Book Review: Dressing Marilyn How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla (Written by Andrew Hansford)

When Carlton Books sent me a press release about this book I was intrigued. I'm someone who had pictures of Marilyn on my bedroom wall as a teenager (nestled alongside New Kids on The Block and James Dean) and I spent many hours doodling dress designs as a young child/teen, I couldn't think of a more perfect book to have on my shelf.

Carlton Books kindly gave me a copy to review and I know I'm an emotional Minnie but the books been an emotional read! So if this review feels a bit too positive because I know, I know ..........a review is supposed to have 'what you liked, what you didn't like and what you think could be better' Well I'm not going to follow a formula and try and tailor my opinion to fit it. This book has become one of my most treasured books. I've shown it to several people to get other opinions on it and without fail, everyone has been fascinated by it.

Why? What's different about this book? There's a zillion books on Marilyn isn't there? Yes there is. But there is something so very different about this one. There's a great interview with the author at the start of the book, which details how this book came about. Hansford didn't begin this as some die hard Marilyn fan who decided to write a book, he ended up immersed in the world of Marilyn, her dresses and her close friend/costume designer William Travilla by accident or may be some would call it luck. A phone conversation led to an exhibition of her dresses and the rest, as they say is history.

William Travilla was responsible for an array of costumes during his time in the film and television industry. This book has original designs of dresses and they really are the most beautiful drawings, like works of art that should be displayed. He said of Marilyn:

''My clothes for Marilyn were an act of love, I adored her''

William Travilla with Marilyn
 From the book it's clear that Travilla loved to make women look and feel beautiful. Unlike some more modern male designers, who in my opinion sometimes seem to design for women but it's about the designer NOT the women. To me it feels there can be an element of  ''I'm the designer! See me when you look at that dress not the wearer''............ controversial? May be, but I can tell you that when I discussed this book and voiced this opinion both men and women understood the point and many agreed.

This iconic dress actually only had a brief appearance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

There are some absolutely laugh out loud moments in this book as stories of Travilla's life are shared. Anyone familiar with Mae West will know that she was a colouful character and there's a story of a very young Travilla getting to meet her. He was a huge fan but sadly hopes of working with her didn't work out. The book tells the tale.....

                    One of his all time favourite pin ups was Mae West and, when he was given the opportunity to meet her and discuss possibly deigning some costumes for her, the actress received him wearing 25-cm (10-inch) wedge heels, 5-cm (2-inch) eyelashes and a floor length negligee. According to Travilla, with a translucent swirl of red satin and chiffon straight off a movie set, she sauntered across the room, sat down beside him and, with a tantalising wink, took his hand and gently guided him towards her bare breast. Sadly for Ms West, Travilla's reaction did little to inspire her confidence in his talents as a designer and he was shown the door within ten minutes. Given that Travilla was in his early twenties at the time, this must have been an incredibly intimidating experience!

It feels a bit wrong to laugh, it sounds terrifying! Travilla himself was handsome, he was dashing and looked every bit the movie star himself. Yet he was happy to be the creator of beautiful costumes and didn't consider himself a celebrity. Of course this was back in the day when celebrity had a whole different meaning. The book goes on to detail the costumes Travilla designed for Marilyn in the various films they worked on together.  

The red sequin dress worn in Gentelmen Prefer Blondes

 The famous pink dress worn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  during the performance of Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend  (and imitated by Madonna in the Material Girl video)  was a last minute design and whilst it is stunningly beautiful it was actually a replacement for this costume...

Why was this costume replaced? Well during post production, the studio became aware that there were nude pictures of Marilyn in a calender. Even though the pictures were taken several years earlier, the studio still went crazy.  At the time of the nude shoot Marilyn was an out of work actress, her car had been impounded and she was paid $50 dollars to pose, enough to get her car back. The studio didn't care about that of course. Travilla was ordered to ''cover her up'' and so he had to go away and recreate some thing less revealing and more demure. 

If you love Marilyn, fashion or Hollywood history this would be a fabulous book to read. It's one of those books that you can read cover to cover or dip in and out of. I loved reading about the tales from Hollywood and the stories behind the costumes. The affection and passion Travilla had for his work is enviable and the collection of photograhs magnificent.

Dressing Marilyn: How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla (by Andrew Hansford,  £20, available in all good book shops and online)

Carlton Books publish several great vintage inspired titles.If you're on Twitter they are well worth following, the twitter team are fab at tweeting about new titles, what's coming up and snippets of info that might be of interest to us book lovers! Follow them here.


  1. My controversial thing with Marilyn's costumes is that I really, really prefer the illustrations to the real costumes. I know real fabric cannot quite drape the same way as 100% fabric fantasy costumes, but the fantasy element is wonderful. She looks incredibly glamorous in the photos, but (as the rejected photo demonstrates) she always looks glam and like Marilyn - but the insight into the inner extreme of the gown the pencil drawings give are something else.

  2. I had not even heard of this book - so I am pleased you have reviewed it! I love to see drawings before the outfits became reality :)

  3. The original for the number Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend is STUPENDOUS! What a shame that costume never made it

  4. Thanks for sharing your review, very interesting to hear about the costume change, I'm now imagining what Madonna's costume would have been for Material Girl without the influence of the iconic pink gown. I wonder what became of the original, have to admit I think I prefer the pink gown. I'll definitely be adding this to my want list. I used to love drawing gowns to, still do sometimes, and always interested in initial sketches to the finished gown.

  5. Thank you so much for this lovely review of my book.
    It makes me so happy that the fans and people like yourself enjoy it.
    It was definately a labour of love.
    I just hope I did them both proud.
    Again thank you.
    Andrew Hansford

  6. Glad you enjoyed the review, it really is a beautiful book and well worth adding to your wish list.

    Andrew, thanks for your comment. Wonderful if a little heart stopping to know the author of the book has been reading my words and thoughts on it! Thank you for taking the time to comment.


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