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Story of a Dress: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”

Marilyn Monroe’s iconic pink gown wasn’t Travilla’s original design for one of cinema’s most celebrated musical numbers.

Marilyn Monroe in her iconic pink gown by William Travilla, performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” directed by Howard Hawks.

William Travilla had designed costumes for just two films featuring Marilyn Monroe – Don’t Bother to Knock and Monkey Business, both in 1952 – before he started work on the Howard Hawks musical that catapulted the actress to name-above-the-title status: 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But he already intimately knew her style likes and dislikes, with the latter rooted in anything that didn’t show off Monroe’s figure to its fullest advantage.

A publicity shot from “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend."

A contract designer at Twentieth Century-Fox since 1950, Travilla once called a tan jersey dress he designed for Monroe to wear in a Monkey Business skating scene “the only costume of mine that Marilyn ever hated,” precisely because its full pleated skirt concealed, rather than showcased, her gorgeous hips and legs. Monroe at first refused to wear the dress, until Hawks, also the director on this comedy starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, intervened.

But the costume Travilla designed for a musical number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a different matter entirely. The song was “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” written by Jule Styne and Leo Robin, with Monroe’s Lorelei Lee performing an ode to her love of maximum sparkle, especially if it was designed by Tiffany & Co., Cartier or Harry Winston. In a televised interview that aired decades after the film’s release, Travilla reminisced about what was demanded for the scene: “The idea then was that the studio make her the sexiest, most exciting, almost-naked lady on the screen.”

Travilla’s original design for the number, soon declared “too sexy” in light of the release of Monroe’s now-famous nude photos during the production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Monroe and co-star Jane Russell play a pair of showgirls on a transatlantic voyage in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and their occupation likewise seems to inform Travilla’s original design, which consisted of little more than fishnet hose over a nude bodystocking, embellished with glistening jewels in all the right places. Monroe did wardrobe tests in the completed look, which included long black gloves and a profusion of rhinestone bracelets; the scene was set for filming – and then all hell broke loose. With Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in early production, and Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (an RKO film) newly released, United Press wire-service reporter Aline Mosby uncovered the news that Monroe had posed for nude photographs in 1949, and by 1952, at least one of those images topped a calendar that could be found in barber shops, garages and hardware stores all around the U.S. (One of those images also famously would be featured later in December 1953, inside the first-ever issue of Playboy magazine.)

Darryl F. Zanuck, then the studio head at Twentieth Century-Fox, and his executive team urged Monroe to deny the story. Though the actress historically has been relegated to a “dumb blonde” stereotype, it’s notable that in this and other instances throughout her career, she proved to be exceedingly savvy in handling her own PR. Monroe consented to an exclusive interview with Mosby, in which she explained that she had agreed to do those 1949 photos, taken by Hollywood-based photographer Tom Kelley, for one simple reason: poverty. “I was broke and needed the money. Why deny it?” she said. “Besides, I’m not ashamed of it, I’ve done nothing wrong … Tom didn’t think anyone would recognize me. My hair was long then. But when the picture came out, everybody knew me … I’d never have done it if I’d known things would happen so fast in Hollywood for me.” Monroe did alter one aspect of her story: Some accounts explain that she needed the money – she was paid $50 for the two-hour photography session – to make a car payment, but in that interview, she said she needed it for rent, an explanation that surely would have garnered more sympathy for a struggling actress.

Her strategy was wholly successful. Not only was Monroe forgiven for that early and desperate transgression, but audiences flocked to Clash by Night to get a glimpse at the girl making all the headlines. Marilyn Monroe was officially a star.

Travilla’s final sketch of the head-to-toe pink silk look worn by Monroe for “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Travilla, however, was given an emergency mandate by Zanuck. “The studio went wild, and then I got a call: ‘Throw the [bodystocking] costume out, we’ve got to dress her, we might lose all the box office for the film,’” he remembered. “So I made a very covered dress, a very famous pink dress with a big bow in back.” With just two days until filming was due to begin on “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Travilla fashioned candy-pink peau d’ange silk against a backing of green billiard felt to give the fabric some shape, and from that created the strapless gown using just two side seams. “The dress was folded into shape, rather like cardboard,” Travilla explained years later. “Any other girl would have looked like she was wearing cardboard, but on the 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!”

A belt at the waist “crunched the whole thing in,” Travilla added, while an asymmetrical back bow was perfect for highlighting Monroe’s dance moves. The designer also made one more late change: An early sketch of the pink gown shows it paired with long black gloves and black shoes – by Salvatore Ferragamo, Monroe’s preferred shoe designer – but in a final costume decision, Travilla exchanged the gloves for a pair in a matching pink. A heap of costume jewels on Monroe’s neck and wrists finished the look; while Hollywood lore over the years has intimated that Harry Winston provided genuine diamonds for the scene, Joan Joseff of Joseff of Hollywood is credited with crafting the film’s jewels, though Monroe would do a publicity shot with a famed diamond, the 24.04-carat Moon of Baroda, in advance of the film’s release.

The finished look in the production number.

Fast-forward almost 60 years, and the pink gown emerged in the news once again. In 2010, Profiles in History, the Calabasas, Calif.-based auction house, announced that Monroe’s pink Gentlemen Prefer Blondes gown would be part of its “Hollywood 40” auction. In an interview, Profiles in History president and CEO Joseph Maddalena noted that the gown had been in one collector’s hands since the 1960s, and while the gown’s auction estimate was set at $150,000 to $250,000, its historical significance could mean a final bid that was much higher: “It’s the most famous dance sequence in Marilyn Monroe’s career,” he said, adding that the dress was “a cultural icon” and “the most important female costume I’ve ever sold.”

The final selling price of the gown, however, came in at $310,000, likely because questions arose as to whether the dress was indeed the piece used for the number. Film and fashion historians pointed to everything from the lack of the design’s green felt lining to a difference in the pink silk’s sheen from how it appears onscreen. While it’s not uncommon for more than one copy of a design to be created, especially for intricate and lengthy musical sequences, the questions were enough to tamp down both enthusiasm for the gown and its hammer price.

William Travilla and Marilyn Monroe in wardrobe tests for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Travilla would design Monroe’s costumes for eight of her films – he mistakenly says 11 films in that televised interview – with designs that included her looks and those of her castmates in How to Marry a Millionaire, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and perhaps his most famous Monroe look, the white pleated halter dress for her legendary subway-grate scene in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. That design famously sold for $4.6 million in 2011 – part of the famed collection of Debbie Reynolds, who had purchased the dress for $200 – while the custom Jean Louis gown Monroe wore in 1962 to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy holds the record in Monroe costumes, selling at a Julien’s Auctions event for $4.8 million in 2016.

Ultimately it’s evident that Monroe and Travilla enjoyed a close relationship – as close friends were known to do with the designer, she called him Billy, while they were also rumored to have had an affair at one point. And when he talked about her, he sounded as mesmerized as any fan. “If you’ve ever known paradise, that was Marilyn,” he told the LA Times in 1990. “She was the most feminine woman, the most perfect girl I’d ever known. I can’t remember a flaw.” Travilla died less than two months after that interview.

Now that you know the backstory of the pink gown, here’s the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in its entirety:

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