It's been half a century since one of history's ultimate fashionistas walked the Earth. August 5 marks 50 years since Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her bedroom at her Brentwood, Calif., home.
Despite the passage of all those years, Monroe's mark on the fashion industry is indelible, as an icon of femininity and sexuality and as a fashion visionary who propelled virtually unknown designers to fame.
She brought body-conscious designs to the forefront of fashion, a feat in an era of Peter Pan collars, matching gloves, handbags and propriety.
Perhaps one of Monroe's greatest contributions to fashion and beauty was how she embraced her curvy, seductive figure.
“She had a huge impact on women's fashion,” said Ashley Bellet, professor of costume design at Oklahoma City University. “She really kind of made it OK to be sexually attractive. I think that, especially in costume design, we use some of those elements that are very specific to Marilyn, to heighten a character's sexual attraction.”
Monroe's contributions to the fashion world have recently been compiled in “Marilyn in Fashion,” by Christopher Nickens and George Zeno. The book is a compendium of spectacular photos, behind-the-scenes anecdotes and trivia about the starlet, who will live in infamy in the hearts of fashion enthusiasts and professionals.
‘Marilyn in Fashion'
In “Marilyn in Fashion,” the authors explore Monroe's favorite designers, including those she discovered on her own and those who dressed her in films. With chapters covering the individual designers who were lucky enough to dress Monroe, the book is a must-have for student designers and Monroe fans alike. Though some facts about Monroe's life are disputed by some sources, the authors do well at describing Monroe's career trajectory and family background.
From humble beginnings, the girl born Norma Jeane Mortenson was baptized Norma Jeane Baker. In high school, she dropped the E from her middle name and lost her last name altogether. It wasn't until her career had begun that she became known as Marilyn Monroe.
Her father, Edward Mortenson, was an absentee father from the beginning. Her mother, Gladys Baker, was mentally challenged — an inconsistent presence in her daughter's life. For a time, Baker worked as a film cutter for the movie studios in Hollywood. In the book, Zeno and Nickens describe Monroe's time living in a Los Angeles orphanage as a time Monroe first envisioned her name in lights.
“Before bedtime, she would stare wistfully out a window at the tall RKO Studios sign two blocks away and think, ‘My mother used to work there. Someday, I'd like to be a star there,' ” the authors write.
With her perfect complexion, dazzling smile and big blue/gray eyes, Norma Jeane was a shoe-in for modeling. At age 19, Monroe was working for $35 a week at the Radio Plane Factory in Burbank when she was spotted by photographer David Conover. The photographer spent weeks snapping photos of Norma Jeane and helped launch that aspect of her career.
It was Emmeline Snively of the Blue Book agency who became Monroe's first stylist. She realized Norma Jeane had a much bigger opportunity at hand than just small-time modeling, and she helped refine the image that would come to define Marilyn Monroe — most notably, she persuaded her to make the giant leap from her sable brown hair to platinum blond locks.
“As a costume designer, we work with stereotypes quite often. That's what we do, we feed off of it,” Bellet said. In theater, blond hair comes with the inference of innocence — the young virginal maiden, Bellet said. “And of course with Marilyn, it's the exact opposite. She actually added complexity to the idea of blond.”
Early reactions mixed
When Monroe first made a splash in Hollywood, some women were loath to accept her as an example of womanhood. In the prim '50s, Monroe's bombshell image was a bit repulsive and offensive to some women who viewed her breathy voice, skimpy outfits and blatant sexuality as improper.
“Frankly, in that day, it certainly would not have been proper for a young woman to be impressed favorably with another young woman acting that way in person or on the screen,” said Bobbie Burbridge Lane, 78, of Oklahoma City. She remembers seeing Monroe on the big screen for the first time during her honeymoon in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1954. Lane was also a performer — the singer, dancer and actress performed on musical theater stages as well as on radio and television for much of her life.
“She was definitely marketed to men,” Lane said.
While Monroe's female contemporaries may have been put off by her strong sensuality, many women today can't seem to get enough of her. From Madonna to Lady Gaga and Adele, celebrities constantly borrow beauty tips from Monroe.
In fact, many women today view Monroe as an example of strength, courage and determination. And, behind the camera's lens, Monroe did have those qualities, said “Marilyn in Fashion” author Nickens.
“People think she was this lost soul that the studio manipulated,” Nickens said. “She was a very shrewd, ambitious girl, at least for the first five or six years of her career. Then it got out of control because it got so big.”
However you think of Monroe, her contribution to fashion cannot be overstated. From the pink satin gown Monroe wore in “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” to the white pleated halter dress that billowed around her in “The Seven Year Itch” to the skintight nude sequined number she wore to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to President John F. Kennedy, the way Monroe wore her clothes changed how millions of women would wear theirs.