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Picture: Saana Säilynoja

Close to the end of the Second World War, a United States Army photographer captured a wide-eyed brunette working on a factory assembly line. Less than a decade later, that young woman had become a Hollywood star, a so-called “blonde bombshell” renowned for her hour-glass figure, breathless lilt and stylish fashion. But there was far more to Marilyn Monroe than simply her appearance.

Earlier this summer, Tampere Museums Vapriikki in Tampere, central Finland, unveiled their latest exhibition, Marilyn – A Woman Behind Her Roles. Showcasing over 300 of Marilyn’s personal items, the glittering array of clothing, shoes and even makeup provide a glimpse into the glamorous life she appeared to lead. But the exhibition delves further, moving beyond the story of a fashion icon to reveal a highly intelligent woman driven to succeed.

Marjo Meriluoto, the project manager and co-curator of the exhibition, says she was surprised by what she uncovered about the iconic actress while working on the exhibition. “I didn’t know that she was so talented, funny and determined. She was a very exceptional person, decades ahead of her time in her opinions and lifestyle . . . . It wasn’t easy for her to go against the norms of the society in the 1950s, but her groundbreaking work was recognized later on.”

While often cast as the stereotypical “dumb blonde,” Marilyn was nothing like the dim-witted characters she played. Exceptionally well read, she worked hard to build an image and even harder to build her career, constantly honing her craft with the help of acting coaches. She even earned a reputation as a perfectionist on set, requesting retake after retake until she was satisfied with her performance.

Showcasing over 300 of Marilyn’s personal items, the glittering array of clothing, shoes and even makeup provide a glimpse into the glamorous life she appeared to lead.

Picture: Saana Säilynoja

Marilyn was determined to prove that her talents extended beyond musical comedies but she was constrained by her contract with Twentieth Century Fox. Forced to accept any roles the studio assigned, prohibited from seeking work elsewhere, and paid an allowance that paled in comparison to the earnings of her male co-stars, Marilyn made a stand. Not only did she establish her own production company, but she fought for a new contract that gave her more money and more control over her career.

As the exhibition shows, Marilyn also faced battles in her personal life. She had had a tragic childhood and craved love, stability and acceptance. Lonely and insecure, Marilyn experienced depression and anxiety and turned to barbiturates, amphetamines and alcohol—a habit that ultimately resulted in her death in 1962, aged 36.

Picture: Saana Säilynoja

Intact memorabilia

In accordance with her will, Marilyn’s belongings were sent to her acting coach in New York. Eventually sold at auction some 40 years later, most of the items in the exhibition now belong to Ted Stampfer, a devoted collector of Marilyn memorabilia. Meriluoto says he played an instrumental role in their display: “The objects were lovingly placed in cases by the owner and his assistant, while the Vapriikki conservators assisted and provided professional support.”

Given that Marilyn’s acting coach kept the items in cardboard boxes, the fact that they have remained intact at all is remarkable. According to Meriluoto, “Some coloring or discoloring occurs, as well as rusted zippers and so on. But amazingly, the pieces of hair in Marilyn’s clothes survived intact too. Now the objects are stored and transported in excellent conditions, naturally.”


Meriluoto says her favourite item “is the dress pattern for the so-called Dahlia dress for Marilyn in the movie How to Marry a Millionaire by William Travilla. I also like the simple black pullovers and capri pants a lot. They are the key items of the exhibition, showing Marilyn as a beauty and style icon who influences our sense of style even today.”

An icon, who was, in the end, so much more than her platinum locks.

‘Marilyn – A Woman Behind Her Roles’ is open until December 2 2018.