“There’s always something attractive about looking as though you’re not trying.”
You might think of Marilyn Monroe as someone with extravagant tastes in fashion. Onscreen, she was the glamour goddess of Hollywood, often dripping in sequins, diamonds and fur. So I was surprised to read that—frustrated by trying to fit her voluptuous figure into the nipped waists of the day—she couldn’t bear the corseted constraints of 1950s fashion. Instead, she made herself a uniform to wear every day, conventional style be damned. In her off-camera life, she wore almost exclusively black slips that she had made by the same tailor and rarely brushed her hair, preferring to pop out the door with ragged, lovely bed-head like a little girl on Christmas morning.
Part of what makes Marilyn so endlessly appealing is her easy confidence in how she looked. In the early ’50s, when a nude photo became public, she shrugged off the controversy by responding that she had been broke and needed $50. She was comfortable in her own skin. But who she was inside that skin has always been an enigma. Having been, for all intents and purposes, an orphan, she had no family traits, no inherited values, no suppositions about who she should be. Her persona was carefully constructed from borrowed traits— it captured the world’s gaze, distracting them from knowing or judging her true self. She was her own marvellous creation.
As a novelist, I understand the amount of creativity, intuition and observational wit required to create a character that an audience loves and gravitates toward. When I was younger, I was selfconscious about fashion and spent forever choosing my outfits, worrying about what my clothes said about me. Lately, though, I find I’m less and less concerned about it. Earlier this year, I was on a month-long tour for my latest novel, visiting libraries and universities and bookstores. I had been wearing academic-looking outfits, suit jackets and pussy-bow blouses, and cocktail dresses. When I got home to Montreal, I was exhausted by publicly performing the role of myself. I wanted to sleepily disappear from the world, Marilyn Monroe style—to lie in bed, half-dressed with my pets and a paperback novel.
And so, I started experimenting with Marilyn’s style uniform. I stopped blowing out my hair, so I had Marilyn-Monroe-type curls; I had been eating room service, so I had a sort of buxom quality. I bought a few black slips at a large retail store in the mall that has heaps of clothes in messy piles and bins. I pulled one on and immediately felt like changing my name to Bibi, possibly because the slip’s sloppy elegance made me feel as though I should be pouring a cocktail and lounging by the pool.
There was something very decadent about wearing the same outfit every day for a week. I threw that slip over my head and I was done. I wore it walking the dog, to the university library, to the bank, to the movie theatre. I wore it to a meet a friend at a café, who complimented me on it. “I’m going for a 1950s exhausted sex siren who had a cocktail too early and stayed up at night reading Sylvia Plath,” I explained.
“You do look kind of wealthy,” she mused. “It makes you look like you don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.”
There’s always something attractive about looking as though you’re not trying. Marilyn understood that. She knew that a black dress never goes out of style, that it’s beyond style. It’s the ideal time-travel outfit: You could turn up in the 17th century looking more or less okay; you could travel anywhere in the future and women will still be wearing black dresses, especially when the world is overpopulated and we all live in small pods and keep our few clothes in a paper lunch bag.
There was some part of Marilyn that was trying to escape from the world. She thought it moved too fast. But when she put on her uniform, she was no longer Marilyn Monroe, the publicly adored masterpiece. She was an artist in her workshop dreaming about ways to see the world. As for me, I came home from the café, sat down at my desk, my silk dress now covered in dog hair and coffee drips, said adieu to the real world and began writing a new character, someone sort of like me, but not quite.
“There was something very decadent about wearing the same outfit every day for a week. I threw that slip over my head and I was done.”
Left: We imagine Marilyn Monroe imagining a glam version of her off-duty uniform. Below: novelist Heather O’Neill copping Marilyn’s singular style.