William Travilla – The Man Behind Marilyn’s Most Iconic Dresses

24th February 2024
Helen McIntosh

William Travilla, the man behind some of the most iconic dresses on and off the big screen during his 40+ year career, had one particular star client for whom designing was a personal affair. His dresses for Marilyn Monroe played their own role in her star appeal. Here we take a look at just 3 of these incredible, head-turning gowns, and explore the lesser known stories around them.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

We all know the scene. Laureli Lee in a sleeveless shocking pink gown, matching long gloves and shoes, cascading down a staircase, batting away gentlemen. This scene from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has since been recreated time and time again by the likes of Kylie Jenner, Winnie Harlow and Madonna.

The original ensemble for this musical number was to be a black body stocking, draped with jewels and a large feather headpiece but, during production, a scandal broke out after images of Marilyn posing nude for the first issue of Playboy, taken some years prior in 1949, were released. To distance Marilyn and the film from the fallout, the more modest pink dress was designed and made by costume designer William Travilla in just 2 days.

Marilyn went on to wear a similar version, minus the bow, to the premier of the 1954 film, There’s No Business Like Show Business.


The 7 Year Itch

Perhaps Marilyn’s most famous film scene was in the 1955 film The 7 Year Itch. The scene, commonly referred to as the ‘Subway scene’, shows Marilyn in a silky white cocktail dress designed by Travilla, standing above a grating in New York, fighting with her circle skirt against the breeze as a Subway train runs beneath.

Hundreds of fans clamoured around the streets to get a glimpse of Marilyn filming the iconic moment, which was shot in the early hours at various locations. After Marilyn died in 1962, the dress, which Travilla dismissed as ‘that silly little dress’, along with many others, was rumoured to have been kept by the designer. Actress Debbie Reynolds went on to buy it for $200 after Travilla’s death, before selling her collection in 2011 at auction where she got $4.6 million for it.

The final offer was made by a private bidder who has since remained anonymous, though the dress did make a brief appearance in public in 2012 for the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The iconic orange dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the bar scene of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes holds a special place in film history, epitomising Monroe's allure and Travilla's design genius.

It is said the dress even caused gasps of surprise from film goers when they saw her in it, alongside her equally glamorous co-star Jane Russell. And it would seem that Marilyn loved the design so much that it became a prototype for a salmon pink version which Travilla made for her own personal collection.

Interestingly, the dress, most likely studio-owned, appeared in another film called The Girl Can’t Help It, worn by actress Abbey Lincoln who wore it once again on the June ’57 cover of Ebony magazine as well.


A Career With The Stars

Alongside his award winning designs for film and TV including The Adventures of Don Juan and Dallas, during the course of his career Travilla also dressed many incredible stars including Whitney Houston, Lana Turner, Diahann Carroll and Sharon Tate.

But Marilyn was seemingly a favourite and his talent was clearly, greatly appreciated by her too who, in the mid 1950’s, signed a calendar for Travilla with the words: “Billy, dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn.”

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