Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The next best thing, if you're a Marilyn fan who doesn’t have $4600000 to spare

That's how much her iconic Seven Year Itch dress went for at Debbie Reynolds's garage sale, according to this report (which, be warned before you click, comes from The Guardian, so it claims Chaplin's bowler and cane were used in a film called The Little Tramp, calls Reynolds an 'actor' throughout, and is followed by scores of comments from its champagne socialist readers indignant at the thought of rich people spending their own money).

But assuming that you, dear reader, are not the lucky buyer - and are not trying to remould its stubborn stitching to the contours of your non-goddess form even as I write, a hairdryer pointing upwards held beneath your feet for full subway-grating effect- here is a much cheaper way to share some of that indefinable presence that great personalities shed like ectoplasm on everything with which they come into contact.

The (excellent) American Museum at Bath has a fantastic Marilyn exhibition, running until October, containing not just one measly little dress but a whole heap of 'em, including the see-through Some Like It Hot one, the sparkly red one with the plunging neckline and massive side-slit from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the string bikini from The Misfits, and the infamous 'wiggle dress' and black negligee with red rose motif from Niagara. (Here is the official museum page for the show, with some nice pics of the exhibits.)

They are surprising things in the flesh, as it were. In the cloth, rather. They're surprising individually - the see-through one isn't really see through, the wiggle dress is a lot less pink than it looks in fifties Technicolor, the exposed frontage of the sparkly red one is really flesh-coloured fabric - and surprising collectively: they're all a lot smaller than I was expecting. I tend to think of her as semi-Amazonian, packed and poured into her outfits, and one stitch away from exploding out of them. But she must have been quite dainty. The magic of the movies.
If you are into fashion, doubtless they do have considerable appeal as dresses, but if it is Marilyn's ghost that beckons you here they are more like illusions, not so much things in their own right as the shadow of the woman who once wore them, like the impression she left in a mattress, or the lingering smell of her perfume after she has left the room, their intrinsic merit surely secondary to the fact that they mark out the boundaries of spaces she once occupied.
And when you're done gazing at them, and imagining yourself in them (which is not to say that I was doing that, of course) there's also a load of other fascinating memorabilia and personal items to divert you here, many of them all the more poignant for being entirely without value, and oddly pathetic, in that she carried them around with her all her life. A brass figurine of a dancing girl had stood as "a symbol of the star she hoped to become" in her orphanage days, and remained in her possession even after that dream was realised and found lacking. An old print of an eighteenth century German street scene, she decided, "looked sad", so she carefully cut out all of the windows and stuck a sheet of orange card on the reverse, making the buildings seem ablaze with cheerful light.

Personally, I couldn't stop staring at her Twentieth Century Fox dressing room key, her name engraved on it: chunky and heavy and dripping star status attainment.
And there are lots of giant original posters, too, my favourite being one of the all-time masterpieces of the poster-designer's art: the one for Niagara in which her dress is seemingly made of the water that is cascading over the falls beneath. How anyone could have seen that and resisted the temptation to immediately rush to the cinema and see the movie is beyond me.

A lovely illustrated brochure is yours for a fiver, with lots of nice pictures and the interesting story of how the exhibits were collected by a devoted fan, David Gainsborough Roberts.