The dress in question appears in a sequence from the 1955 Billy Wilder film The Seven Year Itch in which Marilyn Monroe (playing "the Girl") and co-star Tom Ewell ("Richard Sherman") exit the Trans-Lux 52nd Street Theatre on Lexington Avenue in New York City having just watched Creature from the Black Lagoon. When they hear a subway train passing below the grate on the footpath, she steps on it and asks "Ooh, do you feel the breeze from the subway?" as the wind blows the dress up, exposing her legs and underwear.
The scene went on to become one of the most iconic moments in movie history.
Even though the shoot was scheduled for 1:00 am, a large gathering of boisterous and noisy onlookers (almost all men) had gathered across the street to witness the event.
Wilder shot multiple takes, while set photographer Sam Shaw snapped photo after photo for what had to be the biggest publicity stunt ever staged at the time. Monroe reportedly wore two pairs of underwear for the shoot; yet, as noted in Lois Banner's critical biography Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (2012), "a dark blotch of pubic hair" remained visible to the 100 male photographers and over 1,500 male spectators, all of whom crowded eagerly around the set to gawk and drool. Due to strict 1950s movie censorship laws, photos had to be doctored to white out the offending blotch, but those in attendance saw it, over and over, shot after shot.
To the enlightened reader, this might all sound rather sleazy, and yet Banner contends in his book: “The scene in the shoot is naughty, with the phallic subway train, its blast of air, and Marilyn’s erotic stance. Yet she is in control. She is the ‘woman on top’, drawing from the metaphor for women’s power that runs through Euro-American history.” Maybe.
The ramifications of that event would prove to be more than just cultural. Monroe's husband at the time, baseball playing legend Joe DiMaggio, who was not at all comfortable with Monroe’s perceived complicity, stormed off the set in a huff. After returning to California, Monroe filed for divorce from DiMaggio on grounds of “mental cruelty” following a big fight that they had at their hotel later that night after the shoot, during which it is alleged that DiMaggio assaulted Monroe.
The controversy has continued into the 21st century. As you might imagine there have been countless tributes to the iconic image over the years, including the construction of “Forever Marilyn”, a giant 8 metre tall stainless steel and aluminium statue of Monroe representing the image, designed by Seward Johnson. Created in 2011, the statue has been displayed in a variety of locations in the United States, as well as in Australia at the Bendigo Art Gallery in 2016.
By 2021 it had made its way back to Palm Springs where it had first been installed. But not everyone is smiling at the thought of the colossal statue taking up permanent residence in the heart of town. Louis Grachos, the director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, is among those glowering. Forever Marilyn has ended up in front of the entrance of his museum, but she isn’t facing the door, therefore baring her backside to visitors as they exit the facility. Institutionalised upskirting.
Enter #metoomarilyn. "She's literally going to be mooning the museum”, said Elizabeth Armstrong, a spokesperson for a Change.org petition objecting to Marilyn's objectification that garnered almost 42,000 signatures at the time. "It's blatantly sexist”, says Armstrong.
Misogyny in the guise of nostalgia? You decide.
Story Idea: Bonnie Siegler
All of the noise made it very difficult for Wilder to capture the necessary dialogue on location in New York City, so they ultimately had to reshoot the whole scene on a closed soundstage at the Fox lot in Los Angeles.
1. Sam Shaw/Shaw Family Archives.
2. Sam Shaw/Shaw Family Archives.
3. Sam Shaw/Shaw Family Archives.
4. Video Clip: The Seven Year Itch "A Delicious Breeze" (1955)
5. Poster for The Seven Year Itch
6. The New York Daily News breaks news of the divorce in October 1954
7. The second, well-known image, was taken during a press only photo call after filming had finished for the night, She nicknamed the photographer Sam Spade, and according to Shaw, she was saying “Hey Sam Spade!” at the moment this picture was taken.
8. The "Forever Marilyn" statue by artist Seward Johnson back in Palm Springs in 2021. Photo: Frederic J. Brown /AFP via Getty Images
9. Campaign image from change.org petition: #metoomarilyn
10. Bonnie Siegler makes the pilgrimage to Palm Springs in