You’ve heard of Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy. And you’ve probably heard of Jean Louis, Adrian, and Irene. Maybe even Helen Rose and Orry-Kelly.
But have you heard of William Travilla?
Travilla is arguably the most underappreciated designer of Hollywood’s Golden Age, yet he was unquestionably one of the most talented.
The Underappreicated Talent of Billy Travilla
Over the course of his career, Billy Travilla dressed an estimated 270 stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Loretta Young, Jane Russell, Sharon Tate, Joanne Woodward, Diahann Carroll, Paul Newman, Clark Gable, Tony Curtis, and Charles Bronson. Travilla’s designs for Marilyn Monroe alone created the iconic look we associate with Marilyn–the pink dress, the white dress, the gold lame dress– all Travilla designs. Ultimately, Billy designed the costumes for 100 films, and earned four Academy Award nominations–and one win–along the way.
Travilla’s accomplishments don’t stop there: he successfully made the transition from films to television in the 1960s. Billy’s TV career culminated in an Emmy for his work on the popular show Dallas in 1985. And his clothing line, founded in 1957, retained popularity even after his death in 1990.
Considering these accomplishments, it’s surprising that Billy Travilla isn’t better recognized or appreciated today.
Perhaps the more niche status of the Travilla name stems from the fact that Billy wasn’t a self-promoter.
Unlike other designers in Hollywood, Travilla never petitioned for awards or attention.
“I am a designer, not a celebrity,”
was the Travilla motto.
Billy Travilla deserves his due. And with the instrumental role our Star Spotlight this month, Ann Sheridan, played in helping Travilla break into film costume design, I’m taking the opportunity to highlight 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 Southern California. Travilla’s mother died when he was one year old, and Billy was raised by his father and stepmother. It was Billy’s stepmother, Ruth, who first noticed his natural artistic abilities and eye for design.
According to Travilla’s younger sister Joan, Ruth later told 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 at the prestigious Chouinard School of Fine Art. 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 Billy’s great talent, certain members of the Travilla family believed the young prodigy’s time would be better spent pursing skills more appropriate to his age. Like the violin. Travilla later comically described 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 grandmother found out about the live models, she was furious. As Billy continued:
“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.”
From Burlesque to Tahiti to Hollywood
At age 14, Travilla officially left standard schooling to pursue his art education full-time. Young Billy first put his artistic abilities to practical use by designing sketches of burlesque costumes, which he then sold for $5 to dancers at the burlesque house he passed on the way to art school. The entrepreneurial move was bold foreshadowing of Travilla’s future as one of Hollywood’s most gifted designers.
But first, at age eighteen, Travilla travelled the world. Billy’s travels enhanced his art, with Tahiti proving particulary inspiring.
Back in Hollywood, Billy found work as a “ghost designer” at Jack’s of Hollywood, a renown costume shop that rented and sold costumes to the major studios. It was a humble start to Travilla’s costume designing career. As Billy later said of his time as a ghost designer:
“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.”
How incredibly frustrating.
Sensing the lack of future at Jack’s of Hollywood, Travilla did a few designs for United Artists and Columbia Pictures on the side. He also tried to start his own costume business. But Billy Travilla continued struggling to get by as a designer.
Billy 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. As Travilla later explained:
“Ok, it sounds so corny, but they were something new at the time.”
These oil paintings became Billy Travilla’s segue into film costume design 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.
Sheridan, at the peak of her career, was so impressed with the paintings that she asked to meet the artist. Billy’s excitement at this unexpected break 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.”
Billy Travilla & Ann Sheridan: 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 were as stunning as his oil paintings, she promised to negociate a deal for Billy as part of her new Warner Bros. contract.
Ann made good on this promise, and when Warner Bros. granted her a dream contract—you remember the one from my article on Nora Prentiss (1947)—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.”
Travilla was always complimentary on how easy it was to design for Ann:
“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’s appreciation of Travilla’s designs was genuine: she promoted her friend Billy in the press, and purchased copies of 20 of the 25 costumes Travilla made for her in Nora Prentiss.
Ann and Billy made a total of five films together. Travilla also designed the costumes for much of Ann’s later stage work. Ann in turn proved instrumental in helping Billy get his clothing line up and running in 1957.
The comfortable, appreciative, fun-loving relationship between Ann Sheridan and Billy Travilla is best summarized by the inscription Ann wrote on a photo she signed to Billy:
“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”
Billy Travilla, Uncle Errol, and Oscar
Travilla’s friendship with Ann Sheridan indirectly lead to his first Oscar nomination, and only win: Errol Flynn, impressed with Travilla’s designs for himself and Ann Sheridan in 1948’s Silver River, used his star power to bring Travilla onto his next film, Adventures of Don Juan (1948).
Originally, Edith Head designed the costumes for the film. But Flynn was unimpressed with Head’s designs, which, though true to the period, were not masculine enough for the swashbuckling star. Flynn flatly refused to be seen in the lacey flounces Edith Head had in mind. When he asked that Billy Travilla replace Head on the picture, Errol managed to simultaneously compliment Travilla, and tease his old buddy Ann Sheridan:
“If he can make that old war horse Sheridan look good, he can do it for Uncle Errol.”
Travilla knowingly strayed from complete historical accuracy with his designs for Flynn, but the end result was flattering, and appealed to Flynn’s sense of masculinity.
Meaning Flynn would actually wear the costumes.
The vests, doublets, and tights Travilla created for Flynn to wear 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 Billy Travilla created.
