The story behind the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe and her flying white dress

There are hundreds of photos of Marilyn Monroe, one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, but the most famous photo of them all with her dress flying was taken on September 15, 1954 by the photographer Sam Shaw on the set of the movie Seven Year Itch.

A young blonde woman in a white dress standing on a ventilation grill in the New York subway, the air pushing her dress – and the photographer takes the picture. And so, the photographer Sam Shaw became better known and made Marilyn Monroe even more famous. The image has been reprinted millions of times, making it one of the most recognizable in the world. Discover the full story behind this memorable photo below.

The story behind the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe
The first version of the photo of Marilyn Monroe taken by Sam Shaw in 1954

In the early 1950s, Sam Shaw was working in the film industry as a unit still photographer. While on the set of the biographical film Viva Zapata! in 1951, he met Marilyn Monroe, who at the time was a struggling actress hired by 20th Century Fox studios. Shaw couldn’t drive and Monroe, then-girlfriend of the film’s director Elia Kazan, was asked to give him a ride to the movie set every day.

Shaw and Marilyn Monroe developed a close friendship. Soon he began photographing her in informal portraits that captured her playful personality. Shaw said: “I just want to show this fascinating woman, with her guard down, at work, at ease off stage, during the joyous moments of her life and how she used to be – alone.”

The story behind the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe
Sam Shaw and Marilyn Monroe, at the backstage of the 20th Century Fox studios, Los Angeles, California, 1954. (Photo © Sam Shaw Inc.)

In 1954, when Marilyn Monroe was cast in the lead role in Billy Wilder’s comedy The Seven Year Itch, she was on her way to becoming a major star. She was 28 years old and had played leading roles in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire (both released in 1953). She had married her second husband, baseball star Joe DiMaggio, in January of that year.

In The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe played the glamorous neighbor whom the middle-aged editorial executive Richard Sherman, played by Tom Ewell, falls in love with. At one point in the script, Monroe and Ewell stroll down a New York street and walk on a subway rail.

Upon reading the dialogue for this scene, Shaw saw an opportunity to use an idea he had several years earlier. He was visiting the amusement park on Coney Island when he saw women stepping off a ride and having their skirts lifted by a gust of air from underground. He suggested to producer Charles Feldman that this scene could provide a poster image for the film, with a blast of air from the grille blowing Marilyn Monroe’s dress into the air.

The movie scene was originally filmed outside the Trans-Lux Theater on Lexington Avenue at around 2am. Despite the timing of filming, a crowd gathered to watch. Marilyn Monroe was wearing a white pleated dress. A wind machine under the grille made the dress rise above her waist, revealing her legs. As the scene was reshot, the crowd became more and more noisy.

The story behind the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe
At the publicity stunt in New York, a large crowd of spectators and press were invited to create hype around the filming. (Photo © Sam Shaw Inc.)

After filming ended, Shaw arranged for the moment to be recreated in a photocall for the press. Photographers, including Magnum’s Elliott Erwitt, stood around her as the dress was blown up again. Shaw, having organized the event, secured the best position to photograph her. As Marilyn Monroe posed with her dress flying high, she turned to him and said, ‘Hey Sam Spade!’ He pressed the shutter of his Rolleiflex.

The story behind the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe
The iconic image of Marilyn Monroe was photographed by photographer Sam Shaw during the filming of
The Seven Year Itch. (Photo © Sam Shaw Inc.)

Shaw’s photo, with Marilyn Monroe looking provocatively into her camera, is the best shot from that footage. The photos taken that night were published the next day in newspapers and magazines around the world. Not only did they bring great publicity to the film, but they also reinforced Marilyn Monroe’s image as one of the sex symbols of the time.

However, one of the viewers of the footage was Joe DiMaggio, and the sight of a crowd of men looking and whistling at his wife made him very angry. He stormed off the set, annoyed, saying: ‘I’ve had enough!’ The incident led directly to the couple’s divorce in October 1954, after only nine months of marriage.

Ironically, the footage taken that night could not be used because there was too much noise on the set. The scene was later reshot in a closed studio in Los Angeles, with Shaw as the only photographer present.

The story behind the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe walks through filming with her Seven Year Itch co-star Tom Ewell in a photograph by Sam Shaw. It was Shaw’s idea to orchestrate the “flying skirt” image and use it to promote the film. (Photo © Sam Shaw Inc.)
The story behind the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe
As the subway breeze hits her skirt, Monroe’s line “Isn’t it delicious” was provocative for a 1950s woman, but very much about the most famous sex symbol of the day. (Photo © Sam Shaw Inc.)
The iconic Seven Year Itch scene was filmed on Lexington Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets with the press and a crowd of guests.
The orchestrated malfunction of Monroe’s wardrobe has become one of the most iconic images in Hollywood history. (Photo © Sam Shaw Inc.)

The scene has become one of the most famous in the history of cinema and photography. Its importance was demonstrated in 2011 when the original white dress worn by Marilyn Monroe was sold at auction for $4.6 million.

Shaw and Marilyn Monroe often worked together over the next few years and remained close friends until she died at age 36 in August 1962. As a mark of respect, he refused to publish any of her photographs of Marilyn Monroe for ten years after her death.

Sources: Amateur Photographer, DW and Vintag

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