William Travilla was an Oscar-winning costume designer who dressed around 270 Hollywood stars across more than 100 movies and TV episodes.
Often known as just “Travilla,” or “Billy” to his friends, he was born on March 22, 1920 in Los Angeles, California. At an young age, he was enrolled in the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). Travilla demonstrated tremendous skill and was moved up to the adult classes at only eight years old.
When Travilla was sixteen, each day on his way to school, he passed burlesque clubs. One day, after building up the confidence and giving way to his artistic curiosity, he stopped to go inside and watch the show. He continued to visit, painting and sketching the dancers. It was in these clubs where he designed his first costumes. Not one to miss a trick, Travilla started selling his costume designs to the showgirls. Three designs for five dollars.
In 1941, after traveling and graduating from university, Travilla began looking for work in Hollywood. He landed a job at Western Costume and later Jack’s of Hollywood, designing for several B movies. He was forced to start selling paintings to earn some extra money. His paintings attracted the attention of rising star, Ann Sheridan. She had become a collector of his work and wanted to meet the artist. They hit it off instantly. Sheridan, who was signed to Warner Bros. at the time, brought Travilla on to set as her personal costume designer. After styling Sheridan’s gowns for Nora Prentiss (1947), Travilla grabbed Hollywood’s attentions. He also caught the attention of Errol Flynn. Flynn asked Travilla to work on his upcoming film, The Adventures of Don Juan (1948). Travilla’s work on Don Juan earned him his first of four Best Costume Design Oscar nomination, and his only win.
Travilla stayed at Warner Bros. for five years before moving on to Twentieth Century Fox. It was there that he first met Marilyn Monroe. Who combined, would go on to create some of the most iconic dresses in film history. They initially crossed paths by chance, when Monroe asked if she could borrow his fitting room. Travilla said this of their first meeting,
“My introduction was the sight of her in a black bathing suit. She opened the sliding doors of my fitting room, and the strap fell off, and her breast was exposed…of course she did it on purpose”
From 1952, in a space of four short years, the pair worked together on eight movies. Creating such memorable costumes as the pink gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and the infamous pleated ivory cocktail dress from Seven Year Itch (1955). The iconic dress was auction in 2011 and purchased by actress and film historian Debbie Reynolds, for $4,600,000.
By the late 1970s, Travilla began working largely in television. He was nominated for an Emmy awards seven years in a row. Starting 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. In 2006 he was inducted in the Costume Designers Guild’s Hall of Fame.
In 2008, an exhibition of William Travilla’s personal collection was displayed at The Palace Hotel in Manchester. The collection was later shown in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, California. In 2011, the book, Dressing Marilyn, was released featuring original sketches and dress patterns that Travilla produced for Marilyn Monroe’s costumes.