The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Baker, was named sixth greatest female star of all time by the American Film Insitute. She passed away of a pill overdose in 1962, at the age of 36.

Last week, the trailer for My Week With Marilyn was officially released to coincide with the film's world premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 9, 2011. I don't think the film needs an introduction; it's the highly anticipated British drama that traces Monroe's time working in London on 1957's The Prince and the Showgirl through the eyes of the movie's assistant director Colin Clark. It has a stellar, all-English cast led by American Michelle Williams in the title role, and includes cameos by a post-Potter Emma Watson and the Dame Judi Dench.

Monroe's been on my mind for a while, or, to say the least, she's been put there by the pop culture powers that be. When Harvey Weinstein screened the trailer for a small audience at the Cannes Film Festival in May, people were already whispering "Oscar" based on two-minutes of edited magic. It was the biggest non-Von Trier gossip of the festival. When Vogue dedicated its recent October cover to Williams doing her best Marilyn, it sparked a virtual frenzy and anticipation for the project hit a fever pitch. 

Much of the debate hasn't been about the movie at all. In fact, it's about whether or not, pre-trailer, America could buy a former Dawson's Creek-er as the country's greatest sex symbol. Did she look the part? Could she pull it off? Known for playing ultra-vulnerable females ("a human mess," is how Williams refers to her roles in the Vogue piece), I'd say she's not a far cry from Marilyn, who was plagued with troubles, from psychological to physical. But it's interesting to see how Anna Wintour's support for the role - and the girl behind it - has nearly catapulted Monroe into a bona fide style star in a different way, in a different light, than she's ever been considered before. Yet even in the magazine's cover line ("Michelle Williams talks about…playing the sexiest icon of all time"), there's no mention of style. Is Monroe beautiful? Duh. The pinnacle of femininity? Check. Yes, we know - we all know - she is a sex symbol, but style star? I just don't think it's appropriate. Or are the two interchangeable? I certainly wouldn't say they're mutually exclusive. It just feels like the latest piece of nostalgia that we're choosing to desperately re-create, re-interpret and re-construct. When the Vogue cover exploded online, the responses were vehement. "The Marilyn look worked for precisely one person - Marilyn. Can we pay homage without trying to resurrect her in other people?" said one commenter on Refinery29.  Another, on Huffington Post noted: "I love how the media's going all nuts with this hype about how much Michelle Williams [sic] - who looks absolutely nothing like Marilyn Monroe [sic] - has made this dramatic transformation. There is virtually no resemblance whatsoever between the two."

No one cared about whether or not [Monroe] could act, let alone what she was wearing; all that mattered was if she was in focus.

There seems to be a general consensus on what Marilyn Monroe represents in the Western (pop) cultural landscape. When you read the online comments on the Williams cover - from fashion sites to news sites - it's interesting that there isn't much of an opinion on what Monroe represents in fashion. She's an icon and a symbol, yes, and you can place any qualifier you want in front of those two words, but it usually isn't "style." Maybe that's just the way it works; icon-hood grants one style status. But it sort of should be earned, no? Marilyn's look has been copied time and again, since the dawn of music videos (Madonna's "Material Girl" to Def Leppard's "Photograph") to the rise of cult film (Pulp Fiction). But, in many ways, it was Monroe's poise and iconic hair (there's that word again) and smile and breathy voice and curves - the extra-curriculars of "fashion," so to speak - that made her a star. No one cared about whether or not she could act, let alone what she was wearing; all that mattered was if she was in focus. In comparison to her contemporaries, there isn't much that differentiates her, fashionably-speaking. Audrey Hepburn is easily regarded as an iconic fashion figure with her cigarette pants and her breakfasts as Tiffany's. Monroe? She may just always be "the sexy one." Consider Jane Russell, widely viewed as an American sex symbol herself alongside Monroe, and equally as successful; we seldom hear of her in fashion. And is that enough? Elizabeth Taylor and other '50s starlets like Hepburn (Katherine, too) live on as stronger pictures of a stylish era in American cinema.

In November, a new exhibit will open in Toronto through TIFF (the city's film festival organization) showcasing the life and style of Grace Kelly, another relic from Monroe's golden age of film. Everyone knows Kelly's story: Philly girl becomes a movie star and ends her fairy tale life as a princess. However, unlike Monroe, Kelly's sartorial influence is universally acknowledged, and the newest Toronto show (titled Grace Kelly: From Movie Star to Princess) is based on Victoria and Albert Museum's Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition in London. The marketing behind TIFF's effort is the strongest example of how Kelly and Monroe play out in today's popular culture. The show's tagline itself - "Before Diana. Before Kate. There was Grace." - is the perhaps the strongest antithesis to Monroe, and an even stronger indication of the makings of a style icon. We prize Kate Middleton as the nouveau picture of fashion(able) royalty, much like Diana before her; Marilyn, in this respect, is lost in the shuffle, royal status aside.

But the Monroe revival is in fashion, and it will continue at a steady pace given the fanfare surrounding the Williams project. Apart from Vogue's October cover, the Paris edition's October cover also features model Sasha Pivovarova as a deconstructed Marilyn, and British Vogue sees newly-blonde Rihanna channeling the bombshell on its November cover. In 2012, Naomi Watts is slated to play Marilyn in the biopic Blonde. Next year will also be the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death. Whether her impact on fashion and style is real or imagined, the debate is only just beginning.



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