In the 60 years since Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death, stars from Madonna to Kim Kardashian have been inspired by her signature platinum blonde hair, red lipstick, and body-hugging gowns. Now, Ana de Armas is joining the Marilyn club in Andrew Dominik’s long-awaited Blonde, and her transformation into the public and private iterations of Norma Jeane is flawless.
“It’s hard not to be a super fan of Marilyn because I think she’s seeped into all of our subconscious,” Blonde costume designer Jennifer Johnson tells ELLE.com. While the Joyce Carol Oates source novel is a fictionalized account of Monroe’s life (and death), Dominik gave an 800-page PDF to the costume, hair, and makeup teams referred to as the Bible featuring images of the star that he wanted to recreate. “We dove in and went to every source. Even during the shooting, the movies are playing in the makeup and hair trailer—the photographs are all over the walls,” says makeup department head Tina Roesler Kerwin.
With around 100 costume changes during Blonde’s production (not all of them made it into the film), you would expect Johnson has glimpsed every photo taken of the movie star before and during her Hollywood reign. Instagram’s algorithm has proved otherwise, “To this day, I still am finding pictures of her I’ve never seen before.” Hair department head Jaime Leigh McIntosh echoes this sentiment and awe, despite the deep dive all three women did for Blonde in 2019: “Even now, I see a picture of Marilyn I have not seen before, and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Together Johnson, Kerwin, and McIntosh transformed de Armas via recognizable garments, makeup (including the infamous beauty spot), and wigs. Using painstaking accuracy, the trio chart Norma Jeane’s transformation into Marilyn, the movies she made, and the private moments snapped by a bevy of photographer pals like Milton Greene, Sam Shaw, Eve Arnold, and Ed Feingersh. Here, the team joins ELLE.com to discuss the challenges of recreating iconic looks, taking inspiration from Monroe’s go-to designer William Travilla, and the moment they couldn’t tell Ana from Marilyn.
Max Factor, Martinis, and Finding Marilyn
“I took the makeup team to Max Factor, we toured it together, took a lot of photographs, and then we walked down the street to Musso And Frank’s and had a martini,” explains Kerwin about the pre-COVID excursion to the Hollywood Museum that resides in the home of Max Factor. It is here that Monroe’s hair was dyed its famous shade (ditto Lucille Ball’s signature hue) and this snapshot of Tinseltown was the first stop on “Team Marilyn’s train.” As well as recreating images, Dominik also shot on location at Monroe’s famous haunts, including Musso and Frank’s and the house she shared with Arthur Miller.
The locations might be authentic, but archivists can breathe a sigh of relief because, unlike Kardashian at the 2022 Met Gala, de Armas does not wear any gowns that belonged to Monroe. Instead, Johnson used a mixture of costume rentals and custom-made garments using sources like the Christie’s Auction House book that accompanied the sale of Monore’s estate in 1999. “It is an archive where you see her everyday clothing photographed in a way that’s quite forensic,” Johnson says. “That was incredibly helpful because that answered some questions about the everyday details.”
In a movie that picks at celebrity and myth-making concepts, Johnson turned to Andrew Hansford’s book detailing costume designer Travilla’s collaboration with Monore—including The Seven Year Itch and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “His book is very unusual in that it discusses construction details, and that’s pretty rare,” she says. At the last minute, Travilla had to ditch a provocative “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” ensemble after the nude calendar photos leaked. “He designed it last minute and needed to find some fabric to make the silk have more body to it, more movement,” she describes. His solution was a bolt of green billiard table felt from the art department, and Johnson contemplated this approach “because it was such a cool, weird thing, but it was hot [on set].”
Substitutes are used for other reasons to recreate the famous look. Whereas Monroe famously wore Vaseline to give her face a dewy glow, Kerwin was mindful that she had to “be able to maintain Ana’s skin throughout production.” Kerwin used Charlotte Tilbury’s Hollywood Flawless Filter to get the glow without damaging De Armas’ sensitive skin (it is also what Kerwin wore to the premiere).
Blonde Wigs and Bleached Brows
Monroe’s famous platinum roots needed retouching every four to five days, but de Armas didn’t undergo a drastic cut and color. “We had so many looks and only so much money,” McIntosh explains. Two creamy blonde wigs of slightly varying lengths took the bulk of the looks, with a third “true platinum” wig introduced toward the end. “The hairline was one of the first things Andrew spoke to me about—it was a concern of his. He had seen Ana in a blonde wig before and could see her dark hairline through it,” says McIntosh. The solution? Using prosthetics instead of a bald cap “so we could see scalp through the wigs.” Kerwin explains that after applying the prosthetic pieces, “it was all airbrushed to be the same color, and then the blonde wigs would sit on what was looking like skin.”
