William Travilla

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William Travilla
Born (1920-03-22)March 22, 1920
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Died November 2, 1990(1990-11-02) (aged 70)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Fashion designer
Spouse(s) Dona Drake (1944-1989) (her death)
Children Nia Novella Travilla (b. 1951)

William Travilla (March 22, 1920 – November 2, 1990), who went by the professional name of Travilla, was an American costume designer for theatre, film, and television.[1] He is perhaps best known for dressing Marilyn Monroe in eight of her films.[2]

Mr. William “Billy” Travilla was born on Catalina Island, just off the coast of Southern California in March 1920. At an early age he demonstrated genuine artistic talent and was enrolled in Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles. Travilla’s skills proved so advanced that he was transferred into adult classes as an eight year old.

When Travilla was sixteen, he began to frequent burlesque clubs in order to design the dancers' costumes. He sold pencil sketches of costume designs to the showgirls for a flat rate of three costume designs for five dollars. Soon after starting this design business, Travilla inherited $5,000 from his grandfather. He and a cousin spent almost a year travelling through the South Seas. During an extended layover on the Island of Tahiti, Travilla painted what we think could be some of his most compelling work — a breathtaking set of islander portraits. This idyllic time was cut short as the world geared up for war, and travel through the Pacific became restricted. Travilla (now draft age) returned to the US. He was declared 4F due to flat feet and went back to school at Woodbury University and graduated in 1941.[3]

Travilla began working at Western Costume, ghost-sketching for studio designers. After a stint at Western, Travilla took a job at Jack’s of Hollywood. At Jack’s he was given assignments working for Sonja Henie as well as for United Artists and Columbia Pictures.

Travilla began selling Tahiti-inspired paintings at the hot spot Don The Beachcomber. Ann Sheridan, a regular customer began collecting Travilla’s work and shortly afterward she brought Travilla on to the Warner Brothers lot as her personal costume designer. He designed gowns for her in Nora Prentiss in 1947 and in 1948 for her period drama Silver River.[4]

Travilla married actress Dona Drake on August 19, 1944, while she was filming Hot Rhythm at Monogram Pictures, in an informal ceremony.[5]

Though Travilla joked that “my wife turned down a $5000 a week contract in Las Vegas because now she had a husband to support her.”, Dona continued her career through the marriage. The black part of her mixed-race heritage was kept a secret. Interracial marriage was against the law and her real ethnicity may potentially, had it become known, dampened her success in Hollywood.[6]

After work on several B movies, Travilla worked his way upward through the studio until he earned an Oscar in 1949 for the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Adventures of Don Juan, and in 1951 designed the costumes in the now classic sci-fi tale of morality The Day the Earth Stood Still. He then worked mainly at Twentieth Century-Fox, where his credits included Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!.

In 1951, he had daughter Nia with his wife Dona Drake. By 1952, he was close friends with Marilyn Monroe and created the costumes for Don't Bother to Knock and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He went on to design the costumes for several more of her films. Travilla created one of the most famous costumes in all of film – the pleated ivory cocktail dress Monroe wore in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. Monroe is wearing it while standing on a New York City Subway ventilation grate; the dress rises up around her as a train passes below ground. Photographs of this scene have become synonymous with Monroe herself. The iconic dress, which was later purchased by actress Debbie Reynolds, was sold for $4,600,000 (USD) during a 2011 auction. Monroe once wrote to Travilla, "Billy Dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn."

Travilla was also nominated for the Academy Award for How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953, There's No Business Like Show Business in 1954 and The Stripper in 1963.

William Travilla appeared on the 24 March 1960 episode of "You Bet Your Life", hosted by Groucho Marx.[7]

In the late 1970s, Travilla began working mainly in television. One of his most widely seen latter-day projects was the TV mini-series The Thorn Birds in 1983. Travilla was nominated for Emmy awards seven times for his work on television. In 1980, he won the Emmy for "Outstanding Costume Design for a Limited Series or a Special" for The Scarlett O'Hara War, and in 1985 he won the "Outstanding Costume Design for a Series" Emmy for his work on the television show Knots Landing.[8]

Travilla also designed several evening gowns for Lena Horne in the 1980s.[9]

Death and legacy[edit]

Travilla died at the age of 70 on November 2, 1990 in Los Angeles, California, of lung cancer.

An exhibition of the personal collection of William Travilla began a world tour in 2008. The show began in England, then came to Los Angeles and in 2009 to Palm Springs, California. The collection includes gowns worn by Marilyn Monroe, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Faye Dunaway, Judy Garland, Sharon Tate, Jane Russell, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Diahann Carroll, Susan Hayward, Loretta Young, Joanne Woodward, Barbara Stanwyck and many other women in film and television, as well as his Oscar, patterns, sewing room artifacts and numerous original watercolor renderings of his costume designs.[10]


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