Marilyn Monroe and Blue Jeans in “Clash by Night”

Keith Andes and Marilyn Monroe in “Clash by Night”, 1952 | RKO Radio Pictures

 

Marlon Brando wore his in 1953, in The Wild One. James Dean wore his in 1955, in Rebel Without a Cause. Marilyn Monroe wore her blue jeans in 1952, in Clash by Night. Brando and Dean made denim defiant and sexy in the 1950s – the first decade in which young people’s style was distinguished from their parents’. But it was Marilyn who embodied the sexy and rebellious look first. She was one of the very first women and Hollywood stars to demonstrate the appeal of jeans. It is her jeans looks that play a big part in Monroe’s statute as one of America’s biggest symbols of youth culture, her pervasive image having held an influence over generations ever since.

In Fritz Lang’s noir drama Clash by Night, Marilyn plays Peggy, a small-town girl working at a fish can factory and the girlfriend of Joe Doyle. She has a mind of her own and she is looking for more than marriage and being a dutiful wife. And when Joe’s sister, Mae (Barbara Stanwyck), returns home after having failed to fulfill her big ideas in the big city, Peggy instantly feels a connection with her – her right to being independent, to having her own dreams, to laying down your own rules and abiding by them rather than society.

In her straight-cut blue jeans, white cropped top and sneakers, Peggy does not only represent youth, but a free and modern personality, breaking away from conventions and parents’ old ways. Part tomboy, part typical American girl, her look is very natural and understated. Simple, confident, an ahead-of-her-time remarkably cool style that Marilyn would often times emulate off-screen, too. It shows a sense of style rather than a love of fashion, and closer to the real Marilyn than the star-image makers that put her in fur, sequins, pink and silver, cared for her to envision. Marilyn played a great role in making jeans the mainstay garment of the twentieth century, part of America’s heritage, but, most importantly, part of modernity.
 

Keith Andes and Marilyn Monroe in “Clash by Night”, 1952 | RKO Radio Pictures

 
Marilyn would wear again jeans in The Misfits, her last film, in 1961, like a preordained message of how she should be remembered. John Huston, her director on this film, as well as on her first significant acting role, The Asphalt Jungle, observed in an interview with Peter S. Greenberg for Rolling Stone magazine, from 1981, that she had “the ability to go down within herself and pull up an emotion and put it on the screen.” In an earlier conversation, from 1974, with Rosemary Lord, he said he would “put Katey Hepburn at the top of my list of actresses – and Marilyn Monroe of course. What they say about her now… It’s tragic exploiting a tragic memory. Good hearted girl – a great heart she had. I think the Bogarts and the Monroes were new in their own generation – they weren’t like anybody else, and people are never replaced.” But “thanks to this medium,” he continued, “they’ll be there for a long time.”

In the same interview mentioned above, Huston remembered how even in The Misfits, when everyone knew there was definitely something wrong with Marilyn, a premonition of doom closing in, there was still a freshness about her that had endured from the first time he met her, when they did the screen test for The Asphalt Jungle. And that was the uniqueness of Marilyn. That appeal is still there, in the public conscience, in all her films. It is argued that her public image lives on because she brought in people a feeling that she was headed for disaster, that she showed a vulnerability that made people feel very protective towards her. Her appeal has to do with more than that, just as it has to do with more than her sex appeal. Because she moved men just as much as she moved women. Just like James Dean. She brought along not just a new look, but a new voice. And in none of her films seems that image more penetrating than in these two films, Clash by Night and The Misfits, where she dressed so casual and free, the voice of every generation since.

Note: the source for the John Huston interviews was the book “John Huston Interviews”, where these conversations with the filmmaker were republished in 2001 by the University Press of Mississippi.
 
 
More stories: The individualistic minimalism of the 1980s: Kim Basinger in Nine 1/2 Weeks / The voice of a generation: James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause / An American Original: Steve McQueen in Bullitt

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