Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fashion in film Blogathon: Costume Designer: William Travilla.

William Travilla (March 22, 1920 – November 2, 1990), was an American costume designer for theater, film and television. He maybe best known for dressing Marilyn Monroe in eight of her films.

After working on several B movies, he worked his way to winning an Oscar in 1949 for the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, Adventures of Don Juan, and in 1951 designed the costumes in the classic sci-fi, The Day the Earth Stood Still. He then worked at Twentieth Century-Fox, where designed the costumes for the film, Viva Zapata!.

By 1952, he became good friends with Marilyn Monroe and created the costumes for: Don't Bother to Knock and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Travilla created one of the most famous costumes on the silver screen. The pleated white cocktail dress Monroe wore in the film, The Seven Year Itch(1955).

When Travilla began working with Marilyn in 1952 in Don't Bother to Knock, he was still one of the many costume designers of 20th Century Fox.

In 1955 he designed the white cocktail dress worn by Marilyn Monroe while his wife Dona Drake was on vacation. According to Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, Travilla did not design the dress, but bought it off the rack (although the costume designer always denied this claim).

The ivory cocktail dress, was a popular style of the 1950's and 1960's. The halter-like bodice was made of two pieces of softly pleated fabric that come together behind the neck, leaving the arms, shoulders and back bare. The dress fits closely to the waistline. A soft and narrow self belt was wrapped around the torso, criss-crossing in front and then tied into a small neat bow at the waist, at the front on the left side. Below the waistband is a softly pleated skirt which reaches to mid-calf or below the calf length. There is a zipper at the back of the bodice, and tiny buttons at the back of the halter.

In the film, the white dress appears in the sequence in which Marilyn Monroe and co-star Tom Ewell are leaving the Theatre, after just watching the 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon.

When they hear a subway train passing below the grate in the sidewalk, Monroe's character steps onto the grate saying "Ooo, do you feel the breeze from the subway?", as the wind blows the dress up exposing her legs.

Originally the scene had been scheduled to shoot on the street outside the Trans-Lux at 1:00 am on 15 September 1954. However, the presence of the actress and the cameras caught the curiosity of thousands of fans, so the director Billy Wilder was forced to reshoot on a set at 20th Century Fox.

After Monroe's death in 1962, Travilla kept the dress locked up with many of the costumes he had made over the years for the actress, to the point that for years there was talk of a "Lost Collection".

The dress, was later purchased by actress Debbie Reynolds, for $4,600,000 during a 2011 auction.

Monroe once wrote to Travilla, "Billy Dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn."

Travilla was  nominated for the Academy Award for How to Marry a Millionaire(1953), There's No Business Like Show Business(1954) and The Stripper(1963).

Travilla best known project was the TV mini-series, The Thorn Birds(1983).

Travilla was nominated for Emmy awards seven times for his work on television.

In 1980, he won the Emmy 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 Knots Landing.

Travilla died on November 2, 1990 in Los Angeles, California, of lung cancer. In 2008 an exhibition of the collection of William Travilla began in England, then came to Los Angeles and in 2009 to Palm Springs, California.

The collection includes gowns worn by:  Marilyn Monroe, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Faye Dunaway, Judy Garland, Sharon Tate, Jane Russell, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Diahann Carroll, Susan Hayward, Loretta Young, Joanne Woodward and Barbara Stanwyck.

Please click on this link to see who else is participating in the "Fashion in film Blogathon".


  1. Great choice for the Fashion in Film Blogathon Dawn, and a great tribute to the talented designer Travilla. What a team he made with Marilyn. It's hard to imagine that such a collaboration could ever happen again.

  2. "The dress, was later purchased by actress Debbie Reynolds, for $4,600,000 during a 2011 auction."

    Actually, Debbie SOLD the dress at that 2011 auction for $4.6 million.

    She claims to have only paid $200.00 for it, when she bought it, many moons ago.

