Megan C. Hills, CNN
Remember when showgirl Lorelei Lee left her fiancé dumbstruck as she emerged onstage in a pink satin gown, dripping in diamonds, in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”? Lee, played by Marilyn Monroe, then launches into a musical number where she croons “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” — a scene widely imitated in the decades since, from Madonna’s “Material Girl” video to Margot Robbie in “Birds of Prey.”
Equally unforgettable was Monroe’s strapless dress. Figure-hugging, paired with matching gloves and cinched with a giant pink and black bow, the look became one of Hollywood’s most iconic outfits after the film’s release in 1953.
But the outfit was, in fact, a last-minute alternative. The original — and far more revealing — costume was ditched because of a scandal involving nude photographs.
Four years earlier Monroe, then an unknown jobbing actress, had posed naked for a photo shoot, earning just $50 for a series of images that would later feature in a calendar. Shot by pin-up photographer Tom Kelley, the photos showed the actress stretched artfully across red velvet sheets with her face tilted toward the camera, arms extended and toes pointed, creating beautiful lines.
In the four-part CNN docuseries “Reframed: Marilyn Monroe,” Monroe says she was assured by Kelley that nobody would recognize her. However, there was no mistaking her coiffed blonde curls and signature red lip in the smoldering photos.
By the time the calendar emerged in 1952, Monroe’s Hollywood profile had started to blossom. She was soon identified as the nude model, sparking backlash in conservative 1950s America and casting unflattering attention on the rising star. But Monroe overcame the incident and even gained sympathy through her unflinching honesty.
“A few years ago, when I had no money for food or rent, a photographer I knew asked me to pose nude for an art calendar,” she told reporter Aline Mosby at United Press International.
Movie studio 20th Century Fox, which would release “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” the next year, asked her to deny it was her. But she refused, explaining to Mosby: “Oh, the calendar’s hanging in all garages all over town. Why deny it? You can get one any place. Besides, I’m not ashamed of it. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
By owning the photos, she was able to control the narrative — and her public image — in the face of those trying to shame her.
“The nude calendar scandal really put her in the vanguard of the sexual revolution,” American literature professor Sarah Churchwell says in the new docuseries.
Costume designer William “Billy” Travilla, who worked with Monroe on 11 movies including “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” later told cable network A&E that the photos sent the studio “wild.” Executives feared the images could ruin Monroe’s career and that the movie’s investors might pull out.
Initially, Travilla had been tasked with creating the “sexiest, most exciting, almost naked lady on the screen” — a very different look to the now-iconic satin pink gown.
“The costume was fishnet hose over her nude body,” he told A&E. “The breasts and the hipline (were) covered with diamonds put together by a jeweler. And just as we’re ready to shoot the number — good lord, the thing goes wrong. (A reprint of) Marilyn Monroe’s nude calendar hits the market.”
While Monroe was never filmed wearing the original outfit, rare test photographs of her wearing it do exist. Travilla said he had been instructed to “throw the costume out” by producers who feared they “might lose all the box office for the film.” Travilla then designed the pink gown, or a “very covered dress,” as a safer alternative.
However, the studio’s worries over the nude photographs were allayed when the film brought in $5.3 million at the box office, catapulting Monroe to full-blown stardom.
Another film starring Monroe, “How to Marry a Millionaire,” was released that same year, raking in another $8 million. As author Aubrey Solomon wrote in his history of 20th Century Fox, “In 1953, Fox’s two greatest assets were CinemaScope and Marilyn Monroe, in that order.” (Monroe, ironically, was only paid $500 a week for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she revealed in her final interview with Life Magazine in 1962, while co-star Jane Russell earned $200,000.)
Subverting ‘dumb blonde’ clichés
While it was only second choice, the pink dress has become a pop culture phenomenon, selling for $310,000 at a 2010 auction of Hollywood memorabilia.
Celebrities have also paid homage to the scene-stealing outfit and song. Some have emphasized the number’s obvious allusions to materialism, such as Madonna’s 1985 video for “Material Girl,” while others have turned it into an anthem for female empowerment, as Megan Thee Stallion and Normani did on their song “Diamonds.”
Singers Ariana Grande, Camilla Cabello and Kylie Minogue have all channeled the gown for various performances, while James Franco even wore a version of it as co-host of the 2011 Oscars.
And movies like “Birds of Prey” (2020) and “Moulin Rouge” (2001) have offered darker references to the scene, with female protagonists struggling to secure their place in patriarchal societies. In “Birds of Prey,” the gown is reimagined as a jumpsuit worn by Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as she hallucinates an eerie version of the famous scene during a violent interrogation with crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis vastly underestimates Quinn as a “dumb blonde,” which proves to be his eventual undoing.
Shrewdly navigating her career, Monroe herself was anything but a “dumb blonde” — as she demonstrated with her handling of the nude photo scandal. In “Reframed: Marilyn Monroe,” Churchwell points to an unscripted line that Monroe came up with for her character, Lorelei Lee, and insisted on using: “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.”
The four-part docuseries “Reframed Marilyn Monroe,” narrated by Jessica Chastain, airs on CNN on Sunday, January 16 at 9PM ET.
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