Costume designer Jennifer Johnson remembers the feeling when she was first approached to work on Blonde: "Extremely daunting." She was on another project from Brad Pitt's Plan B production company (2020's Kajillionaire) when producer Dede Gardner mentioned the movie, director Andrew Dominik's adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates' novel about Marilyn Monroe.
"Dede said, 'Jennifer, I think you and Andrew are going to really like each other,'" she recalls. The call didn't come for a full year, just enough time for Johnson to wrap her head around it. "Andrew Dominik is an incredible visionary and Joyce Carol Oates is an amazing author, and I was so excited."
Oates' book may be fiction, but Dominik's vision was to exactingly recreate real moments from Monroe's films and public life, complete with methodically refashioned costumes. When Monroe's outfits are nearly as iconic as she is, that's quite the daunting task indeed.
Johnson's design team ultimately put together more than 100 costume changes for Marilyn (played in the film by Ana de Armas), including the pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the white dress from The Seven Year Itch, originally designed by the legendary William Travilla. In conversation with A.frame, she explains how she did it.
A.frame: What were your first conversations with Andrew about what he envisioned for the costumes?
Andrew had worked on the film for so long trying to get financing together — he had been working on it for probably close to 10 years — so he came with a vast amount of information. It felt like a million-page PDF, and that became known as the bible. It was incredible, because that afforded us a shortcut into Andrew's world over the years. From there, a lot of the conversations I had with Andrew were how to pull it all off. He gave me room to do what I needed to do, but ultimately he had such a singular vision of this film. It was incredible and it was also terrifying.
On set, Andrew would have the original still that we were recreating and the live monitor next to it. It was always a reminder to work harder, dig deeper, stay up later, don't give up, because we were trying to achieve something that was already perfect in the original movies. Also, I didn't want it to feel like a copy, because I think it's quite easy to copy things. It needed to have the same spirit that those original projects had and an emotional quality that Andrew's script and Joyce Carol Oates' book has — the interior life of Marilyn Monroe, of Norma Jeane. How do you infuse that in the costumes? So, there was a lot of witchy alchemy brewing going on, conjuring up Marilyn in every way.
How do you go about infusing that into the costumes? The movie is billed as a reimagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Did it feel like you were reimagining some of these iconic looks?
I think a big part of it was taking into consideration how a great designer like William Travilla went about designing a costume and constructing that costume. What were the elements that made up his design? For instance, when you look at The Seven Year Itch dress, that dress has been recreated again and again, and again, and again. You see it down Hollywood Boulevard, drag shows, Universal Studios, costume parties. That dress is everywhere. So, how do you forget about all of that and go back to what William Travilla did, and put the same amount of devotion and care that he and his team of tailors and seamstresses did?
My costume team was obsessed with going back to the original, forgetting about the pop icon, forgetting about Madonna's version of it, forgetting about the Warhol version of Marilyn, and getting down to that elemental nitty-gritty. We had the intention of honoring the cinematic legacy of not only Marilyn, but everyone that had worked on those films with her. The costumes that are very faithful reproductions of the original designs, one reason they have a sense of realness and a sense of melding in with Ana, the actor, is because there was so much handwork in all those costumes — hours of hand sewing, hours of literally handling the costume, hours of fittings with Ana, where everything started melding into one.
Do you have a standout memory of one of your fittings with Ana?
We spent so much time together. The funny story was when she tried on the dress that Marilyn wears in Niagara, that pink dress. The trailer to that movie is so offensive. Her lip is quivering and she's singing this really silly song, and Ana was so good at imitating it. She would lay on the floor in the costume, and at that point, she didn't have a wig on — she was still Ana de Armas — but she could just capture Marilyn in a way that was so incredible, but also really funny. This felt like a monumental task to pull it all off, and we were so exhausted and it was so stressful for her and for all of us, and in that moment, when she laid down on the floor and pretended to be [Rose] from Niagara and her lip was quivering, it was very funny.
A lot of what was lovely about working with her is the amount of time she gave us for fittings. It was an unusual amount of access to an actor. And I think that's a reason why there is such a sense of naturalism, is that she was sitting down in the fitting, she was walking around, she was eating takeout in her gown. She was really living in it before she even went into hair and makeup. There was a lot of attention paid to that, and part of that is because Ana really gave me a lot of her personal time.
Ultimately, is there one costume that you are most proud of, either because you just love how it turned out or because you know how challenging it was to get right?
Yes. It's so easy for me to answer. It surprisingly is the most iconic dress, which is The Seven Year Itch dress. That was incredibly hard to make. It seemed easy on paper and then when you got into the elemental architecture and pattern-making and these old techniques that are not common anymore — like, how the dress was pleated — it was hard to figure out. I'm not sure Andrew knew that I was even making the dress, because he knew there are so many imitations out there, that surely I would find one at the costume house! What we realized is that the dress had been recreated so many times, but the recreations were wrong. The pleating was wrong and the amount of fabric was never enough.
I chose to add more yardage to the skirt, and all of that has to be shoved into that bodice. It all has to be sewn by hand, and the hem is all sewn by hand, and it's many, many hours of effort. We barely finished on time! The dress walked to set never having been tested with the fan. We were at the Fox backlot, where that part of the movie was actually shot, and we had all of our background [actors] playing the press, and it felt like I was there. And then seeing it on the big screen in slow motion, where you see it in 360 degrees, you see every detail, you see every stitch, that was immensely satisfying. In any film, there is that moment where you feel like you're going to fail, but in this one it was particularly daunting. Because you're always thinking, "What would William Travilla think? Would he like this? Would he be happy?"