“With a little giggle she became Marilyn Monroe and the whole place went silent …” In one succinct memory fashion designer William Travilla crystalised the mysterious appeal of his lifelong friend in a relationship that has now been immortalised by author and former spa owner Andrew Hansford in his book, Dressing Marilyn.
It has long been debated exactly how dumb a blonde Monroe really was, but according to Hansford, as a starlet she sought Travilla’s help because he was the best in the industry: “Designers at that time were often more famous than the stars because they were the ones who created them. The ‘blonde bombshell’ idea was collaborative – Hollywood needed a new blonde and Marilyn wanted to be the best.”
He also points out, that there was a lot more to Monroe’s look than a lick of lipstick and some eyeliner. It will come as perhaps no surprise, but a great deal of comfort, that this was a woman (and an era) that was unapologetic about making an effort to look good. Rumoured to have spent up to three hours at a time putting her make-up on, Hansford is equally emphatic on this point saying – “It really depended what she was doing, it’s been said that for the film premier of How to Marry a Millionaire she took six hours to get ready, but look at her! It’s totally worth it!”
But then, Marilyn was a perfectionist – with Max Factor taking weeks for formulate the perfect shade of foundation and even her ‘natural’ look being something of an art, he recalls one such occasion where Travilla noticed on closer inspection very pale liner on her lips and eyes underneath the lanolin she used to slather on her face when she was ‘off-duty’. When Travilla picked her up on it she winked that famous wink and said: “one always has to look good!”
Surprisingly, one of Monroe’s secret weapons for looking luminous on screen was a biological quirk that most modern women strive to be rid of: “Marilyn had downy hair all over her face – the camera loved her because the light bounced off her skin making her look almost ethereal. Working in the spa industry I saw that kind of hair on women plenty of times – usually on the cheekbones and people wanted it removed. Marilyn had it all over her face and it made her look sensational!”
Her figure is another area of debate, with conjecture ranging from the profane to the ridiculous as to her proportions. Putting speculation to rest, Hansford says: “Of course her size fluctuated like most people, but she was never the size sixteen that is often mentioned. She was 5’5″ and wore very high heels, and her measurements were 37-22-36 inches most of the time. If I had to liken it to modern sizing I suppose she was closest to an eight or a ten, but it isn’t comparable, women are different shapes now.”
Ultimately, though, Monroe’s appeal seems to come down to two things, her persona – when she turned on ‘Marilyn’ – “people forget she was a consummate actress” – and overwhelmingly in Hansford’s eyes, her kindness. What is touching about Hansford’s book is the sentiment he has for a woman who was ultimately extremely human: “the book is really about two friends who adored one another – one was a well-known designer and the other just so happened to be the most famous woman in the world. We can all look good, but some of us need a bit of help sometimes, and so did she!”
The routine: “Less is more, I have said that for years. They used things like cold cream to cleanse, and if you got a pimple, you covered it up! She also used lanolin on her face, which is awful stuff, as a sort of serum in the mistaken belief it was nourishing.”
The details: “One of my best experiences writing the book was time spent at Max Factor. They have a room dedicated to blondes which is blue to make the colour look good. It took them weeks to find the right foundation to make Marilyn look like a ‘natural’ blonde!”
That waist! “Her waist was what made her sexy; men like those curves – they don’t want stick insects, it was the hips and bum that did it for people!”
The illusion: “Travilla had lunch with her in LA one time and he realised he had been sitting with the most famous woman in the world for twenty minutes and no one had noticed. She said ‘that’s because you’re not having lunch with Marilyn, you’re with Norma Jean, but watch this …’ and with a little giggle she became Marilyn Monroe and the whole place went silent.”
The giggle: “Everyone knows that giggle!”
The personality: “She was even lovelier in person because she wasn’t just a beautiful woman, she was a wonderful human being. No one I have spoken to has had a bad word to say about her, which is amazing – I would love that to be my obituary!”
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