Billy Travilla and Marilyn
Billy Travilla’s best known designs were worn by none other than Marilyn Monroe [aff. link].
Travilla designed 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 also designed countless of Marilyn’s most recognizable off-screen gowns. Indeed, Travilla played a significant role in creating Marilyn’s most iconic looks.
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: the left shoulder strap of the suit broke, leaving Marilyn…exposed.
So Marilyn and Billy became intimately acquainted quite suddenly.
“That was my introduction to Marilyn Monroe.”
Travilla later recounted. According to Billy, the two also 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.”
The Classic Marilyn Look
Among the most memorable costumes Travilla designed for Marilyn onscreen were the stunning pink gown in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the dazzling gold lame gown Marilyn wore briefly in that same film, (and then again to the 1953 Photoplay Awards), and one of the most famous dresses in Hollywood history, the white dress in The Seven Year Itch (1955).
For Marilyn’s personal use, Travilla designed a white replica of the pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn adored the gown, and wore it to publicity events and premieres. Travilla also lent his designer’s eye to the suit Marilyn wore when she married Joe DiMaggio in 1954: the white ermine collar and diamond buttons were Travilla additions that made Marilyn’s simple suit glamorous.
Billy Travilla & Marilyn Monroe: 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 felt that love, and Billy Travilla was one of the few Hollywood friends she completely trusted: when Marilyn experienced her recurrent fears of mental illness, Billy was on the short list of people she called for comfort, day or night. These two shared a special bond, and it’s evident in the magnificent designs Travilla created for Marilyn.
The Pink Dress
Looking back on his career, Travilla shared 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 should be timeless, not trendy. But even Billy couldn’t have known just what a classic the pink dress he designed for Marilyn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would become.
But 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 that Travilla design a more conservative outfit than the showgirl getup he’d originally made for Marilyn to wear in the film’s big production number, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.
Elements of the Pink Dress
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. In the film, the gown appears to be folded onto Marilyn’s body, but there’s actually a hidden zipper. Travilla underscored his growing reputation as an “engineer of fabric” when he came up with the unique idea to line the dress with felt. This ensured that the silk-satin held its shape, did not wrinkle, and flowed with Marilyn’s movements while she danced.
Looking at the pink dress, you’d never guess that felt was literally glued directly behind the pink silk-satin.
Travilla hid the felt with black silk lining, and added a huge pink bow to the back of the gown for a showstopping finishing touch. To help the bow retain its shape, Travilla stuffed it with ostrich feathers.
Understandably, this was one heavy dress. But Travilla solved the problem by adding v-shaped boning to the bodice. The boning kept this weighty, strapless gown from slipping down while Marilyn danced.
Despite all these intricacies, the pink dress looks light as a feather and simply cut on screen.
It was Travilla’s design genius that created the gown, but Billy credited its ultimate success to Marilyn:
“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 did Travilla a great disservice by stating that the famous white dress Marilyn wears in The Seven Year Itch (1955) was bought off the rack. It’s a rumor that unfortunately persists today.
The famous, billowy white dress was an original work of Billy Travilla. And it incorporated one of Travilla’s trademark design elements: pleating.
As Billy once joked,
“When I die, I don’t want to be buried, or cremated. Just pleat me.”
Billy loved working with pleats. He firmly beleived that 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 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 the famous halter top may look simple, but Travilla used metal boning to get the halter and bodice to mold perfectly to Marilyn with no gaps.
The dress appears starch white in the film, but in order to achieve this, Travilla had to find an off-white, “bone” color fabric, which photographed white onscreen. And to create the perfect billowing effect when Marilyn stood 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 Travilla and "That Silly Little Dress"
The white dress is one of the most recognizable costumes in Hollywood history. Yet Billy Travilla would forever refer to his creation as “that silly little dress.” Travilla may have been humble about the dress, but its value is indisputable.
Case in point: when Travilla travelled with the dress to promote a Littlewoods catalog in the 1970s, thieves broke into the showroom. Out of everything in the showroom–including millions of dollars worth of jewelry–the thieves stole only the white dress.
The dress was later anonimously returned.
Billy Travilla’s Later Career and Other Noteworthy Stars
Billy Travilla worked at 20th Century Fox for the better part of the 1950s. With the disintegration of the studio system towards the end of the decade, Travilla left Fox to create his own clothing line. But as a freelance designer, Billy continued designing for films, and eventually television, earning 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 fascinating.
According to Billy:
Charles Bronson and Faye Dunaway were rude and inconsiderate, and Tony Curtis was a “pain in the neck” because he was such a perfectionist.
Joan Crawford was a temperamental prima donna who eventually proved herself a true friend with her great support of Travilla’s clothing line, while Sharon Tate was always a real sweetheart.
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.
And Jane Russell was a blast. Billy once recalled a particularly hilarious moment with Jane:
“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!’”
That’s awesome. You’ve gotta love Jane Russell!
And Travilla referred to Loretta Young as “the brightest fashion woman I ever knew.”
Billy Travilla: A Class Apart
The elements of Travilla’s timeless style set him apart from other designers of the era: an engineer of fabric, he was a master of sunburst pleating and the flattering bias cut.
And his artistic skill was unmatched, evidenced by his costume sketches, which are works of art in their own right.
But perhaps the true magic behind Billy Travilla’s design genius is that he believed designing was much more than simply making an attractive gown or costume for film. To Billy, 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’s work is unforgettable. And hopefully, with greater appreciation of the precision, skill, thought, and passion behind each of his creations, the Travilla name will be as recognizable as the iconic designs he created.