William Shakespeare wrote in his play Hamlet‘Clothes maketh the man’ another William a few hundred years later proved that clothes most certainly do maketh the woman – particularly when that woman is Marilyn Monroe!
William Travilla is synonymous with style, class, elegance and sex appeal – all the attributes Marilyn Monroe possessed in abundance. Marilyn had made it without Travilla, but with Travilla she hit the heights of sheer Goddessdom with iconic images of a billowing white dress and a sheath of pink satin that will forever symbolise the very epitome of glamour and sex in the ultimate female form.
Born 22nd March 1920 on Catalina Island, William Travilla demonstrated a flair for artistic genius from the very beginning. He was accepted by the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, keeping up with professional level adult classes at the tender age of eight-years old! Around the age of 16 he began sketching costume designs for showgirls that worked at the burlesque clubs he had begun frequenting, selling three sketches for five dollars a time.
After seeing some of Travilla’s paintings for sale in a display at a Hollywood restaurant called The Beachcomber, the actress Ann Sheridan began to collect his work and asked to meet the artist. Immediately they met they became firm friends and she took on Travilla as her personal costume designer at Warner Brothers.
By the time Travilla met Monroe, he already had an Oscar under his belt for his work on the Errol Flynn movie Adventures of Don Juan in 1949.
During 1950 whilst on the Fox lot, Marilyn needed to try on a costume and asked Travilla if she could borrow his fitting room, at the time he was one of several contract designers for Twentieth Century Fox. Travilla said of their first meeting “My introduction was the sight of her in a black bathing suit” he went on “She opened the sliding doors of my fitting room, and the strap fell off, and her breast was exposed… of course she did it on purpose”
The King of fashion and the Queen of the silver screen went on to work with each other in no less than eight movies, during which time they formed a close and intimate friendship, according to Travilla himself they began a brief affair in 1953 whilst working on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, he would escort her to various events and would apparently take impromptu calls from Monroe during the night, leaving his wife, the beautiful incandescent Dona Drake and his baby daughter Nia Novella who had been born in 1951 – this is not to dispute Travilla’s word but more to keep an open mind as just about every man that has come into personal contact with Marilyn (and many that have not!) has claimed to have slept with her.
Travilla's Wife - The Stunning Dona Drake
After confessing to dating Monroe, Travilla said “She would make any guy feel like a king. She only looked at you. She would never look around at anyone else”
Marilyn autographed a nude calendar for him with the words:
“Billy Dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn”
The movies they collaborated on were:
Monkey Business (1952)
Don’t Bother to Knock (1953)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)
River of No Return (1954)
Seven Year Itch (1955)
Bus Stop (1956)
Whilst filming Monkey Business Travilla recalled Marilyn crying, she told him she felt inadequate and that she let down and disappointed those she loved. Travilla told her that she never disappointed her audience and at this she seemed to take heart and rallied.
Travilla’s Pièce de résistance could be said to have been The Seven YearItch dress in which, Marilyn delights in the breeze from the subway as previously mentioned – it is amazing to note that he completed all 10 sketches for Marilyn’s costumes for this film in one weekend!
William Travilla designed the majority of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous and well known costumes – the costumes that made the public look twice, which pushed the boundaries of both art and beauty. Another classic Travilla/Monroe act was the gold lame dress Travilla had designed for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Marilyn appears in only one very brief scene wearing this dress as it was judged to be too revealing to pass the censors. However, Marilyn decided it would be the absolutely perfect dress to wow them at the 1953 Photoplay Magazine Awards, where she was to collect an award for Hollywood’s ‘Fastest Rising Star of 1952’
She had every intention of stirring up a whirlwind. Travilla advised her against wearing that particular dress at that particular moment in time as he said she was ‘too fat’ Marilyn, however, was adamant she told Travilla that she had just learned ‘a trick to lose weight quickly – colonic irrigation, an enema that washes water out of the system and immediately shows in lost inches’ As we know now, this potentially harmful procedure became Marilyn’s regular regime for the remainder of her life. Travilla tells us ‘She had two sessions of colonic irrigation that day’ When Joe DiMaggio saw the dress he left in anger.
Travilla once said “She liked to shock – she could look magnificent or hideous – like a dirty little bum or a sex queen”
Sewing her into the gold lame dress Travilla’s last words to her before she left for the event were “Walk like a lady”
At the ceremony her walk from the hall to the podium to collect her award caused uproar – Jerry Lewis howled and Joan Crawford later berated Marilyn with a public tirade over Marilyn’s ‘vulgarity’ she branded her a ‘burlesque show’
Often, wrongly attributed to Joan Crawford, the journalist James Bacon was quoted as saying
“When she wiggled through the audience to come up on the podium, her derriere looked like two puppies fighting under a silk sheet”
The columnist Florabel Muir reported the next day:
‘With one little twist of her derriere, Marilyn Monroe stole the show… The assembled guests broke into wild applause, [while] two other screen stars, Joan Crawford and Lana Turner, got only casual attention. After Marilyn every other girl appeared dull by contrast.’
