It’s a face that sparks instant recognition, even among those too young to remember her. More than 50 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe’s powers to intrigue and inspire are arguably even stronger now than they were during her lifetime.
“If you look at today’s style influencers—Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Scarlett Johansson—they all do ‘The Marilyn,’” says Jennifer Weiderman, Vice President of Marketing and Education for Sexy Hair. “They do the curls, the bob, and they go platinum. It might not always be literal but you definitely know who they’re channeling.” In a move that seemed tailor-made for an iconic sex symbol, Sexy Hair made Marilyn Monroe a brand ambassador in 2013, continuing to use her image in advertising, packaging and collateral today.
Why are we still under her spell? It’s more than that face, that hair, that bombshell body. Monroe etched her place in our hearts by teaching us something we’d suspected all along: Sex is power.
“She was smart; she knew how to use her looks to get ahead,” says Weiderman.
At a time when society’s mores were buttoned up tight, Monroe wielded her own sex appeal like a precision instrument. In a 2012 interview with CNBC documentarian Liz Garbus, director of Love, Marilyn, said, “She dealt with sexuality in a very frank way and I think that it had an indelible mark on our culture." The surfacing of nude pictures would have been enough to sink any other actress of the day. When it happened to Monroe, she publicly shrugged it off. Anyone already inclined to be scandalized remained so; everyone else breathed a sigh of relief. She made it okay to look, and okay to enjoy looking, and weren’t we doing that already?
Even Monroe’s signature hairstyle—the seemingly undone mass of soft, tousled curls—was designed to telegraph a subliminal message. In their book Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe authors Christopher Nickens and George Zeno describe it as “morning after hair,” pointing out how dramatically it contrasted with the controlled, even severe looks favored by most of her contemporaries.
Monroe’s skill at curating an image was also ahead of its time. “Her public persona was incredibly well calibrated and she was a master at it,” said Garbus. As illustration, she offers Monroe’s deft handling of reporters at press conferences, deflecting zingers with the aplomb of a seasoned politician. It’s easy to imagine her conquering today’s social media universe without breaking a sweat.
Monroe’s combination of drive, self-determination and unapologetic sex appeal isn’t rare today. But in the 1950’s it was groundbreaking. Monroe was the first, and many would say, still the best.