Costume DesignFilm & Television

The Story Behind Marilyn Monroe’s Most Iconic Costume Design

Marilyn Monroe wore many memorable costumes across her film career. But it was the white dress she donned for The Seven Year Itch that established Marilyn as a sex symbol and proved to be the most iconic costume design she ever wore. Helen Beaumont explains how this came to be…

Seven Year Itch

Released in 1955, The Seven Year Itch is a romantic comedy, based on a Broadway play of the same name. It follows middle aged published executive Richard Sherman, as he imagines having an affair with a glamourous actress and former model, played by Monroe, who is never named in the film.

The Seven Year Itch features one of the most famous scenes in history. At one point the woman, wearing a risqué white dress, stands on a New York City subway grate, while fighting an upward breeze. This caught the imagination of movie goers the world-over, elevating the dress into the realm of iconic costume designs, alongside the likes Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain-frock in Gone With The Wind.

During filming

In 2014, The Guardian featured an editorial shedding light on The Seven Year Itch’s most iconic costume. It was created by designer William Travella, who grew to dislike the piece, later labelling it “that silly little dress.” It was worn by Monroe originally at 1am on 15th September 1954, on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, with the star having to film the scene 14 times in New York.

But the clip’s filming was attended by between 2,000 and 5,000 fans and they made so much noise, that the crew couldn’t get the shot they needed in New York. The final scene was filmed on the Fox lot in California, although the original material was used in ads and promos for The Seven Year Itch. It’s also interesting to note that Marilyn went to great efforts to ensure that her private parts weren’t actually exposed in the scene, wearing two pairs of underwear below the dress to guard her modesty.

Lasting legacy

All that effort during filming paid off, as The Seven Year Itch’s white dress left a lasting legacy. It eventually fell into Debbie Reynolds’ costume design collection, which included the likes of Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Orson Welles’ fur coat from Citizen Kane. Due to financial concerns, Reynolds auctioned the piece off in 2011 and it ended up selling for a staggering US$4.6m.

This netted the actress a strong return on her investment, as she paid just US$200 for the dress when she bought it in 1971. The US$4.6m price tag is certainly justified, as the scene in which the dress was featured has been honoured in various ways across the world, from Japan to New Jersey. In Japan, for example, villagers re-created the scene by creating a 140m x 100m image of Monroe in a rice field!

Defining sex symbols

Marilyn Monroe’s white dress in The Seven Year Itch has become so famous, because it helped craft the definition of a sex symbol. During the scene, Marilyn tries to prevent the dress from billowing up and it’s the actress’ coquettishness that ultimately makes the dress sexy. Here we see just how much power a costume designer has to influence pop culture discourse, when they design film clothing.

About Helen Beaumont

Helen Beaumont’s career started at Camberwell College of Art, where she studied the History of Art and Design, specialising in costume during her final year. After completing study, Helen became a costume buyer for theatre and opera. She has since become a professional costume designer, with a keen interest in period clothing. Throughout her career, Helen has created authentic costumes for prestigious companies such as the Universal Studios, Disney, BBC, Tiger Aspect and the Young Vic Theatre.

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