Billy Travilla: A Fashion Tribute

Billy Travilla: A Fashion Tribute

June 26, 2020 | by Shannon

Billy Travilla Creates Marilyn Monroe’s Iconic Look, Gets Errol Flynn to Wear Tights, Wins An Academy Award, and Can Out Pleat Anyone!

You’ve heard of Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy.  And you’ve probably heard of Helen Rose, Adrian, and Irene.  Maybe even Jean Louis and Orry-Kelly.

But have you heard of William Travilla?  

(You can listen to my podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood, here.  Episode 15 is all about Travilla!)

Travilla is arguably the most underappreciated designer of Hollywood’s Golden Age, yet he was unquestionably one of the most talented.  Travilla’s costume sketches themselves are works of art, not surprising since Billy was an artist before he was a fashion designer.

Young Billy Travilla.

An Underappreicated Talent

Travilla would dress an estimated 270 stars over the course of his career, including Marilyn Monroe, Loretta Young, Jane Russell, Sharon Tate, Joanne Woodward, Diahann Carroll, Paul Newman, Clark Gable, Tony Curtis, and Charles Bronson.  He designed the costumes for 100 films, and earned four Academy Award nominations and one win along the way.  Travilla’s accomplishments didn’t stop there: he successfully made the transition to television in the 1960s, and his TV career would culminate in an Emmy for his work on the popular show Dallas in 1985.  Travilla also started his own clothing line in 1957, which would retain popularity even after his death in 1990.

 I’m not sure why Billy Travilla isn’t recognized to the degree other great designers of the silver screen are today.  His designs for Marilyn Monroe alone created the iconic look that we so associate with Marilyn: the pink dress, the white dress, the gold lame dress.  All Travilla designs!

Travilla with Marilyn Monroe behind the scenes of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Travilla would create the majority of Marilyn's most iconic gowns.

Perhaps Travilla’s more niche status these days stems from the fact that he wasn’t a self-promoter.  Unlike others within Hollywood, Travilla never petitioned for attention or awards.  In fact, if he was ever recognized on the street, Travilla would become embarrassed, and insist the person was mistaken.

“I am a designer, not a celebrity.”

Travilla would always say.

Billy deserves his due.  And with the instrumental role our Star of the Month Ann Sheridan played in getting Travilla his big break in films, today I’m highlighting the amazing talent, life, and career of this underappreciated designer.

Here are a few things about Billy Travilla you should know.

He Was A Child Prodigy

William Travilla was born March 22, 1920 on Catalina Island, off the coast of California.  How many people can say that?  Travilla’s mother died when he was a year old, and Billy would be raised by his father and stepmother.  It was his stepmother Ruth who first noticed young Billy’s natural artistic abilities and eye for design. 

According to Billy’s younger sister Joan, Ruth would later tell her stories of how

“As a six-year-old he’d stop her in a store and point to a lady, saying what a pretty dress she had on.Then he’d sketch it.”

Ruth enrolled Billy in the prestigious Chouinard School of Fine Art.  And by the age of eight, Travilla’s skill was so far above the rest of the youth at Chouinard, he began taking classes with the adults.  Despite his great talent, some members of the Travilla family, including his grandmother, believed the young prodigy’s time would be better spent pursing skills more appropriate to his age, like the violin.  Travilla would later comically describe how his artistic career path was finally agreed upon by the whole family:

“They put me in an adult class, although I was still only eight.  The move up meant I studied sculpting but it also meant I was part of the live-model class where nude men and women posed for us to draw.”

When Billy’s grandma found out, she was furious, and

“She went out and bought me a violin and brought it over to our house.  But then it was my stepmother’s turn to be furious.  She grabbed the violin and broke it over her knee, before throwing the pieces back at my granny.  From then on, there was no question but that I would continue in art school.”

Travilla with his wife, the stunning Dona Drake.

From Burlesque to Tahiti to Hollywood

Travilla officially left standard schooling behind at age fourteen to pursue his art education full time.  He first put his artistic abilities to practical use by designing sketches of burlesque costumes.  Young Travilla passed a burlesque house on his way to school, and saw an opportunity to make some money.  He’d design costumes, make sketches, and then sell the sketches to the burlesque dancers for five dollars.  It would prove foreshadowing to Travilla’s future career as one of Hollywood’s most gifted designers.

But it would still be years before Billy was a respected Hollywood designer.  First, at age eighteen he’d travel the world—his time in Tahiti was of particular influence on his art—before finding work as a “ghost designer” at Jack’s of Hollywood, a renown costume shop that rented and sold costumes to the major studios.  Travilla would say of his time as a ghost designer that 

A Travilla sketch for Marilyn Monroe's "Heat Wave" costume in There's No Business Like Show Business (1954).

