The 1955 romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch is best known not for its brilliant storyline or groundbreaking humor, but for its promotional imagery, which features Marilyn Monroe coquettishly posing over Manhattan subway grates, unsuccessfully concealing her undergarments, as a gust of wind lifts her skirt from below. Shot on September 15, 1954, by photographer Sam Shaw, the photo series of Marilyn in that white dress, smiling and laughing, remains iconic to this day. Shaw was a friend of Monroe’s who had used the concept of one of his older photoshoots for the promotional imagery of the film. The photos were taken in two separate shoots, first to attract press on the Manhattan streets, and then on set to get quality photos and video of the scene.
Monroe wears all white—three-inch-heeled strappy sandals; large, round earrings; a pleated, halter dress, and matching white briefs. Her hair gleams blonde, matching the outfit in the black-and-white photograph and contrasting her skin, which takes on a healthy glow against the prevalence of stark white. She wears a three-quarters set of false eyelashes, framed by a black band of liner, also used to make the birthmark placed on her lower cheek. The deep hue of her lips does not need color photography to betray its glossy red pigment. In the photo most famous from the shoot, everything else is dark; one can make out the subway grates below, a street lamp, and a couple of photographers in the background, but against this dazzling spectacle, it might take a while to notice them. The outfit pictured in this photo series is sold as the Marilyn Monroe costume for Halloween—in the contemporary American mind, Marilyn’s body has been fused to the white linen of the dress (except for her occasional appearance in the pink satin of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or the sheer, rhinestoned nude-illusion from John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday fundraiser). Donning a garment that even remotely resembles this dress immediately brings Marilyn to mind, regardless of whether or not the wearer or the observer has seen The Seven Year Itch.
The fantasy of the photo series is worth noting. Not only is it ludicrous to imagine the homely and bumbling Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) being a potential love interest of such a self-assured and gregarious beauty—the ability of a subway to serendipitously puff enough air to make Monroe’s dress roll and tumble like crashing waves is literally unbelievable. But the fantasy of this scene does not detract from its appeal. As Fishwick argues, icons embody the “deep mythological structure of reality” (232). For this wind/dress scenario to work, a desperately hopeful male gaze is required as the dominant position for viewing the scene, and this desiring, narcissistic gaze mobilizes Marilyn’s thrown fight to keep her dress down to structure a specific mythology of feminine sexuality.
This mythology portrayed in these photos has shifted in the 65 years since the shoot. Initially, the photos offered a spontaneous sexual encounter; Monroe’s stockingless, shaved legs; delicate, manicured toes; and visible underwear were displayed in public (both in the reality created for the film and in the press shoot on the actual streets of Manhattan). This was a cutting-edge scene that defied censorship and flaunted sex (and women’s joy in sex). From a contemporary perspective, however, the scene means looking back on an era of “old Hollywood glamour” and ruminating a lost time where such a photoshoot was risqué. The mythology ceases to be a mythology of the now, a way of imagining a contemporary feminine sexuality, and becomes a mythology of the past, a belittling image of how strange things were and a satisfaction with the progress since then. In this way, these photographs of Monroe are a “comfortable object” that orients viewers to a timeline of pleasures, new and old (Barthes, 16-17).
The photos also reflect the cosmopolitanism of Monroe and her world of film, press, and city life. This value system was not, however, just “how things were” but also “how they became;” the risqué quality of these photos in the 1950s marks them as aspirational and performative, striving for a modernity that is more sexually satisfying and exciting in its spontaneity. This is clear when we consider that Monroe’s character in the film does not even have a name. She is solely a sexual object, a distraction from Richard Sherman’s mundane life of work and family, a distraction from reality—she is fantasy and only fantasy. Marilyn Monroe resisted this characterization and fought for more complex roles, so it is possible to read some empowerment and resistance in the mythology of feminine sexuality that these photos helped to create. But, despite this possibility, the photos’ adherence to the conventions of the pinup genre precludes much mainstream recognition of this potential, and the collective memory of Marilyn herself has largely fazed out any brain function.
Marilyn Monroe is herself an icon, but this is largely because her being a film star and blonde bombshell extends her longevity in pop culture through iconic costuming and images. Of the several examples of iconic appearances of Marilyn mentioned here (white dress/subway grates, pink satin/Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, nude illusion/JFK’s birthday soiree), which comprise the majority of the average contemporary American’s understanding of the actress, the white dress is perhaps most iconic as a stand-alone image, removed from its context. Regardless of the degree that history has decontextualized these moments in the life of a real person, though, their shared process of decontextualization over time produces Marilyn Monroe as a myth, who many admire and few really know. She is a giggle, an hourglass, a big, red lip—a character, a costume, but not really a person. The photographs of Monroe in that white dress posing over those subway grates make clear that in order to become an icon, one sacrifices a lot of human detail.
Marshall Fishwick, “Icons of America-Introduction” in Phyllis Leffler and Joseph Brent, Public History Readings (Krieger, 1992).
Roland Barthes, “The Eiffel Tower,” in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (Hill and Wang, 1979).