn’t leave the cutting room.  

At the same time the scandalous pictures of Marilyn, posing nude for a calendar back in 1949, came out and Travilla was given strict instructions to cover Monroe up. The iconic dress is probably one of the most successful «Plans B» ever. Made from a silk satin called peau d'ange, it was long and figure-hugging but still allowed the actress the freedom to dance.
The strapless dress was decorated with a pink satin belt and an oversized bow attached at the back.

“Apart from the two side seams, the dress was folded into shape rather like cardboard. Any other girl would have looked like she was wearing cardboard, but on-screen I swear you would have thought Marilyn had on a pale, thin piece of silk. Her body was so fabulous it still came through.” stated William Travilla.

The dress became the subject of numerous imitations and parodies in pop-culture and symbolizes the essence of glamour and sex in the ultimate female form. Madonna imitated the whole original scene in the Material Girl music video.  

2. White dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955)
Sold for $4.6 million in 2011

Monroe once wrote to Travilla, "Billy Dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn.»
Of course, as everything on Earth, this fruitful collaboration ended one day. After 1956’s Bus Stop Travilla’s contract was not renewed by 20th Century Fox. l
But in 1955 this partnership has given us the most famous dress in cinema history.

The light-colored ivory halter-neck dress blown up by a passing train in the subway scene of The Seven Year Itch became a part of the most iconic images of the entire 20th century. Today the dress is as well the most popular element of Monroe’s legacy.

The cinematic history was made on 15th September 1954, as the famous scene was shot at 586 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The characters, played by Monroe and her co-star Tow Ewell exited the theater, and Monroe’s character stepped onto the grate in the sidewalk, saying "Ooo, do you feel the breeze from the subway?».

What happened next became a worldwide sensation. Smiling Marilyn, who flirtatiously tried to keep the dress down, nailed one of the most iconic scenes in movie history.
Among hundreds of fans in the crowd was Sam Shaw, a photographer, who shot the famous "flying skirt" image. The scene took three hours to film, but finally, Billy Wilder was forced to re-shot the sequence on the Fox lot in California.

Between 2,000 and 5,000 spectators, attracted to the set in New York, were too loud, so the takes couldn’t be used in the film. Shaw was the special still photographer for the film and proposed to use the original location shots from the movie theater scene as the logo to promote The Seven Year Itch.

The legendary cocktail dress, which played a significant role in the most extraordinary moment of Hollywood history, obviously was not the designer’s favorite creation. Travilla called it «that silly little dress». The dress indeed has a simple sewing pattern with a typical silhouette for a cocktail dress, which was in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s. The dress fits closely to the natural waistline. Below the waistband is a softly pleated skirt that reaches to mid-calf or below the calf length.
Although the designer never paid much heed to his creation, it’s now one of the most famous dresses of all time.

Whenever we see an image of Marylin nowadays, in pop culture or on postcards, most likely she will be presented wearing her trademark dress.

Travilla kept the dress locked up with many of the costumes he had made over the years for the actress. After his death the collection was discovered, the dress became a part of the private collection of Hollywood memorabilia owned by Debbie Reynolds. Due to personal financial troubles, Reynolds sold the dress in 2011.

3. Happy birthday Mr. President dress, 1962
Sold for $4.8 million in 2016

This unique crystal-emblazoned dress, worn by Monroe for a very special moment in May 1962, hit an all-time high at least twice. At the Christie’s auction in 1999, the dress sold for a then-record $1.27 million. In 2016 it set up a world record for a dress again.  At the three-day auction, dedicated to Monroe memorabilia, the dress sold for a breathtaking $4.8 million. While the asking price for the dress, which features more the 2,500 hand-stitched crystals and 6,000 shimmering rhinestones, was only $3 million. 

"It's the most historic, important piece of Marilyn Monroe that could ever be offered - it's like the Holy Grail," Darren Julien, President and CEO of Julien's Auctions, told The Telegraph.

Though the price seems even reasonable if we take into account, that this glamorous gown is not only a symbol of the iconic performance at Kennedy’s birthday gala but one of the last outfit Monroe wore in public. On 5 August, she was found dead in her bed in Brentwood with just a sheet around her.
The sheer sparkling dress was designed by Lean Louis, a famous Hollywood costume designer. For almost twenty years Louis worked as head designer for Colombia Pictures.

Did you know that the dress Monroe wore at Madison Square Garden was just a replica?
Louis had originally designed a version of the dress for Marlene Dietrich. Her live performances always had almost a magical effect to the audience thanks in no small part to her fascinating outfits.

And it was obvious that for this defining moment Monroe needed a dress, which would mesmerize  every single man.
Dietrich sent Monroe to Louis and he designed a similar dress, based on the sketch by Bob Mackie. Then he was only 21 years old and just started to work in Louis’ atelier.

Probably a unique moment in Hollywood history, when a celebrity wore a dress previously worn by another celebrity and it didn't spoil a moment at all.
The dress was so tight, that Monroe was said to have been sewn into it.

This backless flesh-colored gown remains an example to emulate for modern celebrities and pioneered the trend for «naked» dresses. Today we could hardly imagine any red carpet without a star, who is wearing something inspired by this Louis’s creation. Back in 1962, Monroe’s outfit came as a bombshell. As she took off her fur coat, many of 15,000 guests gasped in shock, thinking at first the star was indeed naked. 

The iconic dress was bought by Ripley’s Believe it or Not. According to its website, the dress will be on display from Feb. 10 to March 31, at the company’s location in St. Augustine, Florida. 

Photo via Wikipedia Commons