‘Spread the Word’: Marilyn, Abbey Lincoln and a Lost Dress

Today, Marilyn’s movie costumes sell at auction for many thousands, sometimes millions. In her lifetime, however, they were studio property, to be reused in other films. One dress that we’ll never see again is this Travilla design for the dinner scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953.) It is made in form-fitting  ruched chiffon and trimmed in crystal beading, with a flowing skirt from below the knee, and a matching scarf in bold orange.

We can be fairly sure that Marilyn liked the dress, as she wore it again at a St. Jude’s hospital benefit at the Hollywood Bowl in July 1953. But for jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, given the same costume three years later, the lingering association with Marilyn and the industry’s effort to cast her in the sexpot mould left a bitter aftertaste. In an article for the LA Review of Books, Matthew Eng takes up the story (although, oddly, he describes the dress as red…)

“ABBEY LINCOLN’S FILM DEBUT was hardly auspicious. Costumed in a figure-hugging, lipstick-red dress — a hand-me-down worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) — the musician lustily, incongruously belted out a big band spiritual titled ‘Spread the Word, Spread the Gospel‘ during a nightclub scene in Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). Her hair is short and straightened, the scarlet of her gown graphically matched to the movie’s similarly attired star, Jayne Mansfield … Months after the release of Tashlin’s comedy, a still of Lincoln in the same Monroe dress appeared on the June 1957 cover of Ebony, accompanied by a paragraph-length story divulging Lincoln’s measurements. Forced to literally measure up to the epitome of white Hollywood desirability, Lincoln quickly came to resent and reject the standard sex-bomb image into which she had been commodified. As Lincoln later recounted in an episode of NPR’s Jazz Profiles, ‘I made some waves [in Hollywood]. But I escaped it because it was about to ruin my life. It was insincere.’ As for the fate of the red dress, Lincoln told The New York Times, ‘Shortly after the film, I burned it in an incinerator to make sure I’d never wear it again.'”

Some Monroe fans have decried this as an act of vandalism, but it wasn’t an attack on Marilyn herself. “I didn’t realize at the time the dress was such a powerful symbol,” Abbey told the Times in 1991. “My press agent invented a portrait of me as an imitation of Marilyn Monroe … I felt like a fake.” In a 1993 AP interview, she explained, “This dress was more important than I was. People in the audience were looking at my exposed breasts and the shape of my body, and it didn’t have nothing to do with the music.”

Marilyn might have understood her strength of feeling. In a final interview before her death in 1962, she told LIFE‘s Richard Meryman, “I don’t mind being burdened with being glamorous and sexual. But what goes with it can be a burden. I feel that beauty and femininity are ageless and can’t be contrived, and glamour, although the manufacturers won’t like this, cannot be manufactured. Not real glamour; it’s based on femininity. I think that sexuality is only attractive when it’s natural and spontaneous … That’s the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing.”

Like Marilyn before her, Abbey Lincoln left Hollywood for New York, and began writing her own music. She became deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and these interests informed her later albums. She also appeared in other notable films, from Nothing But a Man (1965) to Mo’ Better Blues (1990.) She died in 2010, aged 80.