In the end, an old-fashioned filmmaking trick involving heated cardboard helped costume designers re-create Marilyn Monroe’s famous pleated halter dress from “The Seven Year Itch” for Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde.”
“On paper, it looks easy,” says “Blonde” costume designer Jennifer Johnson, who worked on many of Monroe’s looks — including that one — for the movie, which is now streaming on Netflix.
She started by outfitting the film’s star, Ana de Armas, with a facsimile of the dress from a costume house.
“It looked cute,” but it wasn’t right, says Johnson.
The designer, who calls William Travilla’s original “a beast of a dress,” attempted to make her own version, going through at least 50 yards of fabric and various pleating techniques. But she still wasn’t satisfied with the resulting outfit.
“At the eleventh hour, a tailor from Western Costume figured it out,” says Johnson, who also designed period looks for “I, Tonya.”
The pleating was created by pressing fabric over folded cardboard molds. “You make a mold, and you heat it in a little closet, and no one does that anymore,” Johnson explains.
When it came to re-creating the quintessential “flying skirt” moment when Monroe steps over
a subway grate, Johnson says, there was “a whole mathematical layout of the amount of fabric to
get that arc beautiful and right.”
Travilla used a summer-weight wool, custom-made in Italy, to construct the original dress, while Johnson used a modern polyester knit jersey.
“Blonde” showcases the dress in both color and black-and-white scenes, and Johnson says cream, yellow and beige dyes were used to soften the white so it wouldn’t glow too much in either version.
Getting the shocking pink right for Monroe’s evening gown in the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best
Friend” musical number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was another challenge for the costume designer.
Johnson had obtained heavy duchesse satin from Italy at a pricey $100 a yard. She was told it could be dyed to the right shade, but when she tried it, “it looked like the Pink Panther. So we had
to start from scratch.”
For the dress to work in the black-and-white scenes, DP Chayse Irvin realized only fluorescent pink would do.
Travilla incorporated stiff green felt typically used for pool tables to give the “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” outfit more body when Monroe is walking down the stairs in the 1953 movie. Johnson attempted to work with the material to be period-accurate but ended up ditching it. “It just wasn’t moving right,” she says, “so we backed the dress with heavy cotton instead.”