  3. Christian Esquevin, I agree.. but, I hope some day that we are both proved wrong. :)

    jim, Thank you for the information.. I will double check.

  4. Monroe's character in that movie has a small budget, so if the famous white dress was bought off the rack, it works with the story. Though, I don't see why Travilla would buy an OTR dress for Monroe.

    This was interesting. Thanks.

    You can check out my contribution to Fashion in Film. It's The Tender Trap (1955) with Debbie Reynolds.

  5. My, such glamorous and appealing gowns from Travilla. I adore "Adventures of Don Juan". It's lots of fun and all of the ladies look spectacular.

  6. You saw from my Travilla/Valley of the Dolls post that I'm a fan of his work, and nothing typifies the best of it more than this one dress. I wonder, if it was OTR, why the signed sketches exist. Is it possible that he used an OTR dress as his inspiration? Your post introduces an intriguing mystery!

  7. Lovely post, Dawn. Travilla's work is stunning - so many beautiful things that I was surprised to learn he designed.

  8. Great post!

    That white dress is the best example I can think of to prove that an outfit doesn't have to be flashy to be memorable. It doesn't have any sequins, beading, bright colors, or bold prints, but between its classic design and the star quality Marilyn exuded while wearing it, it became the most recognizable dress in film history.

    Thank you so much for joining in the blogathon!

  9. Java Bean Rush, The pleated white cocktail dress was perfect style for Monroe. Also, because of the drawing, I believe Travilla, designed it just for her.

    Caftan Woman, I agree.. Travilla, did a fantastic job creating the wardrobe for "all" of his films..

    The Gal Herself, I was trilled to see that you also had chosen Travilla, to spotlight. I have not seen the classic film, Valley of the Dolls. I'm looking forward to watching it again for the fashions.

    FlickChick, Thank you. I was surprised that he had designed the wardrobe for so many different themed movies..

    hollywoodrevue, Thank you for dropping by and also, for hosting the fun "Fashion in Film Blogathon".

  10. Dawn, I've always loved Travilla's MM gowns. My particular favorite is the cerise gown she wore in "How to Marry a Millionaire." His white dress for her in "The Seven Year Itch" has to be the definition of iconic. Great pick and great post!

  11. Interesting post, Dawn! I have never heard of this designer, but I certainly have appreciated his work. It's nice to know about him and his connection with Marilyn.

  12. The Lady Eve, Thank you, I also love that gown... How about her unbelievably sexy hot pink dress from Niagara (1953)?

    shadowsandsatin, Thank you. He designed some fabulous outfits... He gave me the idea of combining purple pants and a teal top.(first picture).

  13. Very interesting back story on an iconic dress! I love that note she sent him.
    Also very interesting about locking up the dresses he designed for Marilyn, rather than selling out and selling them off of the grief of her death.
    I didn't realize Travilla was so influential until I've read posts from this blogathon!

  14. Jessica P., I also learned a lot about Travilla, because of this blogathon! Loved your post on Lana Turner.. Now, I will be looking for her book.

  15. I'm another one who didn't realize how influential Travilla was. I figured this blogathon would be light and fun, and didn't imagine how much I would learn - including learning about the famous white dress. Thanks for including this in the blogathon; it's SUCH a famous dress that it must have a story.

  16. There are some great anonymous heroes of silver screen, such as the costume designers, that go far beyond Edith Head. Thanks for this interesting note about Travilla and one of the most famous dresses in the world.
    Don't forget to red my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  17. Silver Screenings, I also.. learned so much from participating in the blogathon. I plan to do more research and share the "fashion on film" info. with all of you here on N and CF.

    Lê, I will run over to your blog and leave a reply here on N and CF comments. For some reason the translator does not allow me to leave a comment on your blog. :(

  18. Lê, I love the film, Fashions of 1934(1934). One of the main reasons why I wanted to watch this film, was for the production number created by Busby Berkeley,'Spin A Little Web Of Dreams'. With Busby's trademark identical blonde showgirls performing complicated dance numbers.


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