Pass the peroxide and work on that wiggle: fashion is having a Marilyn moment. From the cover of UK Harper’s Bazaar (Kate Winslet with tousled peroxide halo and black liquid eyeliner), to the cover of British Vogue (Rihanna with waved blonde bob) and the cover of American Vogue (Michelle Williams, star of My Week with Marilyn – the upcoming film behind this Monroemania – in plunging ballgown, curled hair and creamy cleavage), the actress that launched a thousand sequinned evening gowns is working her trend-setting magic once again. Expect gentlemen – and women – to prefer blondes this party season.
Since her death, Monroe has become something of a semiotic shortcut for celebrities who want to convey timeless glamour and a certain status; to prove they are woman enough to assume her sex kitten mantle. “Monroe is very much an icon, or even a brand, in the collective mind of Hollywood and to fashion professionals,” says professor and writer Elaine Showalter. “Her legend is ongoing and constantly refreshed.” But what, exactly, has made Monroe’s image so enduring and why does her 1950s look feel so current?
According to Elizabeth Saltzman, stylist and contributing editor of Vanity Fair, “the movie My Week with Marilyn feels relevant, not just because Michelle Williams will probably get an Oscar nomination but because fashion is working towards that same covered-but-not-covered- up look. It’s a major long-term trend.” So, too, says Saltzman, is the fact that “girls are wanting to be girls again”. She believes that “now women can be political leaders, run companies, be mothers, whatever they want to be, but they no longer have to wear hardcore pantsuits and nine-inch heels, they can also be feminine.”
And the clothes in the film, which explores Monroe’s relationship with a young English set runner during the making of The Prince and The Showgirl, are deeply feminine. There’s the silver beaded sheath dress that Michelle Williams wears in the opening sequence, which embraces her body as tightly as any of Monroe’s three husbands, and off-duty pieces such as an hourglass black midi dress and a camel pencil skirt worn with a white blouse that could have come from the autumn/winter catwalks. Equally au courant are a black polo neck and the cat’s eye sunglasses she wears to walk down the steps of a plane. Add to that a belted camel coat worn draped over the shoulders rather than fastened, a look having a mini revival, and slender heeled court shoes, and the result is appealingly adult and elegant. (For an updated version, Natalie Kingham, international buyer for Matches boutique, suggests a roomy Stella McCartney coat over a Balenciaga pencil skirt and Bottega Veneta black cashmere sweater, YSL Opium shoes and a Harris clutch bag.) Evening shimmer, a Monroe signature, is also key this season.
“People aren’t trying to be shocking, now they are trying to be elegant,” explains Saltzman. “I dress a lot of women and more and more they don’t want to wear … nothing.” By contrast, Saltzman is “crazy for” the designer Alessandra Rich, whose red carpet designs, worn by Natalie Massenet and Gwyneth Paltrow, have long sleeves and high necks.
There’s an irony here: while Monroe’s capri trousers, polo necks or pencil skirts might be demure by today’s standards, in the 1950s many of her red carpet and film costumes were deemed highly risqué. Among the dresses that made her “represent the sexual threat to comfortable monogamy”, as author Jed Mercurio, whose book American Adulterer featured Monroe, terms it, was the gold lamé pleated sheath dress by costume designer William Travilla, which she wore for mere seconds in the film Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953). It had been scripted to appear in several scenes until censors deemed it inappropriate.
As Andrew Hansford writes in his new book (co-written with Karen Homer) Dressing Marilyn: How A Hollywood Icon Was Styled By William Travilla (Goodman, £20) “How Marilyn managed to wear that dress without attracting the attention of the censors, even for that brief moment, is a mystery.” In the 1950s, according to Hansford, actresses “weren’t meant to show even a shadow of a cleavage” and Travilla used to say that Monroe had the “best breasts in Hollywood”, largely because their shape enabled him to cheat the censors: they were naturally quite far apart, allowing him to create dresses that were slashed to the waist yet didn’t show cleavage, without the need for a lot of boning.
Although the gold dress appeared only briefly on screen, Monroe’s determination to make the most of its show-stopping impact demonstrates how carefully she constructed her seductive persona. She planned to wear the dress to accept an award at the 1953 Photoplay Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel, despite Travilla’s insistence that it was “totally inappropriate”. Undeterred, she called Travilla to say that Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, wanted him to “unlock the dress and give her what she wants”, was sewn into it, refused to wear an under slip, and, according to Hansford, “as the sensational photograph hit the front of newspapers around the globe, a sex symbol was born.”
Another new book, Marilyn Monroe: Metamophosis (It Books), also documents her transformation, this time through co-author David Wills’s extensive archives of Monroe photographs, many of them unpublished.
“She was so clever in crafting her public image,” confirms Laura Beresford, curator at the American Museum in Bath, which hosted an exhibition of her dresses called Marilyn: Hollywood Icon, ending on October 30. “She realised that still photography would cement her in the public mind and created what she dubbed ‘the look’ with head tilted back, lips half-open, eyes half-shut … pure smouldering sensuousness.”
From her platinum hair – devised in 1950 by Max Factor – to her make-up, which she often did herself, to her name, Monroe was a construct. That fact should make her easy to imitate but, in addition to genuine beauty, it was the tension between the real Norma Jean and the boop-boop-bi-do brand that made her image compelling.
“Her longevity depends on the duality of her image: child-woman and sex goddess, dumb blonde and aspiring intellectual, adored star and exploited victim,” says Showalter. “Monroe’s look itself emphasised strong contrast, with pale skin, white-blond hair and bright red lips. That combination spells glamour.” Even mixed-up, pastiched and homaged by everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga, it still does.
Carola Long is the FT’s deputy fashion editor