The hair and makeup teams work in tandem to remove any glimpse of de Armas’ dark locks. McIntosh worked closely with wigmaker Robert Pickens from Wigmaker Associates to “incorporate as many of those little subtle details” as “mimicking nature is one of the hardest things to do.” They also had to create a hairline close to Monroe’s that also worked with de Armas’ face, influencing Kerwin’s work on her eyebrows. “I knew straight away as soon as we put the first blonde wig on that we had to minimize and bleach Ana’s brows,” she says. During production, they were shaved down by Kerwin and then bleached every couple of days, which took some getting used to for the star: “Ana has beautiful brows, and it was a shock for her to see herself in the newly thinned out blonde brow.”
Lashes and the Beauty Mark
A couple of days of testing was required to “find out what worked, what didn’t and to find our Marilyn in Ana,” says Kerwin about her expressive lashes. “Enough lashes, you’ll change the shape of somebody’s eye,” the makeup department head explains, and she “applied the lashes in a way that was a little straighter across so we can give that Marilyn look and not completely curve with Ana’s eye.”
The application was challenging, recalls McIntosh; “the only thing that would slow us down was too many people moving in the trailer while you’re trying to put lashes on because it was so fiddly.” Kerwin likens those moments to doing “makeup on a boat,” and they “got good at doing makeup and hair in some of the strangest places because once we left the trailer, we never returned.”
De Armas spent between two and a half to three hours in the makeup chair daily and was “a helping hand whenever you need her.” One such area was when Kerwin applied Marilyn’s signature beauty mark using a brown liquid eyeliner: “Together we would get to the space, we’d both check, and then I’d go ahead and add it. Ana was great at helping find the right spot because she had done her homework too.”
The Seven Year Itch Dress
A larger-than-life Marilyn in the legendary pleated Seven Year Itch dress designed by Travilla opens Blonde and reappears later in a moment Johnson calls “absolute dress porn.” It is a defining image, and one Johnson knew she had to get right. “A lot of the research was trying to pick apart how those dresses were initially constructed because a lot of them have been recreated incorrectly,” Johnson says. “It was trying to figure out what went wrong with those recreations? How can we make them work for Ana and her body? How can we make it work for the 21st century with the fabrics available now? Also, how can we maintain the quality, intention, and spirit of design?”
Only one pleater in Los Angeles does the required work, and Western Costume tailor José Bello “made these incredible patterns and was an architectural genius.” Johnson used 50 yards of fabric to figure out the proportions during this race-against-the-clock construction period: “I wanted the skirt to have enough yardage and the fabric to move and become very luxurious in its movement.” Previous recreations “are too small, the skirt is not full enough.” Johnson describes de Armas as “giddy” when she put the show-stopping gown on. This excited mood was matched when she got to set as no one (including Dominik) had seen the finished look yet.
This scene was shot on the same Fox backlot in Hollywood where Monroe reshot her version (after the original New York footage was considered “too sexy” in 1955). “I almost couldn’t breathe that night,” Johnson recalls. “My team did a great job on the background with the press guys, and it felt like you were there.”
Another obstacle in recreating Monroe’s period attire is her footwear. The dresses required the bulk of their budget, and vintage shoes to match contemporary feet sizes are hard to source. Western Costume cobbler Mauricio Osorio came up with a workaround that required excellent quality shoes to use as a foundation that “Ana loves, are comfortable, and have the correct shape and height.” Johnson turned to The RealReal to get a pair of Manolo Blahniks that are “still quite expensive but saved us from having to make the shoe from the ground up.” The guts of the shoe are still Manolos: “He basically rips the whole shoe apart, takes the top off, and rips the leather off the heel. We bring him new leather; he dyes it to match the dress.”
The Some Like It Hot Hair
In a movie with this many changes (including a whirlwind montage of Norma Jeane’s pinup days that the team shot in one day), there will inevitably be some looks the creative team is less enthused by. “If I may be so bold, I did not like that look when we were researching it,” McIntosh says about the “I Want to be Loved by You” styling. The “little twirl on her forehead” aesthetic didn’t make any sense to McIntosh, but everything changed when they got to set and saw de Armas in costume with the band behind her. “They had her on the monitor, and the actual footage [from Some Like It Hot] on the monitor next to it,” McIntosh recalls. “It took me a second to figure out who was who, which hadn’t happened a lot for me throughout.” By the end of the scene, McIntosh had fallen head over heels for this hairstyle.
