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Unlikely as it might sound, Meryl Streep helped track down Marilyn Monroe’s ivory halter dress from “The Seven Year Itch” as a last-minute addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s upcoming “Hollywood Costume” exhibition.
Perhaps more widely recognized as the billowing, thigh-baring number that Monroe wore standing above a New York City subway grate, the Travilla design hung in a number of different closets before making its way to London. Twentieth Century Fox, which produced the 1955 film, auctioned the scene-stealing dress and thousands of other props and costumes from the movie in 1971. At that time, American actress Debbie Reynolds bought the dress to add to her extensive costume collection.
Fast forward nearly four decades to 2009, when a V&A team paid a visit to Reynolds’ son’s California ranch, which also served as a storage facility. During that visit, senior guest curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis and assistant curator Keith Lodwick lined up the Travilla dress and other standout pieces for “Hollywood Costume,” which bows Saturday.
But that plan went up in smoke in December 2010, when Reynolds revealed plans to sell the ivory dress and other key pieces from her private stock at auction the following year. Landis was in the crowd at that “Profiles in History” sale, when the dress went for a record-breaking $4.6 million bid — $5.52 million with taxes and fees.
She and the rest of the V&A team then kept tabs on the whereabouts of the Reynolds costumes as they were dispersed among international collectors. This is where Streep stepped onto the scene.
After being interviewed by Landis for “Hollywood Costume,” the Academy Award-winning actress asked the curator if she had secured everything she wanted for the show. The guest curator told Streep about the post-Reynolds auction search and Streep offered to get in on the treasure hunt. The actress later arranged for Landis and her associates to contact the current owner, who agreed to lend the iconic dress.
Landis said “Hollywood Costume” would be incomplete without it. “Filmmaker Billy Wilder, with his sly humor, used the summer New York heat to create a comedic and sexy scene that became the lasting image of Marilyn Monroe,” she said.
The heavy crepe cocktail dress was an of-the-moment look in the Fifties. Travilla’s take is made of two pieces of pleated fabric that came together behind the neck, leaving the arms, shoulders and back bare. A narrow belt wrapped around Monroe’s torso, crisscrossing in the front and tied into a small bow on the front left side. Travilla made a point of using rayon crepe to ensure the dress would swing, sway and lift in a breeze.
A few other marquee looks from Reynolds’ collection have been retrieved, including the Adrian-designed waitress uniform Joan Crawford wore in “Mildred Pierce”; the Peacock feather dress Edith Head dreamt up for Hedy Lamarr in “Samson & Delilah,” and Irene Sharaff’s gold gown for Barbra Streisand in “Hello Dolly.”