Let's put this debate to bed, kids.
Was Marilyn Monroe a plus-sized beauty? An average dame? A svelte sphinx who's been a posthumous victim of vanity size deflation? Like the Bible and the Nazis, she's become a rhetorical gambit that can seemingly be twisted to support any argument. The argument has been further confused by various celebrities' authoritative pronouncements. Liz Hurley made perhaps her most lasting contribution to the cultural lexicon when she notoriously declared to Allure, "I've always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I'd kill myself if I was that fat...I went to see her clothes in the exhibition, and I wanted to take a tape measure and measure what her hips were. (laughter) She was very big." Roseanne, for her part, stated in '96 that, "I'm more sexy than Pamela Lee or whoever else they've got out there these days. Marilyn Monroe was a size 16. That says it all."
Okay, first of all, when folks toss around the "Size 16" thing, yes, that's a British 16, by which they mean a U.S. Size 12. (Although it should be said that some have made the claim for the U.S. 16, too.) Then too, this doesn't even make a lot of sense, because most of Marilyn's clothes, and certainly her costumes, like those of any star of the era, would have been custom-made. And as anyone who's seen her films knows, her weight shifted a lot, so any "Marilyn Monroe was X size" statement is, stopped clock-style, probably going to be accurate at some point.
But if people demand numbers? They're certainly out there. According to measurements from Marilyn Monroe's dressmaker:
Height: 5 feet, 5½ inches
Weight: 118-140 pounds
Bust: 35-37 inches
Waist: 22-23 inches
Hips: 35-36 inches
Bra size: 36D
In other words, whatever her size, her figure was an unusually dramatic hour-glass, which makes it kind of strange for women to compare themselves to her anyway. When a collector displayed a bunch of her most famous costumes in London recently, "they had to get a special mold made for the corset and swimwear dummies in the exhibition because Monroe was such an extreme hourglass shape that no off-the-peg dummies existed in those measurements."
So, what size was she? Well, like most women, she wasn't one size everywhere. When British journalist Sara Buys had a chance to try on some of Marilyn's clothes earlier this year, she reported:
After all these years, mystery and conspiracy theories still surround her death, but when it comes to her physical attributes, I can put a few facts straight. Contrary to received wisdom, she was not a voluptuous size 16 – quite the opposite. While she was undeniably voluptuous – in possession of an ample bosom and a bottom that would look at home gyrating in a J-Lo video – for most of the early part of her career, she was a size 8 and even in her plumper stages, was no more than a 10. I can tell you this from experience because a few weeks ago, I tried to try on her clothes.
Okay, now we have to translate British sizes. (HuffPo, adding to the confusion, neglected to do this in their link headline from April.) Depending on the designer, a British 10 might translate as an 8, a 6, or even a 4. And vintage clothes of that era were cut slim, intended to be worn with serious girdles, so take this into account. The answer? There's no "exact" number. All we can know for sure is that Marilyn Monroe was a gorgeous, dramatically curvaceous woman with a physique heavier and curvier than that which is en vogue now.
The better question is, why do we care? To show the evolution of our aesthetic, certainly. And obviously, curvier women were the ideal - and whatever the verdict on Marilyn, stars like Jane Russell and Esther Williams were more voluptuous, larger-framed and more athletic than almost any we see on the screen today. But stars were always thin and urged by the studios to be thinner (see: Judy Garland.) Maybe part of the Marilyn fixation is what Buys gets at: with a figure so enigmatic, we want to pin down as many facts as we can. And what we're really talking about is not Marilyn Monroe's dress size: it's her sexiness. Marilyn Monroe was an icon, not of fashion, but of sexiness: a combination of her beauty, her obvious comfort with her physicality, her intelligence, and her vulnerability. Her dress size does not explain this, or give us a clue: she is iconic because she was unique, and no amount of arguing is going to change that.
It's not about proving whether Marilyn Monroe was "plus-sized" or not; obviously, plus-sized women can be beautiful and sexy, whether Marilyn belongs to the sorority or no. Can we make a resolution, please? Let's leave Marilyn Monroe out of the discussion from now on. She was a beautiful woman with an iconic body of work and a fanatical following, but her dress size - which fluctuated and had very little relation to the clothes and styles we wear today - has nothing to do with your size, my size, or that of anyone in Hollywood today. Comparing oneself to anyone is counterproductive, and in this case it's futile. Marilyn was someone who was comfortable with her body, and it's this that comes through. So let's follow her example - and leave the woman in peace.
Was Marilyn Monroe Really A Size 16? [Huffington Post]
Was Marilyn Monroe A Size 16? [London Times]
Downsizing Figures [Chicago Sun-Times]
With Respect to Roseanne [The New Yorker]
Marilyn Monroe Facts [Marilyn Monroe Pages]