Monday, 30 November -0001

Becoming Marilyn

From plain Norma Jeane to blonde bombshell, on the 60th anniversary of The Seven Year Itch, James Crawford Smith reveals how she did it…

Written by James Crawford Smith
Blonde, buxom, with a trademark wiggle and a voice as soft as a whisper: this is the Marilyn Monroe we all know and the woman that millions have tried to emulate. Often seen as a victim, Monroe was in fact more ambitious, more involved and more in control of her image than it appeared. It was her eye for beauty and lust for fame that transformed the mousy Norma Jeane Baker into a worldwide phenomenon. From the contents of her wardrobe to her legendary make-up bag, on the 60th anniversary of her famous appearance in The Seven Year Itch, we reveal how ‘she became’ Marilyn.


Step one in the transformation began with the most iconic feature of the Marilyn Monroe look – her platinum-blonde hair. As the saying goes, ‘gentlemen prefer blondes’, and boy, did Marilyn embrace this. One of her first stops on the road to fame was Frank & Joseph Hair Stylist on Wilshire Boulevard. Sent by her modelling agent, Monroe visited Frank & Joseph’s, and even modelled for their publicity stills. Transforming Norma Jeane into a Harlow-esque bombshell apparently took three steps – the first being a round of straightening. Her natural hair was described as brown and kinky, far from the luscious blonde we have come to know. After being straightened and having a chemical stabiliser applied to it, the hair was intensely dyed – it took months of lightening and toning for Marilyn to achieve the blonde she wanted. Luckily for the 21st-century woman, blonde is but a bottle away.


The next step in becoming Marilyn Monroe came in the form of cosmetics. The world of make-up had been revolutionised since the end of the Second World War, with beauty magnates, such as Estée Lauder in 1946, launching their own make-up lines. The make-up of movie stars was copied by the general public and Monroe’s personal beauty inspirations were Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. Marilyn favoured a strong lip, selecting shades of deep red from companies such as Max Factor. The nails (if painted instead of French tipped) would always match her lips – Revlon colour Cherries à la Mode has been documented as a staple in her beauty arsenal.


In terms of fashion, she had two mantras: less is more, but at the same time, more is more. Not unlike her contemporary, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn was depicted dressed as either elegantly minimalistic or overtly glamorous. Through her tightly nipped-in dresses and strikingly high heels, she portrayed herself as the sex kitten, purring at men (usually with big bank accounts), keeping all eyes on her. As the years have passed, modern-day designers have looked to Marilyn as a source of inspiration, toning down the sex and heightening the glamour. One could argue that Diane von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dress bares similarities to some of Monroe’s classic 1950s wiggle dresses. The key to dressing like Marilyn is proportion: in order to show as much shoulder as she did, one must counterbalance with the length of the skirt. The general rule is: off the shoulder, below the knee.


However the style of this Hollywood prima donna has influenced or affected you, her impact on popular culture and the world in which we live cannot be overstated. Modern beauty, fashion and body ideals are in some part based on the image of Marilyn Monroe over 50 years since the star’s tragic passing. Perhaps one can evoke the sense of Miss Monroe without emulating her outer style, but her inner attitude. One day when walking with a friend along Fifth Avenue in New York, dressed in a raincoat and headscarf, Marilyn went unrecognised. She turned to her friend and said, ‘Do you want me to be her? Watch.’ Removing her coat and headscarf, she was immediately surrounded by a mob of fans. Marilyn Monroe was one of the most self-aware stars in Hollywood history. Her personality and beauty tend to be remembered more than her acting talent, but it can be argued that transforming the way she did from who she was, is talent all of its own.

A season of Marilyn Monroe films runs at the BFI, South Bank, London SE1 until 30 June: 020-7928 3232,

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