The Misfits: Marilyn Monroe’s Denim Western Wear

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961)

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961). Photo by Eve Arnold.

Vitals

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor, recent divorcée

Nevada desert, Summer 1960

Film: The Misfits
Release Date: February 1, 1961
Director: John Huston

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!

Background

Sixty years after her fatal overdose on August 4, 1962, Marilyn Monroe remains a major figure in pop culture, the subject of countless books, art, music, and movies, including Blonde, scheduled to release next month starring Ana de Armas as the actress. Monroe’s final completed film was John Huston’s The Misfits, an elegiac contemporary Western written by her then-husband Arthur Miller that afforded the actress with the opportunity to provide her arguably best performance, which earned her the 1961 Golden Globe Award for “World Film Favorite” despite her own reported contempt for her performance.

As she was only 34 years old when The Misfits was released, few could have imagined that it would be Monroe’s cinematic swan song, though Huston later mentioned that—given her penchant for finding comfort in substances while her marriage to Miller crumbled—he felt “absolutely certain that she was doomed.”

Monroe would only work on one more movie, George Cukor’s Something’s Got to Give, but she was fired and died before the film could be finished, resulting in The Misfits being her last complete movie as it also was for her co-star and childhood screen idol Clark Gable, who died less than two weeks after filming was completed in November 1960. Indeed, few of The Misfits‘ principal cast would survive the decade, with Gable and Monroe followed in death by Montgomery Clift in 1966 and Thelma Ritter in 1969.

The Misfits begins with Roslyn Tabor (Monroe) seeking to obtain a quickie divorce in Reno, where she meets the grizzled cowboy Gay Langland (Gable), who later introduces her to his rodeo-riding pal Perce Howland (Clift). Roslyn’s romance with Gay seems curious, particularly given her resentment for the animals she considers to be mistreated in his orbit, be they the pesty rabbits he wants to shoot in his garden, the rodeo horses spurred by bucking straps, or the mustangs they round up for ostensible slaughter.

Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961)

A pensive moment for Monroe on set, captured by photographer Eve Arnold.

Photographer Eve Arnold was present during much of The Misfits‘ production, including the latter sequence filmed on a dry lake bed in northwest Nevada, where she captured many enduring candid images of Monroe in her double-denim costume that Roslyn appropriately wears while accompanying her cowboy companions to chase those wild mustangs.

What’d She Wear?

After spending the first acts of The Misfits in alluring dresses that emphasize Monroe’s famously voluptuous figure, Roslyn takes a step toward shedding her sartorial femininity by dressing in traditionally male clothing for the traditionally male activity of cowboying. (True, only Roslyn’s jacket is actually menswear, but with looser cuts and reversed buttons, her shirt and jeans wouldn’t be out of place in a man’s wardrobe.)

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961)

Eve Arnold’s color photography on location during The Misfits production reveals that Roslyn’s costume looks as expected, with the jacket and jeans made from a dark blue denim, a plain white shirt, and the typical tan corduroy Lee Storm Rider collar.

It’s not just a sartorial transformation for Roslyn Tabor but also for Monroe herself, introducing a now-iconic costume removed from the feminine elegance of Gentlemen Prefer BlondesThe Seven-Year Itch, and Some Like It Hot, desexualizing her (by 1950s standards) with a more tomboyish look that defied expectations of audiences used to seeing her in curve-gripping satin, wind-blown skirts, and beach-ready bathing suits. The costume feels significant, as if these last moments of Monroe’s released filmography ask us to finally see her as a person rather than a sex symbol.

Roslyn dresses for the job at hand by pulling on a dark indigo denim Lee Storm Rider, the woolly blanket-lined variation of its original 101J “Cowboy Jacket”. In addition to the insular lining, the Storm Rider can be visually differentiated by its tan corduroy-faced collar to prevent the wearer’s neck from chafing.

In 1949, Lee had introduced the 101LJ jacket, which is now considered a precursor to the Storm Rider with its corduroy collar and saddle blanket lining. Four years later, the jacket was rechristened with the evocative “Storm Rider” moniker… though Monroe proves that the jacket could be just as effective when chasing mustangs as storms. (Check out Albert Muzquiz’s Heddels article to learn more about Lee denim jacket history.)

Roslyn’s jacket illustrates all the hallmarks of a classic Storm Rider, including the tan corduroy collar, the gray striped wool lining, the zig-zag stitching around buttonhole for the six corresponding branded rivet buttons, and button-tab adjusters on each side of the waistband. The straight chest yoke slants slightly down toward the center on each side, with a box pleat extending down each side from the yoke to the waist, overlapping the two patch-style breast pockets that each close with a single-button flap.

Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift in The Misfits (1961)

Roslyn pulls her Lee Storm Rider over her chest as she and Perce watch Guido (Eli Wallach) prepare to take flight in the desert.

Roslyn wears a white cotton voile shirt, more traditional than the snap-front Western shirts worn by her male cohorts. While the soft, sheer fabric may be one of the costume’s few concessions to sexualization, voile would also serve a practical purpose of wearing light and cool in the often 100-degree heat of the Nevada desert.

The front placket’s right-over-left buttoning system informs that this is a woman’s shirt (rather than a man’s shirt), with front darts positioned beneath Monroe’s chest for less fullness around the waist, flattering her hourglass figure. The long-sleeved shirt has button-fastened barrel cuffs and a point collar, though Roslyn always wears the top few buttons undone.

Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits (1961)

An intimate moment between Roslyn and Gay in the desert. Note how clearly the front darts—a more common aspect of women’s shirts than men’s shirts—can be seen through the sheer white voile fabric.

Roslyn had already started wearing blue jeans as part of her life with Gay, though—unlike her denim jacket—these particular jeans were originally intended for women as evident by the cut and how closely they follow her form.

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961)

Marilyn Monroe ebulliently models her form-fitting Lady Levi’s on the set of The Misfits. Photo by Eve Arnold.

On their own blog, Levi Strauss & Co. describes how their risk would “forever [alter] the course of women’s fashion” in fall 1934 when they introduced Lady Levi’s, “the world’s first jeans made exclusively for women.” At the time, the world was still getting used to the idea of women wearing long pants, thanks to trailblazers like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and even Eleanor Roosevelt, who became the first First Lady to be photographed wearing trousers when she appeared in riding pants during the 1933 Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn.

Lady Levi’s had originally been intended for western women to wear on farms and ranches, though an appearance in Vogue the year after their introduction widened their audience. After World War II and the volume of women who had dressed practically for their newfound work in industrial sectors, sales of women’s trousers skyrocketed. Thanks to the decreasing formality during the postwar boom, this also included jeans to the degree that Penn State University felt the need to officially ban female students from wearing jeans until 1954.

By this time in the mid-1950s, Lady Levi’s were already being sold across the United States, featuring the modified fit designed to better flatter women’s curves as well as the replacement of the classic Levi’s button-fly with a zip-fly. 1954 was also the year that Marilyn Monroe had first appeared in jeans, wearing a pair of dark and skintight J.C. Penney “Foremost” jeans—albeit quite anachronistically—in Otto Preminger’s 1870s-set Western drama River of No Return.

Monroe again pulled on jeans in The Misfits, though the signature arcuate stitch across the pointed back pockets suggests a pair of indigo denim Lady Levi’s, styled with the usual long rise up to Monroe’s natural waist line and a slim cut through the legs down to the bottoms, which she wears self-cuffed. In addition to the belt loops, the design otherwise resembles the stalwart Levi’s 501 variety marketed to men with two curved rivet-reinforced front pockets, a watch pocket (now often called a coin pocket) inset on the right side, and two patch-style back pockets.

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961)

Still wearing Roslyn’s shirt and jeans—but no boots—Marilyn rests on the desert set of The Misfits. Photo by Eve Arnold.

Roslyn holds up her jeans with a narrow tan tooled leather belt that tapers toward the front, where it closes through an embossed gold-finished Western-style curved single-prong belt buckle and a matching gold-toned metal keeper.

Roslyn completes her authentic Western appearance with a pair of tan leather cowboy boots, which Monroe evidently kept after the production and were auctioned in October 1999 by Christie’s among other pieces of her personal property. Made by storied Kansas bootmaker Hyer, Monroe’s screen-worn boots have relatively short shafts decoratively stitched in olive and tan, with curved tops, over-the-top ear pulls, and the traditional “bug and wrinkle” medallion stitch over the pointed toes.

Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift in The Misfits (1961)

When joining Gay and Perce for the mustang roundup, Roslyn dons her issued cowboy hat, made from a light beige felt though with a round, telescopic crown that differs from the pinched cattleman-style crowns of her compatriots’ hats. Roslyn’s hat also has a curved brim and a light-colored band.

Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable in The Misfits (1961)

The trio sport cowboy hats when engaging in some true cowboy work.

How to Get the Look

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961)

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961)

In her final scenes of a finished movie, Marilyn Monroe dressed authentically for the West in a light-wearing white voile shirt, Lady Levi’s jeans, cowboy boots, and a man’s blanket-lined Lee Storm Rider denim jacket.

  • Dark indigo denim Lee Storm Rider blanket-lined “cowboy jacket” with tan corduroy collar, six copper rivet buttons, two chest pockets (with button-down flaps), single-button cuffs, and button-tab waist adjusters
  • White cotton voile long-sleeved shirt with point collar, front placket, front and back darts, and button cuffs
  • Dark indigo denim Lady Levi’s high-rise jeans with belt loops, five-pocket layout, and self-cuffed bottoms
  • Tan tooled leather narrow belt with embossed gold curved single-prong buckle and matching keeper
  • Tan leather cowboy boots with decoratively stitched shafts, side pulls, and “bug and wrinkle” medallion-stitched pointed toes

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie. I also highly recommend reading @MadZack’s Letterboxd review of what he aptly describes as “a film about three beautiful losers.”

The Quote

How do you find your way back in the dark?

Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits (1961)

“Just head for that big star straight on. The highway’s under it… it’ll take us right home.”

2 comments

  1. VR

    Thank you for this article. I had remembered it was Marilyn’s anniversary.
    I saw “The Misfits” years ago and have it on on DVD; must re-watch one day.

  2. MarkG

    What a beauty. Taken from us too soon. I understand Marilyn was an early adopter of jeans for off-duty wear. But the baggy fit of ’50s jeans didn’t do her bum any favours. (butt to you – we call it a bum). So, Marilyn used to don her jeans and plunge into the sea. Then she’d keep them on as they dried to a more form-fitting profile. I recommend THE MISFITS to anyone who thinks that Marilyn was a mere sexpot or bimbo. An astonishingly mature and moving performance.

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