Marilyn had won and she achieved her goal!
Travilla constantly tried without success to stop her wearing clothes that were too tight for her. He said that once, when she had to wear a full skirt for a roller skating scene in Monkey Business he thought he had her under control. He dressed her for the scene, then watched helplessly as “she literally reached back, parted her buttocks, and stuck some of the pleats in the crack to hold them in place ‘Fooled you, Billy, didn’t I?’ she said as she came off set ‘you and your big silly skirt’
Travilla commented “She was so childlike she could do anything, and you would forgive as you would forgive a seven-year old. She was both a woman and a baby, and both men and women adored her”
Marilyn told him that Jean Harlow, deliberately made her nipples erect by rubbing them with ice before going to do a scene – this didn’t work for Monroe so she had a little round button inserted into her bras at the relevant places.
On There’s No Business Like Show Business for technical reasons they had to shoot three pages of script without cutting Travilla recalls that “Marilyn had just one line on the third page” he says “and she kept fluffing it. They told her they had to wrap the scene, and she started crying. She apologized like a little girl. Afterwards she told me, ‘You know, I’m losing a piece of my mind each day. My brains are leaving me. I think I’m going crazy, please take me away and hide me’ Travilla believed she was “Talking herself into the idea she was going mad”
Whilst filming she was under a great deal of pressure from DiMaggio, who felt that her costumes were too revealing and not suitable for a wife of his to flaunt herself in. He particularly detested the ‘Heatwave’ costume and refused point blank to pose for photos with her whilst she was wearing it.
Marilyn struggled desperately with her image, everything rested on it, her career was built on it. In an interview before she died Marilyn said ‘My work is the only ground I've ever had to stand on. I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation -- but I'm working on the foundation.’
“She was totally narcissistic. She adored her own face, constantly wanted to make it better and different. Everything she did in that regard, by the way, was right at the time. She once told me ‘I can make my face do anything, same as you can take a white board and build from that and make a painting.’
This seems a harsh judgement in light of Travilla also saying;
“On the surface, she was still a happy girl. But those who criticized her never saw her like I did, crying like a baby because she often felt herself so inadequate”
The appearance of narcissistic tendencies could well be confused with being body dysmorphic. It’s an established fact that people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) will spend hours and hours in front of a mirror but rather than adoring themselves, they view themselves as imperfect and will often have elaborate make up rituals in the hope of disguising what they consider to be their imperfections. It seems a contradiction to say she adored her face and yet she wanted to change it. Whilst it is well documented that Marilyn Monroe knew how to seduce the camera, how to make it tell the story of her choice, she was ruthless in culling photos she didn’t like – Bert Stern’s so called ‘Last Sitting’ is proof of that, you only need to see the vigour with which she applied the scratches to the negatives to know she was not happy with the story her image was telling and when she was exposed to social events she felt she could never live up to everyone’s expectation of her.
The very last time Travilla saw Marilyn Monroe, she was dining with Peter Lawford, his wife and Pat Newcomb her press agent, a week before her death. Travilla said she looked haggard and drawn and when he went over to her table to say hello, she didn’t recognise him immediately. Offended by this encounter he decided to write her a letter to tell her exactly how he felt but she died before he ever had the chance.
Travilla’s career after Marilyn’s death continued to flourish, he had founded Travilla, Inc. with his long time friend and partner Bill Sarris designing high end couture for many of his former movie star clients. In 1971 he took some time out, moving to Spain. However, his retirement was relatively short lived as he re-entered the world of fashion, and until his death on November 2nd 1990 from lung cancer, he continued to work.
His wife Dona Drake, died in 1989, although they were still married, they had separated after 12 years. Unfortunately, his daughter Nia (whom incidentally, he would not let screen test) became a veterinarian and died at the age of 51 in 2002.
During his illustrious career, Travilla was nominated for an Emmy sixy years running and won twice for for "Outstanding Costume Design for a Limited Series or a Special" for "The Scarlett O'Hara War", and in 1985 he won the "Outstanding Costume Design for a Series" Emmy for his work on the television show Dallas. Nominated for the Oscar four times he won once for Don Juan in 1949.
Travilla had an eye for the female figure – he enhanced the body to perfection with his sophisticated tailoring and artistic skills. Marilyn would have always been Marilyn a Goddess, a Star, always a success but with the help of William Travilla Marilyn became an Icon.