He graduated from Woodbury University and began to work in Hollywood in 1941.
He is perhaps best known for dressing Marilyn Monroe in eight of her films. After work on several B movies, he worked his way upward through the studio until he earned an Oscar in 1949 for the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Adventures of Don Juan, and in 1951 designed the costumes in the now classic sci-fi tale of morality The Day the Earth Stood Still. He then worked mainly at Twentieth Century-Fox, where his credits included Elia Kazan"s Viva Zapata!.
He went on to design the costumes for several more of her films.
Travilla created one of the most famous costumes in all of film – the pleated ivory cocktail dress Monroe wore in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. Monroe is wearing it while standing on a New York City Subway ventilation grate.
The dress rises up around her as a train passes below ground. Photographs of this scene have become synonymous with Monroe herself.
The iconic dress, which was later purchased by actress Debbie Reynolds, was sold for $4,600,000 (United States dollar) during a 2011 auction.
Monroe once wrote to Travilla, "Billy Dear, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn."
William Travilla appeared on the 24 March 1960 episode of "You Bet Your Life", hosted by Groucho Marx. In the late 1970s, Travilla began working mainly in television
One of his most widely seen latter-day projects was the television mini-series The Thorn Birds in 1983.
Travilla was nominated for Emmy awards seven times for his work on television Travilla died at the age of 70 on November 2, 1990 in Los Angeles, California, of lung cancer.
An exhibition of the personal collection of William Travilla began a world tour in 2008. The show began in England, then came to Los Angeles and in 2009 to Palm Springs, California.
The collection includes gowns worn by Marilyn Monroe, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Faye Dunaway, Judy Garland, Sharon Tate, Jane Russell, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Diahann Carroll, Susan Hayward, Loretta Young, Joanne Woodward, Barbara Stanwyck and many other women in film and television, as well as his Oscar, patterns, sewing room artifacts and numerous original watercolor renderings of his costume designs.
Member American Federation television and Radio Artist, Academy television Arts and Sciences.