For BAFTA-nominated costume designer Jennifer Johnson (I, Tonya), working on Blonde was all about authenticity. Armed with a directive from writer-director Andrew Dominik — who would not approve a creation unless it was a perfect match — everything from the shades of Marilyn Monroe’s pink opera gloves to the placement of a pocket needed to be exact. Archival photos and films proved invaluable for the design of 100-plus costumes for Monroe along with those for 1,800 extras and supporting characters (including Joe DiMaggio, John F. Kennedy and Arthur Miller), which were a mixture of vintage and made-from-scratch items.
Taking her cues from Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name and Dominik’s script, Johnson’s goal was to convey the inner workings of the iconic screen siren (played by Ana de Armas) through the costumes.
“I wanted to get into the day-to-day, off-duty Norma Jeane and explore what felt the most authentic to her,” says the designer. “I thought I knew her, but when I read the script, the book, and started the research, I discovered a whole new side of her. What is amazing is the film gets into her inner psyche, and you will learn more than you thought you knew.”
The costumes were a study in contrasts: There was the private, day-to-day Norma Jeane Mortenson (her given name) and the Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn. Off-camera, the actress’ wardrobe consists of her iconic black turtlenecks and capri pants (then known as pedal pushers). “Marilyn joined the Actors Studio and really wanted to be taken seriously as an intellectual. She had a relationship with [designer] Anne Klein and borrowed clothes from her that became that beautiful, elegant, almost French minimalist beatnik way of dressing in New York City,” says the designer. She also favored high-waisted jeans, as seen in her last film, The Misfits (1961).
For onscreen Marilyn, Johnson looked to original sketches by the star’s favorite costume designer, William Travilla, to duplicate the strapless shocking-pink satin gown with a large bow in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and iconic white georgette crepe halter dress in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Perhaps the re-creation of designer Orry-Kelly’s gold lamé number in Some Like It Hot is the most provocative. Made with netting, silk chiffon and Austrian hand-beaded crystals, the risqué 1920s-style flesh-colored dress features a heart-shaped cutout on the derriere (which gave the censors fits in 1959). “I call it the juicy dress as we built out de Armas’ body [using padding] for that dress,” says Johnson. “With the appliqué beadwork and handiwork, it was the most labor-intensive dress of all the costumes.”
The film, predominantly shot in black-and-white with some scenes in color, proved another challenge for the designer. “We didn’t know going into prep where Andrew wanted to use black-and-white, so he and the DP worked it out as we went,” says Johnson, who took photos of outfits in both color and black-and-white to make sure that the looks would work no matter how they were shot. “Red can look like pale gray and we had to make modifications off the cuff and turn on a dime.”
At the end of the day, the designer notes, “The hardest thing was the re-creations that are burned into everyone’s mind’s eye, and the pressure to pull it off was the motivator. We wanted to pay her the proper homage.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.