“Designers who could not draw well used to come into Jack’s to rent a costume and I’d make a sketch of it.  They’d ask me to alter the neckline, or some minor change.  I worked hard and did some beautiful drawings for them; but what I discovered was that they were simply signing their names to my sketches, and taking them back to the studios, and showing them to the producers for approval.”

I can’t even imagine how frustrating that would be!

Sensing the lack of future at Jack’s of Hollywood, Travilla would do a few designs for United Artists and Columbia Pictures on the side, and even took an unsuccessful a stab at starting his own costume business.  But he continued struggling to get by as a designer.

Travilla with his "Aunt Annie," Ann Sheridan, who would prove instrumental in starting his Hollywood career.

Travilla Meets his “Aunt Annie”

To make ends meet, Billy began selling his artwork. 

His oil paintings of the Tahitian beauties he met on his South Seas travels proved particularly popular.

“Ok, it sounds so corny, but they were something new at the time.”

Travilla would later say.

These oil paintings would end up being Billy Travilla’s segue into a successful design career in Hollywood films when none other than Ann Sheridan spotted Billy’s Tahitian paintings in the gift shop of one of her favorite restaurants, Don the Beachcomber’s, in 1945.

Ann and Billy at dinner with Dona Drake and Zachary Scott.

Ann Sheridan, at the peak of her career, asked to meet the artist one night.  Billy’s excitement at this unexpected turn of events is infectious:

“The manager called me over.  I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but I rushed right over!  Ann and I hit it off straight away.  We just clicked.  Then and there, she became my Aunt Annie.”

The Beginning of a Fashion Friendship

Ann and Travilla further clicked when the subject turned to fashion—Ann was a fashion plate, Travilla a struggling designer.  When Ann discovered that Travilla’s costume sketches where just as stunning as his oil paintings, she promised to make Travilla a part of her new Warner Bros. contract, which she was in the process of negotiating.

Ann made good on this promise, and when Warner Bros. granted her a dream contract—you remember the one from my Nora Prentiss (1947) post—Travilla came along as part of the deal.  Billy was forever grateful for this big break from his Aunt Annie:

“The studio called me in.  Suddenly I was working on A movies—all her movies were Grade A—and I was earning $400 a week.”

A Travilla sketch and gown for Ann in Nora Prentiss (1947).

Travilla would compliment Ann on how easy she was to design for:

“I’d always admired her, she has the kind of figure I draw when I sketch designs—tall, slim, broad-shoulders, tiny waist and slight hips.” 

Ann would promote her friend Billy in the press, and purchase copies of 20 of the 25 costumes Travilla made for her in Nora Prentiss, evidence of her appreciation for his stunning designs.  The pair would make a total of five films together, and Travilla would also design the costumes for some of Ann’s later stage work, while Ann would prove instrumental in helping Billy get his clothing line up and running in 1957 with some priceless publicity.

The comfortable, appreciative, fun-loving relationship between Ann Sheridan and Billy Travilla is best summarized by the inscription Ann wrote to Billy on a photo she signed to him:

“To Billy T., My very favorite “soul” – Here’s to your lovely designs for all the glamorous “bitches” you can get your measuring tape around! Hooray – Annie”

I know I would have enjoyed being friends with both of these Hollywood legends!

Travilla created the swashbuckling look for Errol Flynn that is still used today.

Travilla, Uncle Errol, and Oscar

Travilla’s friendship with Ann Sheridan would indirectly lead to his first Oscar nomination, and only win, when Errol Flynn, impressed with what Travilla had designed for him and Ann in the 1948 Western Silver River, demanded that Travilla be brought on to fix the costumes in Flynn’s next picture, Adventures of Don Juan (1948). 

Flynn was unimpressed with Edith Head’s designs for the film—which, though true to the period, were not masculine enough for the swashbuckling Flynn.  He absolutely refused to be seen in the lacey  flounces Edith had in mind.  Errol managed to simultaneously compliment Billy Travilla and tease his old buddy Ann Sheridan when he requested Travilla replace Edith Head on the picture:

“If he can make that old war horse Sheridan look good, he can do it for Uncle Errol.”

Travilla would knowingly stray from complete historical accuracy with his designs for Flynn, but the end result was flattering, and appealed to Flynn’s sense of masculinity—meaning he’d actually wear the costumes!  The vests, doublets, and tights Travilla created for Flynn in the film did more than satisfy the actor’s ego: they won Travilla an Oscar, and set the precedent for every period adventure film since.  Historical accuracy is still set aside in favor of the look Travilla created.

Travilla and Marilyn

Billy Travilla’s best known designs were worn by none other than Marilyn Monroe.

