In "100 Unforgettable Dresses," InStyle magazine's longtime fashion director Hal Rubenstein profiles the 100 most influential dresses from the 1920s to the present. In the excerpt below, Rubenstein speaks of two iconic favorites.
White Halter Dress for
The Seven Year Itch
William Travilla • 1955
The image of Marilyn Monroe giggling while standing over a subway grate in Travilla’s white halter dress has been gauged as the second-most-marketed screen image of all time; only King Kong holding Fay Wray has her beat. Why the continued frenzy for an almost sixty-year-old summer halter? Because of how it looked on the woman who wore it. As an icon, Marilyn is still regarded as a watermark or beauty, sexual joy, and innocence. Her uncensored blush of celebration is what’s at the heart of this dress’s appeal.
For this scene in The Seven Year Itch, filmed in the heat of summer in New York City, Travilla (who created most of Monroe’s screen wardrobes) designed a classic pleated halter dress using sunburst pleats converging at the waistband of the skirt to emphasize Monroe’s hips, as well as bring the eye to her cleavage. But what elevated the dress to immortality was director Billy Wilder’s decision to place the bountiful movie star over a subway grating on Lexington Avenue and Fifty-second Street and then wait for the back draft of a train zooming to Grand Central Station to give Monroe’s skirt a lift. Unfortunately, the crowds grew so large, rowdy, and flashbulb-happy (Monroe’s eager playfulness only egged them on), they made it very difficult for Wilder to shoot and caused baseball great Joe DiMaggio, the star’s husband at the time, to leave in a huff. The scene actually used in the film was shot in a studio.
Once the film was released, the scene itself, the stills, and the movie poster of Monroe coyly trying to tamp down an unwieldy, weightless dress in the ecstasy of an updraft immediately cemented this image in the public’s mind, an enduring symbol of summer in the city and titillation at its day dreamy best.
Today, that image is as strong as ever. You can buy copies of the dress on eBay. It comes in plus sizes up to 24 as well as petite (Monroe was a size 12 to 14). Prices range from eight to one hundred forty dollars. Several websites make emphatic claims to have one of the originals. Debbie Reynolds bought an authentic one for her now-defunct Hollywood Motion Picture Museum and has supposedly never sold it.
The impact of the image is so strong that the marketplace is perpetually flooded with merchandise galore based on this famous image: more than a dozen different versions of the film poster, copies of Travilla’s charming original sketches for the halter neck in white (the star’s favorite color), porcelain and crystal dolls, and even ashtrays painted in a high glaze or made of metal are among the scores of goods out there. My favorite venue for the dress, however, is a website that sells three versions of the dress in different stages of liftoff. Touch any of the three dresses at a specific point, however, and it flies even higher by way of an attached battery pack. They even throw in a grating for you to stand on. And, of course, there is a Facebook page, just for the dress.
More in books
Valentino • 1963
The problem with having a reputation is that once you’ve earned one, you are stuck with it. And if being the ultimate pulse raiser was what she was aiming for at the 2000 Grammys, then Jennifer Lopez shot straight through the heart with decimating accuracy with her Versace number (see page 58). So what do you do for an encore?
To her credit, she seemed to know that there’s no winning when playing “can you top this?” against yourself, so Lopez tried to steer public perception from Jenny on the Block back to Jennifer Lopez, movie star. Blessed with skin so luminous that even face-to-face she seems to be lit from within, and with the fact that every designer wanted to dress her, her attempt should have been one smooth ride. But sometimes you don’t see a pothole until it’s too late.
For the 2001 Oscars, Lopez turned to Chanel couture, which clothed her in what initially appeared to be a classically sedate choice: a ball gown with a full dove-gray taffeta skirt and a greige chiffon top that fell from one shoulder, twisting and looping around to the other. With her hair slicked back, a nude lip, and tasteful diamonds on her ears, Lopez probably glanced in her hallway mirror and left swearing she had nailed it.
But no home lighting matches the intensity of stage lights or the combined wattage of the red carpet. In the harsh light, Lopez’s featherweight couture bodice turned almost completely sheer, revealing all that she had managed to hide the previous year via double-stick tape. Naturally, industry charmers assumed she had planned the reveal all along.
So in 2002, Lopez went back to Versace, who gave her more than mere coverage.
Her strapless gown was a latticework of folded and draped, intricately woven, trapuntostitched bubblegum-pink, water-stained satin. Imagine a prom dress made on a loom. The thought of a high school beauty queen so inspired Lopez’s stylist, Oribe, that he teased, wove, and curled her tendrils into a high, lacquered, no-bangs flip straight out of the 1960s. Sandra Dee would have loved it. Almost nobody else did.
In 2003, Lopez’s search for redemption led her to Valentino, who sent Lopez a picture of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a one-shoulder mint-green silk gown he had made for her for a goodwill trip to Cambodia in 1967. He offered to remake the gown for Lopez, adding that this was the only dress she should consider. Because it would take countless hours to reproduce the gown’s intricate handiwork, Valentino gave Lopez a firm deadline to respond. Given the racks upon racks of options always made available to her, Lopez initially wavered. Yet the confident designer was sure she would come around and told his workroom to make the reproduction regardless; by the time the star notified him that she would take him up on his generous offer, the dress was finished.
As Lopez glided down the Oscars’ walk, bronzed, pale-pink-lipped, her bare arm gently resting against the unruffled caftan-like gown with its graceful lace and sequin-flower-embroidered borders, there were no malfunctions, no catcalls, and no sly questions. It took once, twice, three times to feel like a lady again. Thanks to Valentino, she was a shimmering star in the cinema firmament once more. And then five months later, Gigli opened.
Reprinted from "100 Unforgettable Dresses" by Hal Rubenstein © 2011 by Hal Rubenstein. Used with permission of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive