The film Blonde, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates and starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, takes a deep dive into the complex interior life of the iconic blonde pin-up. Set in mid-century Los Angeles, Monroe is portrayed as Norma Jean, a desperate and intelligent woman raised by a mentally ill mother. While the world is mesmerized by Monroe’s captivating beauty, the film explores the lesser-known aspects of her existence, presenting her as two distinct women – one in real life and one in the fictionalized world of Hollywood. Andrew Dominik, the filmmaker, received a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival for his 14-minute bus turning scene, which officially marked the start of the film’s Oscar campaign.
Blond, much like Ms. Monroe herself, always has more to it than what meets the eye. As we discovered through our conversation with Johnson, in Blonde, it becomes one of the most poignant pieces of the film. A simple black sweater reveals an unexpected aspect of Marilyn Monroe. While we do cherish the moments we are familiar with and love about Marilyn, such as the pink dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the white halter dress from Seven Year Itch, the film also delves into the more intellectual side. We spoke with Johnson to gain insight into the thought process behind the film’s stunning costumes. How does one create the perfect blonde wig for the world’s most renowned bombshell blonde, in a movie aptly titled Blonde? How does one establish a connection and distinction between Norma Jean and Marilyn Monroe, the two facets of one character’s psyche? How does one develop a character that is already globally recognized in such a distinct and iconic manner? Blonde posed an intriguing challenge for costume designer Jennifer Johnson (whose previous works include Kajillionaire and I, Tonya).
Andrew JJ had been working on the project for probably ten years by the time I started, and he had affectionately called it the “PDF page collection.” He had amassed a collection of images into this hundred and eight-page PDF, and I began digging into them, not only to get the designs right but also to get a new life into them. The real color of the garments was the element that made each garment, and I looked to the original pattern. It was incredibly important for me to do the research, not just copying an image but figuring out the elements of each costume.
Did you desire to replicate Marilyn’s most iconic appearances in a literal manner, or did you exercise some creative freedom?
I have become obsessed with Marilyn Monroe over the years because there have been a lot of Marilyns walking down Hollywood Boulevard, especially during Halloween when people dress up in costumes. However, I think there have been some modifications made to their costumes, probably due to the availability of materials in the twenty-first century. As an actor, it is important to work with a costume that fits our body and gives a sense of naturalism.
Which look was the most challenging to achieve?
‘This is costume erotica at its finest.’ And the cosmetics and you just imagine, observe the hairstyle and the attire that’s tailored, and witness her footwear, which were custom-crafted, and it continues endlessly. You witness that particular scene in the film because when the breeze lifts it up, it’s in slow motion and it was my choice to add a little more to the skirt because I knew it would create this kind of swirling moment. I was extremely thrilled about the amount of fabric you utilize, because many individuals have replicated that gown throughout the years and never seem to make the skirt large enough. It’s a substantial amount of fabric that you sew by hand into a circular shape in the upper part of the dress… There were numerous technical aspects regarding the size of the skirt and the Seven Year Itch dress when she walks over the subway grate. JJ: Presumably
Much of Blonde explores the contrast between the personalities of Norma Jean and Marilyn. How did you attempt to depict this through their attire?
Next, the woman who is very serious and internal is someone who could transition into being the most sexualized and glamorous woman in the show. It was important to me that she could take away the gaze from Marilyn and signify herself as an artist, instantly representing an alternative culture. Inspired by the beatniks of New York during that time period, her fashion choices of wearing black conveyed a lot about her craft and seriousness. She was well-read and intellectual, and her presence on the show represented a world of intellectuals.
In the preview, there’s a fantastic camel jacket draped over the shoulders that creates a similar impact. It’s the outerwear of an intelligent woman, a connoisseur.
She could easily go unnoticed in her oversized coat, giving her the freedom to move around New York without being recognized. In fact, she could even wear a disguise to further conceal her identity in real life.
Were there any other notable garments from the film that are not the iconic, instantly recognizable items Marilyn wore? Perhaps there’s something that modern viewers might be interested in experimenting with in their own personal style?
Suss Knits, a knit designer based in Los Angeles, remade the iconic sweater she frequently dons. It’s a pristine white sweater featuring a shawl collar and a unique pattern. Additionally, she often sports black and white capri pants in the movie.
And I must inquire. Did you color Ana de Armas’ hair?
She possessed a couple of wigs. Jamie Lee McIntosh [the head of the hair department] is an exceptional hair artist. However, Jamie Lee McIntosh is an exceptional hair artist. Additionally, you wouldn’t want to damage the actors’ hair, I mean Ana was about to, like, complete No Time To Die and work on the Deep Water film. The production schedules would never permit you to alter a hairstyle so rapidly. It is indeed a wig!
What an amazing wig!
We made prosthetic hairlines for Marilyn and Ana, who always wore wigs that had unbelievably good hairlines. They had specific hairlines that they wanted to change, so we used electrolysis to alter their hairlines. For instance, when you see the nape of Ana’s neck, you can notice the lovely little details of her hair coming down. She had a widow’s peak, which she really liked. We actually think she had this specific hairline because a lot of actresses had it. Additionally, we added a prosthetic to Marilyn’s forehead to match her specific hairline, which she always wore.
Marilyn Monroe was also famous for her curvaceous physique. How did you go about replicating that body on Ana?
It was a minimalistic way of achieving it, but the most elegant solution was to just slightly exaggerate the hip-to-waist ratio, giving her a little bit of pressure on her waist. However, I think it might occasionally cause a slight tummy ache when she wears it, and she knows that. Every morning, dutifully, she would put on her watch and the clothes would be hanging on Ana’s rack. It was like a remnant from the workshop floor, resembling clothes that she would wear on her bare body. To get these things, it actually took a long time for my seamstress to come up with this two-inch wide elastic belt with snaps, making it just the right fit for Ana. Taking the character of Ana out and shooting in the hot outside of Los Angeles, it actually took a long time to get these things, and at the end of the day, we were hell bent on finishing because our schedule was slam-packed.
One thing that is not correct in the movie is the exaggerated appearance of Marilyn Monroe’s breasts, especially during that time period. If you look at any woman’s breasts during that time, they would not be as exaggerated as Marilyn Monroe’s. Additionally, her bras seemed to have tips in them that made her nipples look pointed and exaggerated. To make her character feel more natural and in character, slight modifications could be made to how her breasts are portrayed. When we look back on it, it really looks odd and out of character for her.
I inquire with each costume designer. Was there anything from the set that your actors attempted to swipe and bring back with them?
I think it’s a very intense and emotional story because I know how much you loved one of your costumes and it’s sad to think that it doesn’t matter that much to you now, maybe because of the energy you bring home. JJ, we had a very good case, you know.
This interview has been revised and condensed to enhance clarity.