Marilyn Monroe’s on-screen costumes are almost as iconic as she is. She thinks of the strapless pink dress she wore to sing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. Or the backless white cocktail dress that billowed over a subway grate in “The Seven Year Itch”.
They have been recreated, reimagined, and referenced many, many times, from big-budget movies and music videos to cheap costume shops and everything in between.
The white subway dress she wore for the scene fetched $4.6 million at auction in 2011 and several years after, the “touring” replica sold for $120,000. Suffice to say, “Blonde” costume designer Jennifer Johnson felt enormous pressure to come up with the dresses we all know so well for the Netflix movie, which airs Wednesday.
Yes ok “Blonde” may be a fictional version of Monroe’s story, the costumes are torn from reality. The vast majority of the dresses star Ana de Armas wears in the film as Monroe are recreations that Johnson and his team had to make without the actual reference garment at hand. In fact, the only Monroe article he was able to study in real life, a jacket from the movie “Niagara” which is kept at Western Costume in Los Angeles, did not make the cut.
Instead, Johnson relied on the films themselves, photos from director Andrew Dominik’s 750-page “bible” for the shoot, and a small booklet by William Travilla, the longtime studio costume designer responsible for many of Monroe’s most famous film looks.
“Obviously, we could not access the same fabrics, but it was very important to maintain the construction quality of those original dresses so they didn’t feel like cheap simulation or a costume,” Johnson said.
She learned in Travilla’s book that when the pink “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” dress didn’t move properly when Monroe came down the stairs singing “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, he, in a last minute panic , got some green felt. for a pool table in another apartment and lined the garment with it. Although she did not resort to the pool table technique, she identified with Travilla’s problems when she encountered similar problems herself.
Headaches aside, he said, when there’s money, “it’s always easier to do” than finding something vintage.
“It’s pretty hard to find existing stuff,” he said. “Vintage clothing is going away. It’s literally evaporating off this planet.”
By far the most difficult dress to recreate, however, was the pleated white one immortalized in “The Seven Year Itch,” another Travilla creation. Pleating turned out to be enormously complex, in part because there aren’t many places in the United States anymore that specialize in the technique, which requires custom molds.
“We had a lot of failures” Johnson said. “It was unbelievable how much fabric it took to create the bow and the drama of that dress when it blew up on the subway grid… I think we used about 50 yards of fabric because the pleating wasn’t right. It looked great, but the molds weren’t designed properly for pleating. There was a lot of research and development and waste in that.”
But in the end it was worth seeing in the movie, where he’s almost a supporting character in a fundamental and chilling recreation of the memorable moment.
“It’s so beautifully shot by Chayse Irvin, our amazing cinematographer, and Andrew is such a visionary,” said Johnson. “That’s just real porn dressed in the movie. There’s incredible slow motion and you can really revel in the quality of the dress.”
Monroe’s off-screen style was much more subdued and far from the sequins and glitter of her film looks. Johnson and Dominik decided that she should have some sort of off-duty uniform, consisting mainly of capri pants and turtleneck sweaters, some of which were vintage finds from Los Angeles costume houses.
“It was very important to me that this uniform projected her desire to be taken seriously as an actress and artist.”Johnson said. “She was emulating the beatnik style or the French style.”
However, not everything is completely accurate. Naturalism was paramount to Johnson, including making sure the outfits worked for both de Armas’s body and contemporary audiences. One thing they rejected was the marbles Monroe sewed into his bra. That, he determined, would be a distraction to modern eyes.
“I never wanted it to feel funny or dressed up,” Johnson said. “When I approach my designs, and even if it’s a recreation of something we all knowit was very important that Ana never felt that she was wearing a costume.