Travilla would design for Monroe in eight of her films—Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Monkey Business (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), River of No Return (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), and Bus Stop (1956).  

Travilla would say that

“My clothes for Marilyn were an act of love.  Because I adored her, I couldn’t help but do my best for her.”

Billy would also design countless of Marilyn’s most recognizable off-screen gowns.  There’s no doubt that Travilla played a significant role in producing the image of Marilyn Monroe we all think of when we hear her name.

Intimately Acquainted

Travilla and Marilyn first met in 1950 at 20th Century Fox, when Marilyn, trying on a swimsuit in Travilla’s fitting room, experienced a wardrobe malfunction, and the left shoulder strap of the suit broke, leaving her…exposed. So…the two became quite intimately acquainted rather suddenly.

“That was my introduction to Marilyn Monroe.”

Travilla later recounted.  According to Billy, the two even dated for a time:

“We dated for a brief period and if the famous baseball player Joe DiMaggio had not come into Marilyn’s life, then I would have pursued our affair further.”

Travilla designed this stunning white gown for Marilyn's personal use. Note the similarities between this and the iconic pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

The Classic Marilyn Look

Among the most memorable costumes Travilla designed for Marilyn on screen were the stunning pink gown Marilyn wears while singing Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the dazzling gold lame gown Marilyn wears briefly in that same film, (and then wore again to the 1953 Photoplay Awards—which you can read more about here), and arguably the most famous dress in Hollywood history, the white dress Marilyn wears over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955).

For her personal use, Travilla designed a white replica of the pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which Marilyn adored, and wore to publicity events and premieres.  Travilla would even lend his designer’s eye to the wedding suit Marilyn wore when she married Joe DiMaggio in 1954: the white ermine collar and diamond buttons on the suit were Travilla additions that made Marilyn’s simple suit glamorous.

Travilla added the white ermine collar and diamond buttons to Marilyn's simple wedding suit.

A Love Through Fashion

Travilla later said of Marilyn that

“She was the most complex, incredible, magnificent woman.  She was the love of my life, that girl.”

Marilyn no doubt felt that love, for Travilla would be one of the few Hollywood friends she’d completely trust.  If Marilyn experienced any of her recurrent fears of mental illness, Billy Travilla was on the short list of people she could call for comfort, any time of day or night.  There’s no doubt these two shared a special bond, and it’s evident in the magnificent designs Travilla made for Marilyn, which she then wore to perfection.

Here are a few of my favorite gowns Travilla designed for Marilyn that also highlight many of his signature design elements:

Travilla's beautiful sketch of Marilyn Monroe's classic pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

The Pink Dress

Looking back on his career, Travilla would say that 

 “Even in the olden days, I soon realized that my clothes had to last…A movie then took maybe six months to shoot, then another six to edit, promote, and release.  Then it ran for two years or more…so it [the clothes in the film] had to look good for around four years.”

Travilla wisely understood that his designs needed to be timeless, not trendy. But I doubt even he knew how classic the pink dress he designed for Marilyn to wear in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would become.

As I mention in my Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) post, the pink dress almost never was.  Travilla had to design the dress fast after the one-two punch of Marilyn’s scandalous appearance in the gold lame gown at the 1953 Photoplay Awards, and the discovery of her nude calendar photos.  This turn of events prompted 20th Century Fox to demand Travilla design a more conservative outfit than the showgirl getup he’d originally made for Marilyn to wear in her big production number at the end of the film, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

In mere hours, Travilla designed the now iconic pink dress.  Made of a pink silk-satin fabric, Travilla incorporated, in his own words, “an envelope design” for this gown, free of his signature pleats.  The gown appears to be folded onto Marilyn’s body, although there’s actually a hidden zipper!  Travilla would further earn his reputation of being an “engineer of fabric” when he came up with the genius and utterly unique idea to line the dress with felt.  This would ensure that the silk-satin would hold its shape, not wrinkle, and flow with Marilyn’s movements while she danced.  

Would you ever guess looking at that gorgeous dress that felt was literally glued directly behind that pink silk-satin?!!  

Travilla hid the felt with black silk lining, and the finishing touch to the gown would be a huge pink bow, which Travilla stuffed with ostrich feathers to help retain its shape.

As you can imagine, this was one heavy dress!  Travilla added v-shaped boning to the bodice—again, who would have guessed?—which helped keep the weighty dress up, and the bodice in place, while Marilyn danced.  

Despite all these intricacies, the pink dress looks light as a feather and simply cut on screen, thanks to Travilla’s genius.

Billy would credit the success of the gown ultimately to Marilyn, though:

“Any other girl would look like she was wearing cardboard, but onscreen I swear you would have thought Marilyn had on a pale, thin piece of silk.  Her body was so fabulous it still came through.”

