When Marilyn Ditched High Fashion for a Potato Sack

Diamonds and burlap: Marilyn by Earl Thiesen, 1952

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Seth Abramovitch looks back at Marilyn’s delightfully kitsch ‘potato sack’ photo shoot today.

“There are several versions of the story behind a series of promotional photos taken of Marilyn Monroe wearing a potato sack dress.

The best one involves a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel in which Monroe, then 24, allegedly showed up in a revealing red dress that a columnist declared ‘cheap and vulgar,’ adding she would have been better served wearing ‘a potato sack.’ The Twentieth Century Fox PR department then capitalized on the moment by putting her in one.

The less colourful version of the story is that the studio was simply hoping to drum up some publicity by suggesting their starlet was so beautiful, she could even make a potato sack look good — which she indubitably does.

What is for certain is that she was photographed in the getup by Earl Theisen, a photographer for Look magazine who shot Monroe frequently. As for who tailored it to hug her famous curves, chances are good it was William Travilla … One of the sack-dress photos ran in Stare, a cheesecake magazine, in 1952 — a year before Playboy launched with Monroe on the cover. ‘MMMarilyn MMMonroe doesn’t care too much for potatoes because it tends to put on weight,’ the Stare caption read. ‘But she decided to do something for the potatoes!'”

Stare Magazine, 1952

The offending gown is often thought to be a red velvet number designed by Hollywood costumer Oleg Cassini. However, Marilyn did not wear the Cassini gown to the Look magazine awards in March 1952 – as mentioned in this rather catty piece by columnist Edith Gwynn – but an off-the-shoulder Renié dress in nude crepe with a lace covering, originally a costume from the 1951 comedy, Let’s Make It Legal. (The ceremony was held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, matching the Hollywood Reporter‘s account. The event at Romanoff’s may have been an after-party.)

“So somebody in publicity asked, ‘O.K., so why don’t we put old Marilyn in a potato sack?” Marilyn explained. As James Spada noted in his book, Monroe: A Life in Pictures, over 400 newspapers across the U.S. printed various poses from the ‘potato sack’ shoot in early 1952 alone.

While Marilyn’s response was certainly inspired, the potato sack wasn’t a new idea as she had already posed in one the year before. Today, her risqué style is celebrated – and her provocative pose takes pride of place at the Idaho Potato Museum.

Marilyn’s first ‘potato sack’ pin-up, 1951

And finally, in a recent post for her Culled Culture blog, Genna Rivieccio considers the potato sack as a timeless riposte to fashion victims everywhere.

“Glamorous gowns were the linchpin in her wardrobe (and, of course, they were deliberately form-fitting so as to show off her curvaceous figure), yet Monroe could just as easily be photographed in a ‘casual’ ensemble—at the time, that meant something like elegant slacks paired with a blouse—and also embody the American sense of carefreeness intermixed with a sense of pride in one’s polish. Monroe, too, blazed the trail for what would once again become chic in the twenty-first century (more around the 2010s, than the 2000s): curves … Showing off her physique early on in her career, Monroe and the studio she was tied to, 20th Century Fox, decided to troll a certain journalist …  the real point was to thumb her nose at those who claimed she was only deemed ‘sexy’ and ‘glamorous’ because of the attire she was dressed in. Turns out, in Marilyn’s instance, clothes do not make the woman. She wanted to prove quite the contrary while also unwittingly manifesting the core of American fashion in a single ‘garment.'”