It takes a lot to earn a 14-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, but when filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s Blonde did so earlier this month, the wheels on the Oscar bus officially started turning. Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, the film stars Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, in a fictionalized look at the world’s most iconic woman’s complex interior life. She exists as not one but two women in the film, as she did in life: the intelligent, desperate-to-be-loved Norma Jean, raised by a mentally ill mother and living on the fringes of mid-century Los Angeles; and Marilyn Monroe, the blonde pin-up who would go on to mesmerize the world.
Blonde presented an interesting challenge for its costume designer Jennifer Johnson (whose credits also include Kajillionaire and I, Tonya). How do you create a character that the world already knows in such a specific, iconic way? How do you relate and differentiate Norma Jean and Marilyn Monroe, the two parts of one character’s psyche? And most importantly, how do you make the perfect blonde wig, for the world’s most famous bombshell blonde, in a movie literally entitled Blonde? We connected with Johnson to learn more about what went into the film’s ravishing costumes. There are, of course, the moments we know and love about Marilyn—the pink dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the white halter dress from Seven Year Itch—but the film also delves into the more cerebral, unexpected side of Marilyn Monroe. A simple black sweater, as it turns out, becomes one of the film’s most emotional pieces. As we came to understand from our chat with Johnson—in Blonde, as with Ms. Monroe herself, there is always more than meets the eye.
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Marilyn Monroe is such an icon, perhaps the most iconic icon. How did you begin your research process?
JJ: Andrew Dominik had been working on the project for probably ten years by the time I began, and he had amassed a collection of images into this eight hundred page PDF that we affectionately called “The Bible. What was incredibly important for me was to do the research, and not just copying an image but also figuring out the elements of the construction elements of each costume. I looked to the original pattern making, the elements of what each fabric was, the real color of the garments was. So it was like digging into these designs and not only ‘getting them right’ but also reading a new life into them.
Did you want to recreate Marilyn’s most famous looks in a literal way, or did you take some liberties?
JJ: I wanted a sense of naturalism. A costume needs to work on the individual actor in front of us, and work with their body, and with the availability of twenty-first century materials. So there were definitely some modifications made but overall I was obsessed with getting it right because there have been a lot of Marilyns over the years but I think sometimes it almost becomes like a Halloween costume, or drag Marilyn walking down Hollywood Boulevard.
What was the hardest look to get right?
JJ: Probably the Seven Year Itch dress when she walks over the subway grate. There were a lot of technical things about the size of the skirt and the volume of fabric you use, because a lot of people have recreated that dress over the years and never seem to make the skirt big enough. It’s a lot of fabric that you hand-sew up into a circle in the bodice… and it was my decision to add a little more to the skirt because I knew it would have this sort of gyrating moment. I was very excited to see that scene in the movie because when the wind blows up, it’s in slow-mo and it goes on and on. You see her shoes, which were custom made, and the dress that’s custom, and see the hair and the makeup and you just think, ‘This is costume porn at its best.’
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In the trailer, there’s a great camel coat worn over the shoulders that feels like the same effect. It’s the coat of a smart woman, a connoisseur.
JJ: That coat was extremely oversized, too, and maybe allowed her to go in disguise in real life. In New York, she was so free because she could kind of put on this big coat and no one would notice her.
Were there any other pieces that stand out from the film, that perhaps are not the iconic, most immediately recognizable things Marilyn wore? Maybe there’s something that viewers today might want to try wearing in their own lives?
JJ: There were these black and white capri pants that she wears a lot in the movie. Or there was also this famous sweater that she wears, it’s a white sweater with a shawl collar and this sort of print on it. That was recreated by this amazing knit designer in Los Angeles named Suss Knits.
And I have to ask. Did you dye Ana de Armas’ hair?
JJ: It is a wig! The production schedules would never allow you to change a hairstyle that quickly. You also don’t want to destroy the actors’ hair, I mean Ana was going on to, like, finish No Time To Die and do the Deep Water movie. But Jamie Lee McIntosh [the hair department head] is a brilliant hair designer. She had two or three wigs.
What a wig!
JJ: We made wigs that were just unbelievable. The hairline is so good. We made a prosthetic that added to Ana’s forehead Marilyn always wore her hair back and she had this really specific hairline. I actually think she might have had electrolysis to change her hairline, which a lot of actresses did, so she has this little widow’s peak. But when that wig is on, an dyou see the nape of her neck for instance, and all these really lovely little details of the hair coming down the neck, it’s just so real and personal.
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Marilyn Monroe was also known for her voluptuous figure. How did you approach creating that body on Ana?
JJ: We were slam-packed in our schedule because we were hellbent on finishing on time, so we thought about maybe using a prosthetic body, maybe adding some weight, but at the end of the day we thought, it was so hot outside shooting in Los Angeles and it was taking Ana out of character and it actually took her a long time to get into these things, so my seamstress came up with the brilliant idea of just making this sort of two-inch wide elastic belt with snaps on it for Ana to wear on her bare body under the clothes. It was like, a remnant from the workshop floor. Every morning it was hanging on Ana’s [clothes rack] and we would watch her dutifully put it on. You know she just wore it all the time on set, and I think occasionally it probably gave a little bit of a tummy ache to wear it, but it really was the most elegant solution. It gave that little bit of pressure on her waist to change her hip ratio just enough to get that exaggerated since, but it was such an elegant, minimalistic way of achieving it.
One thing that is not period correct in the movie is the breasts. If you look at any woman of that time, especially Marilyn, her breasts were really, really exaggerated and pointed. Marilyn Monroe would put marbles in the tips of her bras so that her nipples looked exaggerated, and it looks really odd when we look back on it. I thought, it’s too strange and it’s big, and it’s going to take Ana out of character. In the end it was about how to make slight modifications that would make her feel very natural and not get her out of character.
I ask every costume designer. Was there something from the set that your actors tried to pilfer and take home with them?
JJ: You know we had a very good case. I think that because it’s such an intense story, it’s very emotional and very sad, that no matter how much you loved one of your costumes, maybe you didn’t want to bring that energy home with you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.