19 December 2011

Marilyn Monroe's remarkable body

Not what you're thinking.  And not the hips.   What was truly remarkable about her (and many of her contemporaries) was her small waist.

Herewith some excerpts from an essay at Bloomberg by Virginia Postrel, offering her observations following the public showing and auction of Debbie Reynolds' collection of Hollywood costumes and memorabilia.
Monroe was, in fact, teeny-tiny...

The auction’s top-ticket item was Monroe’s famous white halter dress from “The Seven Year Itch,” the one that billowed up as the subway passed... Monroe’s costume was displayed on a mannequin that had been carved down from a standard size 2 to accommodate the tiny waist. Even then, the zipper could not entirely close...

In fact, the average waist measurement of the four Monroe dresses was a mere 22 inches, according to Lisa Urban, the Hollywood consultant who dressed the mannequins and took measurements for me. Even Monroe’s bust was a modest 34 inches...

The other actresses’ costumes provided further context. “It’s like half a person,” marveled a visitor at the sight of Claudette Colbert’s gold-lame “Cleopatra” gown (waist 18 inches)...

At my request, Urban took waist measurements on garments worn by 16 different stars, from Mary Pickford in 1929 (20 inches) to Barbra Streisand in 1969 (24 inches). The thickest waist she found was Mae West’s 26 inches in “Myra Breckinridge,” when the actress was 77 years old...
And I always leave more at the link.

Addendum:  Postrel provided specific data in a post at Deep Glamour.


  1. Is it not possible, that these numbers do not reflect their bodies but rather, their corsets?

  2. Lee, I found this at a corset site -

    "Marilyn Monroe is famously, but incorrectly, credited as a wearer of Spirella corsets. Miss Monroe wore corsets in several period films (right), and Spirella was consulted on their construction, but she never wore, nor did she need to wear a corset in real life."

    If you Google your question, you can find lots of (interesting) links.

  3. To help put those measurements in perspective: I'm both petite and slender by modern standards. I have the same bust measurement as Monroe. It fills out a modern size two nicely. My waist is a little smaller than a size two - and measures 26". If I really suck it in and pull the tape measure as tight as I can, it goes down to 24". Even if I were starved like a Holocaust survivor, I doubt my waist would be 22". My body just isn't built like that.

    The golden age stars had unattainable body types to the same degree as our current stars. They just went for curvy via absurdly small waists rather than tall and absurdly slender.

  4. But since the 1950s, clothing in the US has undergone significant "vanity sizing."

    From http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/62142
    "Today, many women look at Monroe as the perfect symbol of a true woman's body. She was, historians claim, a size 12. But according to today's general sizing measurements, Monroe's 23-inch waist would be a size 0."

    "April Ainsworth, owner of online vintage clothing store Vintage Vixen, said the smallest size in the 1940s was a 10, then an 8 in the 1950s, and by the late '50s-early '60s, it was down to a 6.

    "The idea of vanity sizing was in full swing even back then. ... People were not getting smaller; it's only the numbers of the sizes that diminished," Ainsworth said. "And over time, those shifts in numbers add up to a tremendous difference in measurements. That's why a garment labeled size 12 in the 1950s might fit a woman who wears a size 2 or 4 today." "


  5. ... but the inches would still be valid (assuming no foundation garments), yes?

  6. Anonymous is not saying Marilyn was not small.

    There is a reason why she could have been a size "12" and also a very tiny person. That reason is the size drift that was mentioned.

    The inch measurements just clarify the fact she was not a "fat lard" modern 12. I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course.

  7. Dude, my grandma was just like that. You'd never know it to look at her now, in her 80's--she's a round plump little lady--but I've been through her closet, and seen her wedding photos too. Her waist couldn't have been more than 24" when she was in her 20's. And the bizarre part is that she only went up ONE DRESS SIZE during her first pregnancy, and the baby (my dad) was over 7 lbs.

