It was 9 September, 1954 when Marilyn Monroe, in New York to film The Seven Year Itch, arrived at fashion photographer Milton H. Greene’s studio to sit for a series of portraits that would juxtapose the starlet with an unadorned wicker chair. Greene’s pictures had appeared in Vogue, Life and Harpers Bazaar and he eventually became Monroe’s business partner. His sensitivity and boyish charm were the ideal antidote to Monroe’s insecurity and neediness and, in front of his lens, she was candid and relaxed.
He’d ordered a white dress from designer Anne Klein for the shoot, but the tutu’s bodice was too tight. Instead of scrapping it Monroe held herself in the tutu, creating the famous ‘ballerina’ portraits that conjure up a sense of bittersweet fragility, sensual innocence and a whiff of Hollywood heartbreak.
Unlike Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, Monroe never studied ballet (she admitted to struggling with choreography, particularly in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) but the transformative power of the tutu rendered the photographs emblematic of ballet and dance. In Milton’s Marilyn: The Photographs of Milton H. Greene, author James Kotsilibas-Davis says the poignant images “became more generic portraits of a dancer to challenge even the sketches of Degas”.
Since the Monroe-ballerina portraits, the tutu has evolved from ballet performance attire to celebrity costume (remember Madonna’s famous tutu get-ups in the ‘80s?) and everyday apparel. Sarah Jessica Parker’s alter-ego, Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, is the patron saint of the tutu as street fashion (and, interestingly, Parker’s campaign for her fragrance ‘Lovely’, in which she appears encased in a blush-hued tutu, is strikingly similar to the Monroe shots). Rebecca Weinberg, a Sex and the City costume designer, says Parker was “always very inspired” by Degas’ dance paintings and the pale pink tutu that appears in the show’s title sequence (and again in the first film) remains among Carrie’s most iconic outfits.
But it was the vintage emerald tutu Parker wore in the show’s final episode that stole the actresses’ heart. Parker said of the tutu: “That outfit got to tell so many stories, and it was such a romantic outfit … it was so delicate and had so much grace to it, and it ran around Paris, and that was not how she [Carrie] had imagined it.”