Monroe Frock Fetches Millions, But Was It THE Dress?
Of course, the item highlighting the auction was what is now considered to be the most iconic film costume of all time: The William “Billy” Travilla designed ivory halter dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the subway scene of the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. (Photo Below: Me taking a photo with the dress.)
The first Marilyn gown was lot 282, a red sequined gown from the 1953 classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The gown was worn by Marilyn as she sang “We’re Just Two Little Girls From Little Rock,” with Jane Russell in the film’s opening number. Incredibly, the gown sold for $1,476,000.00 ($1,200,000.00 and $276,000.00 buyer’s premium), shattering the previous auction record for a film costume, which was a black Givenchy gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The costume was sold by Christie’s in 2006 for $923,187.00.
The third Monroe costume was lot 314, the famous and sultry outfit worn by Marilyn in the “Heat Wave” number from There’s No Business Like Show Business. This costume sold for $615,000.00 ($500,000.00 and $115,000.00 buyer’s premium). I was actually surprised this costume didn’t sell for more.
Finally, lot 354, the “Subway Dress” from the Seven Year Itch was up. When the photo of the dress was presented on the overhead display, the audience broke out into resounding applause. It was clear that history was going to be made with the sale of this dress.
Bidding for the dress started at $1,000,000.00, and bids were in increments $100,000.00. An absentee bid of $1,000,000.00 had been submitted, and after several minutes of excited and feverish activity, bidding finally closed at a record breaking $4,600,000.00. With the buyer’s premium of $1,058,000.00, the final price for the dress was $5,658,000.00. It was undeniable at that point: Marilyn Monroe was the most iconic film actress of all time. She held the record for the most expensive personal dress ever sold at auction (the gown she wore as she sang Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy on May 19, 1962, which sold for $1,267,500 at Christie’s in 1999) along with the most expensive film costume ever sold at auction as well.
In the days following the auction, the media was abuzz with the news of the record setting auction prices. While we all knew the subway dress could sell for a record setting amount, no one really knew just how far collectors and investors were willing to go to own this iconic piece of American memorabilia. However, with the media buzz came a stirring in the Marilyn Monroe community. Almost immediately after the auction, I was contacted by several people with concerns about the subway dress. I also saw comments being posted on Facebook about the Reynolds dress.
“How could this not be the dress?” I asked myself. “It’s from the Debbie Reynolds collection, and everyone knows that Debbie Reynolds owns the subway dress, along with many other Marilyn Monroe costumes.” I soon began searching for myself to see if there was merit to concerns being raised. I’d obviously seen the dress in person so I began to conduct some research.
I saw a comment on Facebook, “The belt doesn’t look right to me.” I did some photo comparisons and realized that yes, the belt was not exactly right. Marilyn wore a belt with the dress in the film, yet there was no belt on the Reynolds subway dress. A bow had been attached to the dress. It’s quite common for film costumes to have been altered back then. It’s likely that a bow was created from the original belt and it was simply affixed to the dress for display purposes. Note in the photo below that the bow on the Reynolds dress is actually perfectly shaped. The knot was likely sewn to the dress, and I noticed that the loops of the bow are actually attached to the dress with small metal snaps. It’s quite plausible indeed that a bow was created from the original belt, and simply attached to the dress.
Not long after, someone pointed out a fairly significant difference between the hem of the Reynolds subway dress and the hem of the skirt of the dress worn by Marilyn in photos. I did a bit more photo research for myself and discovered very quickly that yes, the hem of the Reynolds dress was in fact very different from the hem of the dress when it was worn by Marilyn. Again, this could be very easy to explain. If the original hem had come undone, it was simply re-sewn. This is a very plausible and logical explanation. The most iconic film costume of all time simply cannot be un-hemmed.
In looking at the photo of the official Travilla copy, I noticed a significant difference immediately: The pleating of the skirts on the dresses was completely different. The pleating of the Reynolds dress was a wide box pleat, yet the pleating of the Travilla copy was a very narrow sunburst pleat. See photo below.
I began to do side-by-side comparisons of photos of the Reynolds dress, the Travilla copy, and photographs of Marilyn in the dress from the movie. I looked at the studio test shot of Marilyn wearing the costume, other images, and of course the actual film.
The subway scene from the film was originally shot on location in New York City. However, there were so many people in attendance at the filming (media and general public) that the footage couldn’t be used due to all of the noise from the crowd. It’s not a well known fact that the subway skirt blowing scene was actually re-shot on the Fox lot back in Hollywood. In order to ensure I covered all bases, I compared the Reynolds dress to photos of Marilyn wearing the subway dress on location in New York City and also on the set in Hollywood.
Finally, in comparing photos, I noticed that the skirt of the Reynolds subway dress does not appear to be as full or as long as the skirt of the dress worn by Marilyn Monroe. See below a side-by-side comparison which appears to show a much fuller, longer skirt on the dress worn by Marilyn.
With all of this confusion, I reached out to Andrew Hansford, the England-based curator of the Travilla Estate. The estate possesses patterns and sketches from Travilla for many of his costumes. Andrew actually shared with me an image of the pattern and a sketch for the subway dress.
In our conversation, Andrew indicated that Travilla left “very” detailed notes, along with accounts as to how the dress was made, the fabric that was used and his inspiration for the costume. According to Travilla’s notes, he actually delivered four subway scene dresses for The Seven Year Itch to Fox.
Also according to Andrew, Travilla himself knew that Debbie Reynolds had an original subway scene dress. This is evident from taped conversations and interviews with Travilla, wherein he discusses contacting Reynolds to borrow the subway scene dress in order to recreate dress patterns for the costume as the original patterns were unfortunately lost in a fire at his home, along with many original costume sketches.
In Billy Travilla’s own words, “Debbie Reynolds has the original dress from The Seven Year Itch and after all these years it has changed colour slightly and some of the threads have all but gone. Debbie is a woman that trusts me with everything but even when I borrowed the dress to make an exact copy she had someone watching while we opened some seams and carefully put them all back.” Interestingly, Andrew recalls that Debbie herself recounted this same story when he himself had a chance to visit with her earlier this year.
Finally, another little known fact. An original Travilla subway scene dress was worn by actress Roxanne Arlen in the 1962 film Bachelor Flat. If Arlen wore the same dress Marilyn wore in The Seven Year Itch, would it have been altered for her, hence the variances? See a clip from Bachelor Flat with Arlen wearing the dress here.
I have reached out to Profiles In History to discuss the dress and the apparent variances. Unfortunately, my personal contacts there were not available and the staff member I was able to speak to was unwilling to discuss this issue with me in detail. However, he did state that, due to the fact the dress was “off the rack” there were likely going to be some inconsistencies here and there. Regardless, it was apparent that I wasn’t the first caller to bring questions about the Debbie Reynolds dress to their attention.It’s important to note that with the sale of the most iconic film costume of all time, and for a record setting amount at that, there are some questions around consistency. Above all else, it cannot be dismissed that the pleats of the Debbie Reynolds subway dress do not appear to match the pleats of the dress(es) Marilyn worn in the film and in photographs. There are additional questions as well: the hem of the skirt and what appears to be differences in the fullness and the length of the skirt.Was this truly the dress worn in the subway scene in The Seven Year Itch?Might this actually be a prototype dress, designed by Travilla, but not used in the film?Did Travilla perhaps alter the dress when he borrowed it from Reynolds to recreate his patterns? Could Reynolds have purchased a (possibly altered) dress that was worn by Arlen in Bachelor Flat?