  8. My grandmother was petite, no taller than 5'2", and had tiny feet and hands. She played tennis and golf as well, so was quite muscular. My mother was also petite: the same height, but had larger feet and hands. She was not athletic. She wore my grandmother's wedding dress at her wedding and had to have side panels put into it.

    Look at teenagers today. My son wears EU size 47 shoes (I think that's a US 12). He is certainly not the only one in his class at school with large feet, and he's only 14 years old.

  9. My grandmother was of the same era, and although she didn't wear a corset, she wouldn't have ever left the house without a girdle. This girdle habit continued well into her sixties when she was dressing up for church or whatnot. She was tall, but consistently wore a size eight until she started shrinking and went down to a four or so. Girdles were, I think, like even more restrictive spanx.

  10. It's not the waist size, and its not the hip size, it's the waist-to-hip ratio.

  11. "Lee, I found this at a corset site -..."

    I'd love to see your browser's bookmarks and history!

  12. Here ya go, Jerry -


    (It's pretty safe for work)

  13. "... but the inches would still be valid (assuming no foundation garments), yes?"

    MM's measurements haven't changed; those of clothing and its assigned sizes have. The waist measurement of a 2011 size 12 will be several inches larger than that of a 1952 size 12.

    Per April Ainsworth in the previously quoted http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/62142, the smallest size in the 1950s was a size 8. Today, clothing can be found in size 00 smaller than size 0, neither of which existed in the 1950s.

    The point of raising the issue of vanity sizing is to point out that a modern size 12 is larger that a 1950s size 12, and when most people hear size 12 they think of the size 12 they see in stores. Today's sizes are larger by approximately 3 sizes or more than the same size in the 1950s.

  14. My grandmother used to show us my grandfather's military jacket quite often. He was a paratrooper and in the Korean War. At 6'2" and 20yrs old his waist was 20in.

  15. Even if someone claims Monroe never wore a corset, that doesn't mean it's true. Hollywood was always all about the lies... er, I mean about appearances.

    Lots of those actresses were strapped into corsets and cinched to within an inch of their lives. One director (can't remember who, sorry) told a story about an actress whose scenes had to be shot in the morning, because once she'd eaten that day she could no longer fit into the costume.

  16. @Gillian--I'm cracking up at "Girdles were, I think, like even more restrictive Spanx." It's the "I think" that gets to me. Bless your heart, youngster! It sounds like you're talking about a prehistoric undergarment. But in fact they're still made and sold, in many different styles. Spanx makes girdle-type garments (reaching from waist to crotch) but also garments that cover much more of the body. I've never seen a Spanx garment except in illustrations, so I can't say whether the fabric is more or less confining than that of girdles (which my mother used to make me wear as an adolescent so I wouldn't, well, jiggle when I walked). Girdles were also useful because they usually had supporters to hold up your nylons. (Do you remember nylons? Probably not!)

    --Grandma Loris

  17. Perception of size has changed for everyone. I was considered average height when I was young. Now everyone talks about how short I am (5' 3"). Yet I towered over my grandma, who was 4' 8" or so, just slightly shorter than grandpa.

    Of course, that works against me in waist size. I've never had a small waist, even when I was skinny, because there's no room between my hips and my rib cage.

    Everything is relative. I discovered a trunk full of military uniforms left in my attic from decades back. The wool navy uniforms were so tiny I could barely fit into them, and they were for a man! Yet whoever wore them was considered strong and healthy enough to serve. I've read how an awful lot of WWII conscripts were rejected for malnutrition and poor growth, which led to government nutrition programs. Chronic hunger and stunted growth used to be the American Way.

  18. "...an awful lot of WWII conscripts were rejected for malnutrition and poor growth, which led to government nutrition programs. Chronic hunger and stunted growth used to be the American Way."

    The same was markedly true during the Great Depression, when recruits into the Civilian Conservation Corps gained something like 20-30# on average despite their heavy labor, as a result of getting adequate nutritious food.


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