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Fashion & Film History Lesson: Designer & Costumer Go Head To (Edith) Head

By , 19 February, 2009, 3 Comments

You likely recall the lovely gowns Audrey Hepburn wore in Sabrina; this one in particular is a classic example of the chic “Parisian” look Sabrina returns with — proof of her being “all grown up”.

Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina

Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina

The nipped in waist and voluminous skirting, tell-tale markers of New Look fashions.

Classic New Look Evening Dresses

Classic New Look Evening Dresses

The fashions may be the iconic vintage look many of us call ‘classic’, but the story behind the dresses Audrey wore are lesser-known.

The beautiful strapless white organdy gown, embroidered by hand with black and white flowers, was not the creation of legendary film costumer Edith Head — even though she won the Oscar for it. Rather, it was the work of designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Givenchy was one of the first (if not the first) couture designer to break into film costume design. He was hired to design the creations to illustrate & accentuate the grown-up, sophisticated Sabrina upon her return from Paris. As the story goes, it was Hepburn’s idea to have real couture fashions used in the film; director Billy Wilder agreed. When Givenchy was told that ‘Miss Hepburn’ had arrived to see him, he’d expected Katharine Hepburn:

But when the door of my studio opened, there stood a young woman, very slim, very tall, with doe eyes and short hair and wearing a pair of narrow pants, a little T shirt, slippers and a gondolier’s hat with red ribbon that read VENEZIA. I told her, “Mademoiselle, I would love to help you, but I have very few sewers, I am in the middle of doing a collection, I can’t make you clothes.” So she said, “Show me what you have already made for the collection.” She tried on the dresses–“It’s exactly what I need!”–and they fit her too.

Givenchy also said:

Later I tried to adapt my designs to her desires. She wanted a bare-shouldered evening dress modified to hide the hollows behind her collarbone. What I invented for her eventually became a style so popular that i named it ‘décolleté Sabrina'”

We would come to call it The Hepburn Look.

Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy gown -- with poodles

Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy gown -- with poodles

And so, a style collaboration — and a close friendship — was born.

Givenchy and Hepburn

Givenchy and Hepburn

Edith Head, however, did not care so much for The Hepburn Look — at least not enough to allow shared credits for the costuming on Sabrina. As reining queen of Hollywood costume design, she wielded incredible clout, and her complaints about having to share the credits with Givenchy couldn’t go unnoticed; Paramount & Wilder would need to appease her.

In order to prevent her from quitting the movie, they gave her full screen credits for Costume Designer; and gave not a one to Givenchy. While Head (&/or her team) did create the majority of the costumes, it’s obvious to anyone who has seen the movie that Givenchy’s gowns are the most memorable designs — literally providing the look for the film.

The white organdy gown with floral embroidery is so iconic, that it was one of the dresses recreated for Jennifer Love Hewitt to wear in the 2000 TV movie, The Audrey Hepburn Story.

Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Audrey Hepburn Story

Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Audrey Hepburn Story

Obviously Hepburn & Givenchy went on to become life-long friends — and to create more memorable fashion moments, with Givenchy designing the fashions she wore in daily life and in film.

Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn

Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn

That alone could have been the “living well is the best revenge” ending. But it’s not.

Edith Head got her comeuppance on Breakfast at Tiffany’s where the closest she and her department got to Holly Golightly’s fashions was to make “some plain clothes and doubles for the Givenchy dresses”. And Givenchy saw to it that she was credited merely as “supervisor” rather than costume designer; it was likely an incredible insult to a costumer of her stature.

One of the three copies of the black sheath dress from the opening scenes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which sold at Christie’s for $923,187 in 2006, was presumably made by Edith &/or her team. This dress was not used in the film but it is believed, due to the slit, that Givenchy designed this dress for promotional purposes, as the film posters feature the dress with a saucy slit.

Film poster with black dress with slit

Film poster with black dress with slit

Unfortunately, Breakfast at Tiffany’s wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award; but Audrey in that black dress (and with that wicked cigarette holder) lives on as one of the most memorable images in cinematic and fashion history.

Audrey Hepburn Breakfast At Tiffanys Photos

Audrey Hepburn Breakfast At Tiffanys Photos

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