The White Dress

In the 1970s, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland would do Travilla the great disservice of starting a rumor that the famous white dress Marilyn wears while standing over the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch (1955) was bought off the rack.  Today, we’re setting the record straight!  That famous, billowy white dress was an original work of Billy Travilla, and it incorporated one of his trademark design elements, pleating.

“When I die, I don’t want to be buried,  or cremated.  Just pleat me.”

Every pleat on the white dress was hand formed and sewn into place.

Travilla was known  to say.

Billy loved working with pleats.  He believed pleats did what they wanted, and if a designer would just “listen to what pleats are doing, then you can make a dress that truly fits.”  Few of his designs better show Travilla’s mastery of pleating than Marilyn’s stunning white dress: each pleat on the dress was hand-formed and sewn into place. 

And that famous halter top may look simple, but to give it that effortless, perfectly placed look, Travilla actually used metal boning to get the halter and bodice to mold perfectly to Marilyn’s body with no gaps.

The dress appears starch white in the film, but in order to achieve this, Travilla had to find an off-white fabric, or “bone” color, as he referred to it, which would end up looking white on screen. And for that perfect billowing effect over the subway grate, Travilla chose to make the dress out of rayon-acetate crepe, a fabric he knew would also hold the hand-formed pleats.

Billy may have referred to it as “that silly little dress,” but there’s no doubt that the white dress is one of the most recognizable costumes in Hollywood history.  It’s a testament to just how special the white dress is that, when Travilla was traveling with the dress to promote a Littlewoods catalog in the 1970s, thieves who broke into the showroom left millions of dollars of jewelry behind, and stole only the white dress! (In case you were worried, the dress was anonymously returned, THANK GOODNESS!)

Travilla’s Later Career and Other Noteworthy Stars

Billy Travilla worked at 20th Century Fox for the better part of the 1950s, but with the disintegration of the studio system towards the end of the decade, he’d leave Fox and create his own clothing line.  Travilla would continue designing for films, and eventually television, as a freelance designer, culminating in an Emmy for his work on the popular tv show Dallas in 1985.

Travilla’s insights and anecdotes about the stars he worked with over the years are absolutely fascinating: Charles Bronson and Faye Dunaway were rude and inconsiderate, and Tony Curtis was a “pain in the neck” because he was such a perfectionist.  

Charles Bronson was one of the rudest stars Travilla ever designed for.

Joan Crawford was a temperamental prima donna who eventually proved herself a friend with her great support of Travilla’s clothing line, while Sharon Tate was always a real sweetheart.  

Travilla uses his signature pleats for a gown worn by Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls (1967).

Diahann Carroll was a complete joy—Travilla even went on safari in Africa and lived among the Maasai to gather inspiration for the fashion look Carroll desired on her popular TV show, Julia

Travilla with the beautiful Diahann Carroll.
A costume sketch for Diahann Carroll.

And Jane Russell was a blast who’d often joke with Travilla .  He’d recount fondly that

“I had always loved Jane ever since I had once come into her dressing room as she was looking at herself in the mirror. That’s when she said, self-mockingly: ‘G – – D – – – , you’re so beautiful.  If only you could act!’”

Travilla dressed Marilyn and Jane to the nines in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Sounds like my girl Jane!

And Travilla would call Loretta Young “the brightest fashion woman I ever knew.”

A Travilla sketch for Loretta Young.

A Class Apart

The elements of Travilla’s timeless style set him apart from the other designers of his era: an engineer of fabric, he was a master of sunburst pleating and the flattering bias cut, while his artistic skill was unmatched, evidenced by his costume sketches, works of art in their own right.

Perhaps the greatest secret to the magic of Billy Travilla’s design genius is that he understood his work was much more than simply making an attractive gown or costume for film.  Travilla would say that designing was

“Two parts creative artist, one party story teller, one part prophet, a dash of insight into character—these are some of the qualities that go into making a designer of clothes for motion pictures.  The clothes designed to be worn in a motion picture fulfill many more functions than clothes worn in real life.  They have a very important share in setting moods of scenes, showing the audience the character portrayed,  and in developing the story on the screen.”

Travilla was unique in his ability to add to the story on screen through his costume designs.  No other designer could do this quite like Billy Travilla.

It’s a combination of all these factors that makes Travilla’s costumes unforgettable.  And hopefully, with greater appreciation of the precision, skill, thought, and passion behind each of his creations, the name Billy Travilla will be just as recognizable as the iconic designs he created. 

So Long, Ann!

And that wraps up our month celebrating the great Ann Sheridan.  I miss this great lady already!

Join me next week as I introduce our July Star of the Month, the charming, funny, and handsome Tony Curtis.

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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