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Designers Are a Girl’s Best Friend

By Alexandra Welker | January 18, 2021

Designers Are a Girl's Best Friend

You know the dresses, but can you name the designer? The show-stopping pink ball gown, bow a bobbing, of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend“ fame; that fluttering ivory halter dress, forever linked in the public imagination to NYC’s ubiquitous subway grates; the pleated gold lamé gown, so scandalously plunging that it only could appear on the screen for seconds, and only from the back…

Here’s a little hint: “Billy Dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn.”

William Travilla, known professionally as Travilla, is perhaps most famous for dressing Marilyn Monroe. After several B movies, he earned an Oscar in 1949 for the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, Adventures of Don Juan, and in 1951, he designed the costumes in the now-classic sci-fi tale of morality, The Day the Earth Stood Still. He then worked mainly at 20th Century Fox where his credits included Elia Kazan’s, Viva Zapata! He met Monroe in 1952 and went on to design the costumes for eight of her films, from How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) to Bus Stop (1956).

The pink ball gown and matching gloves in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes were actually a pastel shade, but Travilla knew that Technicolor would make them more vibrant. The second dress made famous by the film was created out of a single circle of gold lamé fabric, then pleated—a technique beloved by Travilla. “When I die,” he once said, “don’t have me cremated, have me pleated.”

The white halter-neck dress blown up by a passing train in the subway scene of The Seven Year Itch was dismissed by Travilla as “that silly little dress,” but to many, it is the most famous costume in cinema history. Travilla actually made three versions of this dress; one sold at auction in 2011 for $4.6 million.

He moved into television by the 1970s, designing The Thorn Birds, Knots Landing, and Dallas. He was nominated seven times for Emmy Awards and won two. He designed uniforms for United Airlines and Frontier Airlines that were noted for their comfort and style.

Although Travilla is most closely associated with Monroe, he also designed costumes for Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Betty Grable, Jane Russell, Joanne Woodward, Ann Sheridan, Lauren Bacall, and Barbara Stanwyck. His legacy lives on. His personal collection of gowns, sketches, patterns, sewing room artifacts, and his Oscar toured the world in 2008 and 2009. “Forever Marilyn,” Seward Johnson’s 26-foot-tall, 34,000-pound painted stainless steel and aluminum sculpture of Monroe in Travilla’s immortal ivory halter dress, likewise toured the world for a decade, before making its permanent home in Palm Springs, California.

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