September 9, 1954. During a publicity shot for The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe stepped onto a New York subway grille. Like that of Botticelli’s Venus rising from the ocean, Marilyn’s pose is both virginal and seductive. The undulating skirt, floating around the figure, emphasizes the dual seduction of movie star and spectator: Marilyn is seduced by the camera, and in the same moment, the photographer and spectators are seduced by her beauty.
In the actual movie, Monroe’s dress didn’t fly up quite as high; the scene, with Tom Ewell admiring his dream girl’s pleasure at a blast of air through the subway grate (below), was originally shot near Grand Central Terminal, then reshot on a soundstage.
Designed by the 20th Century Fox costume designer, William Travilla, the dress is a prop as well as a symbol. Light as butterfly’s wings, it expresses a lightness of being that was tragically absent in the drama of her personal life. The above scene infuriated her husband, Joe DiMaggio, who felt it was exhibitionist, who promptly divorced Monroe. Only moderately successful in Hollywood, Monroe later married playwright Arthur Miller, her third husband. After many personal crises, her suicide in 1962 was nonetheless unexpected and shocking. It contributed to the mythic status that has surrounded her ever since.
After her death, the dress was retained by Travilla. When Travilla died in 1990, his partner Bill Sarris decided to sell the dress for Alzheimer charities, and the dress was valued at $3,000,000.