“There’s al­ways some­thing at­trac­tive about look­ing as though you’re not try­ing.”

The Kit - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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