Why Marilyn’s Minimalist Style is Still in Vogue

Marilyn at home, 1953 (Bob Beerman)

In an article for Vogue, Victoria Moss notes that while the public Marilyn was known for her lavish attire, her offscreen wardrobe exudes more relaxed chic.

“While Monroe’s dresses have become some of the most revered fashion items in history, in truth, the actor was no clotheshorse. Her image may have been carefully crafted and precisely exercised – both by herself, and the studios that directed her – but clothes were merely a vehicle for Marilyn. While she wore pieces by the American designers James Galanos and Ceil Chapman and had a number of favourite looks by Lanvin, Monroe never cultivated a powerful relationship with a fashion designer in the way that Audrey Hepburn did with Givenchy, which is perhaps indicative of her attitude to style in general. It was something to be used as a tool rather than passionately feted.

On screen, Monroe’s presence was largely crafted by costume designer William Travilla, who frequently worked with Twentieth Century Fox on its blockbuster productions. It was Travilla who created the dresses that the legend of Marilyn is most closely associated with … Inevitably, there was some crossover between the life of Marilyn on celluloid and Marilyn out and about in Hollywood. She knew how to turn on the glitz when required.

None of these gowns tells us much about Marilyn the woman, however. This was just her movie-star persona. Away from the spotlight, Monroe’s wardrobe was rivetingly minimal, with the actress returning to a few key pieces again and again. In her private life, she dressed in the manner of the serious actor she was so desperate to become, rather than the performative ‘dumb blonde’ persona within which casting directors had caged her. While she had her tricks, famously sewing marbles into her jumpers to make her breasts more prominent, she was refreshingly modern in her sartorial choices – and understood keenly the balance of great style, particularly from the mid-’50s onwards.

During her New York phase, when she studied with Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg and married playwright Arthur Miller, she favoured more sober ensembles: shirts and capri pants, black beatnik sweaters and dresses, enveloping beige and cream fur coats. In her book, Marilyn In Manhattan, Elizabeth Winder details a makeover overseen by Amy Greene, the wife of photographer Milton Greene, with whom the star stayed in Connecticut in 1954. According to Greene, ‘Whenever she [Marilyn] needed something to go out, she’d go to her friend in the wardrobe department at Twentieth. She’d borrow something, and then the next morning she’d bring it back with a $50 bill slipped in.’

In place of those borrowed dresses, Greene bought Marilyn pieces from Anne Klein and commissioned George Nardiello and Norman Norell to create a select wardrobe for her … Aside from this, Monroe’s penchant for denim encapsulated a whole-hearted American mood. Her turn in ‘Lady’ Levi’s in The Misfits (1961) helped popularise blue denims for women, while several pairs of her jeans were sold at Christie’s record-breaking 1999 sale of her personal effects, with Tommy Hilfiger snapping up the pair she wore in River Of No Return (1954) for an extraordinary $37,000, as well as a pair of square-toe cowboy boots from The Misfits for $75,000.

In terms of her shoes, Monroe adored Salvatore Ferragamo, from whom she would order multiple pairs of the same three-inch-heel court shoe, with a more comfortable half-wood-half-metal stiletto that Ferragamo had patented for her. Her devotion to the brand – also a favourite of Audrey Hepburn – proved so enduring that it staged a retrospective exhibition at its Florentine gallery in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of her death.

Again, the contrast between the star’s on- and off-screen wardrobes stood out. ‘She paid little attention to the relentless changes in fashion, and loved simplicity to the point that her clothing was meant just to be worn and not shown off, clothing that didn’t include extras – not even jewellery, which she would give away to her friends,’ Stefania Ricci writes in the exhibition’s catalogue. Take the string of Mikimoto pearls gifted to Monroe by Emperor Hirohito during her honeymoon in Japan with her second husband Joe DiMaggio, which she gifted to Strasberg’s daughter after she admired it. She was never beholden to material items, happily scattering them among her loved ones.

The only contradiction to her predilection for classically hued pieces was a fondness for Emilio Pucci’s brightly coloured jersey designs, which suited Californian forays in the sun. A lime-green Pucci blouse would be the last outfit she was photographed in before her death in August 1963, and she was buried in a peppermint-coloured Pucci dress, chosen by her housekeeper for the funeral because Monroe loved it so much.”