Some dresses belong in art galleries because they happen to be works of art, and some because somebody famous has worn them. The Bendigo Art Gallery is preparing a remarkable show that includes a simple dress that Marilyn Monroe took on her honeymoon. It comes with a story.
There might have been seductive and beautiful American blondes in the ’50s who were also orthopaedic surgeons or venture capitalists, but they would not have appeared on the cover of Playboy.
Screen blondes were supposed to be different; to look stunning and sexy, to be available, if only as male fantasy, and just to shut up.
Marilyn stands alone
Marilyn Monroe changed that, even though she’d made herself into a blonde. She could act. She bucked the system. The movie-blonde mythical ideal did not begin with Marilyn: many far-from-dumb blondes came first, going along with the myths. And then when Marilyn died in 1962, hopeful replacements arrived, the names now utterly remote. None quite managed the comparison.
Trevor, a Victorian collector and RACV member who sounds more like a keeper of the flame than simply a Marilyn devotee, owns the dress, which he bought at a Christie’s auction in 1989. He’s not the sort who’d front up to the Antiques Road Show with an autograph, anxious for a cash estimate.
Custodian of the legacy
Talking to him, and getting his encyclopaedic detail about Marilyn’s life, reinforced by his experience of speaking to people who’d known Marilyn well, it’s clear that this passionate involvement has never been about money or simple possession. Rather, he feels he’s become a modest custodian of the Marilyn legacy, and that he’s been entrusted with a piece of American history.
That other dress, the famous white one billowing out in the subway breeze, was worth millions. But this one, a two-piece cocktail frock, is more important than just serious money, Trevor says. It’s no studio wardrobe prop, but one Marilyn had owned since 1952. She took this honeymoon dress to Japan with Joe DiMaggio and kept it all her life.
Sings to the troops
Wearing it on that same trip in the freezing Korean sleet, she sang to thousands of troops. Here was a real, vulnerable woman without the movie façade. The ecstatic fans lined up for photos. She’d had no experience of polished microphone technique, had hardly sung in public and she was only incidentally in Korea.
Trevor calls this a landmark moment, the first time she realised that something special was happening, that she had power and could step out from the studio shackles and take control of her career; could pave the way for others to break a rigid star system and be independent. That dress became the enduring symbol of her new confidence.
Unforgettable screen presence
I asked why he thought the legacy had survived. An unforgettable screen presence, something indefinable, he said.
Along with the dress, Trevor has, as you’d expect, other rare items of memorabilia: original film posters for example, which will go with the exhibition to be held from 5 March-10 July.