Marilyn Monroe’s style lessons extend further than how to wear figure-hugging gowns and platinum-blonde hair. The actress’s beguiling take on fashion altered Hollywood as she knew it: in an era of prim Peter Pan collars and stiff petticoats, she made it acceptable for women to embrace their own sexuality.
Traces of her signature aesthetic can be glimpsed throughout the history of pop culture, with fans as illustrious as Madonna having imitated Monroe's style. For the singer’s Material Girl music video in 1984, she even replicated the shoulderless satin pink sheath and evening gloves worn by the starlet in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Whether it’s a shade of platinum, a bold red lip or a plunging neckline, countless celebrities continue to mimic Marilyn Monroe’s fashion, heightening their own sensuality in the process.
The original blonde bombshell
Norma Jeane Baker, born in 1926, transformed her entire image to become Marilyn Monroe. While her hair was still sable brown, she landed a contract with Emmeline Snively’s Blue Book modelling agency in the mid-1940s.
Snively, who became Monroe’s first ever stylist, honed in on the ingenue’s potential. She suggested the model should take her lead from wartime pin-ups such as Betty Grable and Lana Turner by dyeing her hair the distinctive platinum shade. While a relatively minor change, it allowed the rising star to lay the foundations for her new persona.
Once established in Hollywood, Monroe worked closely with costume designer William Travilla to create her most iconic outfits. Although he dressed over 250 stars during his career, his collaborations with Monroe ensured his name became synonymous with femininity, style and sex.
Together, the duo created the much-copied gold lamé gown the actress wore for the 1953 Photoplay Magazine Awards. This infamous Marilyn Monroe dress was so risqué that the actress Joan Crawford later opined it would have been more appropriate for a burlesque show.
Several actresses have since paid homage to the starlet’s style, including Jessica Chastain, who wore a strikingly similar metallic Versace gown to the Golden Globes in 2015.
A stylist in her own right
Monroe’s eye for fashion was innate. She often adapted dresses to suit her shape, as well as to enhance her effervescent persona. After choosing an emerald green Norman Norell dress for the 1962 Golden Globes, she had a halter-neck strap attached to give her silhouette maximum impact.
“She [always] knew exactly how to get the effect she wanted with black jersey, fine silk crepe or a solid nimbus of skintight sequins’’, said Meredith Etherington-Smith, Paris Vogue’s former London Editor.
Although Monroe sang about diamonds being a girl’s best friend, she rarely adorned herself in ostentatious jewellery, opting instead to let her dresses – and her shape – command the spotlight.
Similarly to a host of other actresses at the time, the star wore an array of Salvatore Ferragamo pumps, but always with a stiletto heel. Yet Marilyn Monroe’s style lessons travelled further than her contemporaries’: she often wore emerging designers, allowing them to harness the power of her wide-reaching fame.
Renowned for favouring Emilio Pucci dresses and blouses, Monroe was often photographed in the label’s striking prints and shades. Yet it was a much-adored apple-green shift that exemplified her relationship with the fashion house. It is even said she left explicit instructions to be buried in the dress.
Monroe and modern pop culture
In 2011, Simon Curtis directed the film My Week with Marilyn, in which the actress is played by Michelle Williams. Based on two books by Colin Clark, it chronicles the production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), starring Monroe. Yet despite the actress’s showgirl image in the original motion picture, the Marilyn Monroe costumes worn by Williams reveal a dramatically different side to the woman behind the on-screen guise.
“When you look at photos of her off-duty, she was ahead of her time,” the film’s costume designer, Jill Taylor, explained. “She dressed for comfort – simple lines, nothing fussy. She was a Calvin Klein girl before there was a Calvin Klein girl.”
The star could transform from humble Norma Jeane to style icon Marilyn Monroe in a matter of seconds, allowing her a semblance of normality between navigating film premieres and awards shows. In her time off, she favoured capri pants, loosely fitted shirts and flat pumps – a pared-down and rather preppy look compared to her coquettish red carpet façade.
Taylor looked to images of the actress on her honeymoon with playwright Arthur Miller to curate Williams’ costumes: think Ralph Lauren Black knitwear and Calvin Klein Jeans denim with barely-there makeup. In fact, Monroe was so minimalist in her daily style that Taylor could easily have dressed Williams in Isabel Marant coats or Céline jackets without it seeming anachronistic.
Nowadays, overt sexuality in Hollywood and throughout pop culture is barely new nor exciting. But in the early 1950s, it was revolutionary for a woman to celebrate and accentuate her feminine shape. Without Marilyn Monroe’s style lessons, the landscapes of contemporary fashion and film wouldn't be the same.