Talk about attention-grabbing fashion. When Some Like It Hot was released on this day in 1959, the Orry-Kelly costumes offended so many puritan moviegoers that it prompted a statewide ban in Kansas and an “adult entertainment” restriction in Memphis, Tennessee. The reason? The film’s plot is centered around the taboo of two men cross-dressing, and star Marilyn Monroe wears a dress that is so revealing that it stops just short of granting the actress her first nude scene.
Veteran director Billy Wilder paired Monroe with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon when all three actors were at the top of their games. The two comedians play Joe and Jerry, musicians who witness a mob murder and then disguise themselves as women to catch a ride out of town with an “all-girl” band. Curtis and Lemmon were given clothes from the stockpile at Western Costume and ended up with hand-me-downs from Debbie Reynolds and Norma Shearer, respectively. The outdated frocks were altered to fit the men and the 1920s setting of the film, though somewhat generously. The baggy, dropped-waist dresses paired with cloche hats acted as demure disguises. But even cross-dressing for laughs was too disturbing for Kansans. Male actors had worn dresses in movies before, but other actors didn’t seem to have as much fun getting in touch with their feminine sides as Curtis and Lemmon did, and some censors put the kibosh on the film.
Monroe’s performance as Sugar Kane, the band’s gold-digging singer/ukelele player, is often cited as her best role. Her acting talents are spot on, but when she turns on the patented Monroe charm and smolders through a few musical numbers, it’s impossible not to goggle her physical attributes, too. Thanks to the skills of top costume designer Orry-Kelly, audiences didn’t notice the actress was pregnant or apparently mind that she was 10 years older than her character’s 24 years. In its review of the film, the New York Times admitted, “[Monroe’s] figure simply cannot be overlooked.” In his 2003 book The Great Movies, Roger Ebert describes a scene in which Monroe drops jaws while singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in a nude-colored cocktail dress as, “a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous.”
The dress in question looks, at first glance, like Monroe is not wearing a dress at all. Made of nude chiffon lining, the top is sheer, other than a few silver and white appliqués strategically placed in order to squeeze past the strict Production Code, the movie rating system used at that time. Monroe wears no bra, and the back of the dress falls into a deep V that stops just in the nick of time. Movie costumes often use hidden padding and weights to give the wearer a perfect shape, but this dress covers as little of Monroe’s famous shape as was legally possible. According to co-star Curtis, Orry-Kelly fit Monroe’s dresses by tying a string around her legs just where her bottom ended so he knew exactly where the fabric should cling and then sewed the garment onto her. In the end, the Code refused to approve the movie, but the film was a hit at the box office anyway. (The Code was phased out by the current ratings system in 1968, thanks in part to the popularity of supposedly risqué movies like Some Like it Hot.)
Monroe wears other fantastic dresses throughout the film, including a black, fringed number in which she shimmies through a kicky song, and an equally revealing, black version of the “naked dress” worn for a heartfelt performance of “I’m Through With Love.” The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, but Orry-Kelly was the only one to walk away with a statuette for Best Costume Design, Black and White. The costumer’s designs are winning because of the way they underscore rather than overshadow Monroe’s sex appeal. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. In the words of Lemmon’s character when he first sees her famous walk, “Look how she moves. That’s just like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motors.” Nope, the va-va-voom is all Marilyn. Any other actress would have come off as a tart, but the “Jell-O” works perfectly with her sweet-as-Sugar personality. —Rachel Chambers
Photos: Courtesy of MGM.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date. FB/Twitter sharing: