February 04, 2016

Marilyn Monroe: Fashioning The Myth And The Reality


The words icon and legend may be two of the most overused when discussing celebrities, but in a few cases it is warranted.

Marilyn Monroe is one of the true icons of the 20th century: instantly recognisable, constantly celebrated, often analysed, rarely understood. Her death at 36 only added to her allure; to think she would have turned 90 this coming June 1 is almost inconceivable. It’s impossible to imagine this woman ever succumbing to the ravages of age, given how perfectly preserved she is in the collective memory.

Her continuing popularity and enduring mystique mean that it shouldn’t be surprising that not one but two exhibitions celebrating Monroe are about to open in regional galleries. Bendigo Art Gallery, in collaboration with 20th Century Fox, launches Marilyn Monroe on March 5 (its previous exhibition on Grace Kelly in 2012 was a record breaker for the institution). The Murray Art Museum Albury opens Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon next Friday, February 12.

The two exhibitions deal with Monroe in different ways: for Bendigo, it is about getting closer to the woman herself, and includes screen costumes, photographs, her own wardrobe items and personal effects, such as make-up and notebooks; MAMA instead opens Monroe to the gaze and interpretation of others, including images of the star created both during her lifetime and after her death, from the likes of photographers Cecil Beaton and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and artists including Andy Warhol and Richard Lindner.

A uniting feature of both exhibitions is her incredible visual impact, an integral part of her enduring mystique.

While her look is much mimicked — the platinum hair, the red pout, the arched brows — her style and fashion played an important supporting role in both her rise to fame, and in underpinning the duality of her persona that was much talked about during her life and since her death in 1962.

She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson (the name on her birth certificate) in 1926, changing her name to Marilyn Monroe 20 years later when she was first signed with 20th Century Fox; she rose to fame playing the “dumb blonde” in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, but was known to be highly intelligent; she was a creation of the studio machine, her career seemingly at the whim of directors and studio heads, but she managed to break free and create her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, in order to have more control over her projects. 

Her highly sexualised image and costumes helped propel her career, but off duty her fashion choices reflected someone much more demure and quietly sensual.

“Costume is a great connector,” says Bendigo director Karen Quinlan. “And the fashion of the day, that’s what we’re capturing here, a moment in time. When you look at her wardrobe, what she felt comfortable in alongside what she was told to wear and this other construction of her identity, I love that. But it’s great to know more, that’s our thirst for knowledge. I think this exhibition is going to be great for that reason.”

Exhibition curator Tansy Curtin agrees that fashion was a secondary element to her allure and identity, albeit an important one.



“It’s interesting because it’s not the first thing you think of when you think of Marilyn Monroe,” Curtin tells The Australian — unlike, perhaps Audrey Hepburn, who is consistently cited as a fashion icon ahead of movie star by many today. “There are the iconic dresses, the white subway dress, for example, but you think about Marilyn the person before the costumes or clothing she wore.

“What we’ve tried to do in the exhibition is show two sides, her public wardrobe and film costumes, which were overtly sensual and glamorous and reveal as much as conceal. Whereas her personal clothing is much more demure in a way: simple black cocktail dresses and wiggle dresses, of course, you can see her hourglass figure but not in an overt way. There’s a duality in the fashion persona of Marilyn.”

Included in the costumes and event and publicity gowns that she wore were designs by William Travilla, one of her preferred designers, including the gold lame halterneck dress seen in one of her most famous publicity shots, and two gowns intended to be seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which were both cut from the film but worn on the publicity circuit. 


The white halterneck design worn in The Seven Year Itch, in which she stands over a subway grating so that its skirt billows about her, is also by Travilla, and is represented in a sketch for the design, and in a number of photographs in the MAMA exhibition. The dress and that moment loom large in our memory of Monroe — as does Seward Johnson’s sculpture Forever Marilyn, an enormous eight-metre, 15-tonne creation that is now standing in Bendigo, its first showing outside the US.

Australian-born costume designer Orry-Kelly understood her allure; he designed her wardrobe for Some Like It Hot, most spectacularly a dress she wears to sing I Wanna Be Loved by You. From a distance she looks naked bar a smattering of carefully placed sequins on tulle (a photograph of Marilyn in the dress is in Bendigo).


Conversely, the Bendigo exhibition also includes two particularly notable personal looks. “We have the little green Pucci blouse, which was quite understated, and was the last thing that Marilyn was photographed publicly in, so it’s quite poignant,” says Curtin. There is also a photo of the star in a red cotton housecoat, with a pattern of chickens and roosters. “It’s quite ordinary, housewifey,” says Curtin. “It was worn when she was about two months’ pregnant (to third husband Arthur Miller). You can see in the photo she looks quite proud, but sadly she lost the baby. But that human side of Marilyn gives us some insight that we don’t usually get to see.”

For Bianca Acimovic, curator of the MAMA exhibition, those two sides of Monroe were never fully reconciled, and she invited a whole new level of public fascination in her every move.
“Marilyn had these two roles — Norma Jeane, who was the everyday person, and she became Marilyn Monroe, this fictional, created person that was all styled in fashion and told how to act and how to behave.
“She transcended into being Marilyn Monroe but her internal persona never adjusted to it.”


Marilyn Monroe is at Bendigo Art Gallery, March 5 to July 10. Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon is at Murray Art Museum Albury, February 12 to May 8.
By Glynis Traill- Nash 

With many thanks to The Australian





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