The Story Behind Blonde's Fashion Climax, According to the Costume Designer
Along with her acting skills, intelligence, charisma, and philanthropic efforts, Marilyn Monroe's fashion is a major part of her legacy. Considering the indelible mark she made on Hollywood history, you can imagine that re-creating her image would be no easy feat. Just ask Jennifer Johnson, the costume designer for the new movie Blonde starring Ana de Armas as Monroe. Johnson conducted an enormous amount of research in preparation for the film.
"When I met Andrew Dominik, he had been working on Blonde for over a decade and in that time he had amassed a massive 800 compendium of images we referred to as his bible," Johnson told Who What Wear. "From there it was my job to connect the dots and fill in the research that led to a greater understanding of not only her most famous film re-creations but also Norma Jeane's everyday closet and how those choices reflected her state of mind."
Johnson also told Who What Wear about the movie's "dramatic" fashion climax involving the one look that's most closely associated with Monroe: the infamous white halter dress. Scroll down to read my full interview with Blonde's costume designer, Jennifer Johnson.
How did you conduct research before designing the costumes?
Researching Marilyn's on-screen costumes and how they were originally constructed was at times tricky. I didn't have access to the original costumes and therefore relied not only on viewing the films themselves, but also looking at original sketches, screen tests, and reading William Travilla's book Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled. In that book, Travilla gives rare insight and anecdotal stories about his most famous dresses! It's a great book for anyone interested in the nitty gritty.
Were there any instances where you took creative liberties with the costumes instead of faithfully re-creating Marilyn's real-life outfits?
My goal was always to lead the viewer into believing we had made a perfect match, but in doing so liberties must be made in order for the dress to not wear the actor! I am having a copy made but I am also thinking about Ana and her body and how she feels in these costumes. It's not just about replicating a copy—it's about injecting feeling and allowing for nuances in design and fabric choices that work on Ana and not become a distraction to her. The costume never wore her. Well, maybe that formidable pink bow in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!
What are some of the challenges of doing costume design for a historical figure compared to a fictional character?
Historical is really hard in that you must get it right! Especially in Marilyn's case where there are so many superfans, an incredible amount of documentation is available online and in books, and her image exists in our collective consciousness. Fictional can be anything which is hard in itself because it is limitless—the potential for the design.
Let's talk about jewelry. What brands did you use, or was the jewelry custom-made?
Originally, for the re-creation of Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, we contacted Chopard and they were extremely helpful and generous, but alas, the million-dollar value accompanied by an armed guard didn't work with our wild schedule! That shoot day was especially challenging. Not only did we shoot the musical number for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes descending the stairs, but we also shot part of Marilyn's breakdown while singing with the band in Some Like It Hot. Many rounds of applause for the brilliant makeup artist Tina Roesler Kerwin and hairstylist Jaime Leigh McIntosh.
My incredible assistant/key costumer Alyson Wegner dashed over to David at House Fisher and like a magic trick he literally saved the day. He had a collection of bits and pieces some belonging to Catherine Denueve—it was beautiful in quality and most importantly fake, so no armed guard!
What was your favorite costume in the film and why?
It's become harder to decide the more I live with the film! We made Blonde in 2019 and now every costume has its own special place in my memory and experience. It was a really hard film to make. We had so little time and to see it on the screen now is very satisfying! The white pleated dress that William Travilla originally designed in Seven Year Itch has this incredible slow-motion shot that really shows off all of our hard work.
That dress had been re-created so many times and we've all seen it walking down Hollywood Boulevard, at Halloween parties, and printed on mugs—that dress blowing up in the subway wind is everywhere! The dress's modern incarnations have gotten a little flimsy and easy and not particularly special. The incredible Jose Bello who used to be at Western Costume was the mastermind that laid out the pleating pattern and unraveled all the things that weren't right with all these re-creations. I really wanted the skirt to be extra generous so it would have a dramatic luxurious liquid volume that could overtake Ana when the wind blew!
I still can't believe the re-creation for Some Like It Hot! When you see the stills side by side our version and the original! It felt like that as we were shooting—Andrew always had the original image right next to the monitor. I love that nude souffle and silk chiffon beaded dress that Orry-Kelly originally designed. Did you know the dress has a little cut-out red heart on the rear? And yes it's included! Rory and his team at Bill Hargate did a lovely job on this one. I had padding put in this dress to give Ana's figure more weight. It was the only time I padded her.
Lydia Jakubowski was our incredible full-time cutter fitter who made so many things including her wedding dress and the everyday uniforms of Capri pants-those outfits are so special too. Sometimes it's the simple things that do so much of the emotional heavy lifting.
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