Kerwin felt similarly regarding this Some Like It Hot styling. Because they put the looks together so quickly, “in the trailer, we sometimes don’t have perspective.” The real sign of success is that “even crew people noticed.”
The Red Lipstick
Like Monroe’s movies and famous photographs, Blonde is a combination of black and white sequences with color imagery. The two formats impact the choice of makeup, and the “biggest thing to figure out was the lip colors” because some pop, whereas others fade away. One day, they shot a mammoth 36 looks (for the photography sequence), which Kerwin describes as “like a test run.” It was trial and error to “try lots of colors because we were shooting in black and white and color.” Kerwin acknowledges they could have done with more prep time, but “when you’re faced with that challenge, you just figure it out, and you figure it out as fast as you can.”
Lipstick shades came “from every source,” including Guerlain, Julie Hewitt, and Charlotte Tilbury. Kerwin provided the additional makeup artists with lip palettes they had made to deliver a consistent visual: “We had put in all the orange reds, they had all the blue reds, and so when the background came in, we had mapped out what was going to work for color or black and white.”
Channeling Marilyn’s Presence
Recreating famous photos such as Norma Jeane wearing polka dots with the Playwright (Arthur Miller, played by Adrian Brody) wasn’t a simple case of imitating the garment. “Sometimes when you do recreations, it can feel costumey, flat, or it doesn’t have a life to it. It was important to honor those original designs but also to feel alive, and a kinetic feel,” says Johnson. “That collective energy amongst all the creative heads of department, actors, and working with Andrew was a real witch’s brew going on, and Marilyn was always present.”
Monroe’s story in Blonde is a fictional retelling of a traumatic childhood and the cost of fame. Still, it was essential to keep her image at the forefront. “The challenge and enjoyment of not just doing the glamorous recreations, but also finding the at-home Norma Jeane, but still having Marilyn there” was a balancing act, says McIntosh. “Jaime Leigh was able to sell some of that with the way the hair would move and dishevel in a way that I couldn’t sell as well in makeup— because every time we pulled it back, Ana would come through,” adds Kerwin.
Gowns, furs, and glamorous on-set ensembles are a fraction of the costume story being told in Blonde, which has a “sense of naturalism” that Johnson notes is the focus of the novel and Dominik’s direction. “It’s about her elemental mental state. That is the most important thing to get there and not just stick a costume on her.” One area Johnson decided to ditch early on was padded foundation garments. “We tried to be as minimal as possible with the intervention as far as from the neck down,’ she explains. This approach reduced otherwise distracting elements so de Armas could focus on her performance rather than “ten pounds of prosthetics.”
Another less-is-more tactic is applied to Marilyn’s look at the Actors Studio in New York. She embraces turtlenecks and capri pants and “is taking the gaze away from her body, even though it’s tailored—which it would be of that time. It’s not about her body anymore; it’s about her mind, her authentic self.”
The black and white check capris “were the template” for the other three pairs in the movie that Johnson custom-made—including a striped set they digitally printed to get a close match to the originals. Even with all the costume changes, Johnson says it felt like de Armas wore those vintage check pants daily, and since there was only one pair, she “was praying they were not going to dissolve.” The authentic 1950s garment from Palace Costume “fit like a glove.”
This pair of pants has also been part of Johnson’s Blonde arsenal since 2018, when they did a camera test to help get financing from Netflix. “I had about half a day to get some iconic costumes together from the costume house for this test, and those pants were one of them,” Johnson recalls of the “tornado recreation.” Afterward, she put the pants on hold just in case they got the financing, and when they did, she knew they had to be in the film. “I have photographs of her that day at the Plan B office, and there’s Marilyn,” she says.
Another garment Johnson sourced from a costume house before Blonde went into production emphasizes Monroe’s indelible image. While it isn’t the Travilla original, Madonna’s 1984 “Material Girl” number reflects the ongoing love affair with the actress at the height of her fame. “You can find that pink dress at the costume house designed for that music video. I borrowed it for our tests that we did originally. It’s super cute, designed beautifully, and perfect for Madonna—but it’s a pop version of the dress,” says Johnson. “It’s cool, all these different iterations of Marilyn.” In Blonde, de Armas plays every shade of the star.
Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. You can find her talking about all of these things on Twitter.