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Cinemode: Sabrina: Edith Head vs. Hubert de Givenchy

Would you accept an Oscar for work you didn’t do? Legendary costumer Edith Head did, when she won an Academy Award for Sabrina, a film starring Audrey Hepburn that was released on this day in 1954. Head had worked with Hepburn the year before in Roman Holiday—a film that earned them both Oscars for their efforts. But the Oscars came months after costuming began on Sabrina; at that time Hepburn was just an English theater actress barely known in the United States. So Head was furious when director Billy Wilder agreed to Hepburn’s suggestion that her Sabrina character—a tomboy who travels to Paris and returns a swan—should have a “real Parisian” dress for the scene where Sabrina debuts her European makeover, rather than a dress made by Head. “Edith was very good about it,” Hepburn recalled in a 1970s interview, but the truth is that Head never forgave Hepburn, even decades later. Head reluctantly sent Hepburn to Paris to meet with couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, a “suggestion” from Wilder’s wife, also named Audrey. What followed is the beginning of one of the most retold stories in Hollywood fashion history: Hepburn arrived in Paris but Balenciaga sent her to his up-and-coming protégé, Hubert de Givenchy. Except Givenchy was expecting to style the other Hepburn: Katherine. When the wrong Hepburn showed up at his atelier wearing a T-shirt, cropped pants and a tourist’s gondolier’s hat, the young couturier was less than impressed. Hepburn won him over, though, marking the beginning of a successful and very long collaboration between artist and muse. Needless to say, Hepburn returned to Los Angeles with more than just one “real Parisian” dress.

The story of Sabrina focuses on a chauffeur’s daughter who pines over the handsome playboy son of the über-wealthy family her father works for. Through voiceover, Hepburn-as-Sabrina introduces the film with “Once upon a time,” and the picture is a Cinderella story through and through. Sabrina is a pony-tailed Bobby soxer in a patterned romper (designed by Head) until her father ships her off to Paris to attend cooking school and kick her crush. The little girl from Long Island returns two years later with more than a knowledge of soups and soufflés. Her makeover complete, Sabrina sports freshly cropped hair and wears Givenchy: a pale grey knife-cut suit of fine wool. Her desired beau is smitten and invites Sabrina to a fancy party. When she accepts she promises to wear “a lovely evening dress with yards of skirt and way off the shoulders.” The lovely dress, a Givenchy strapless bodice with a voluminous embroidered skirt, makes Sabrina the belle of the ball. Later in the film, she wears a modified boatneck dress with a pinched waist and a shorter, but still very full skirt for a date. Years later, Givenchy remembered: “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.’”

The evening dress was a stunner, but Hepburn spends much of the rest of the movie in clothes that underscore her unique tomboy style. Whether it was high-waisted shorts with a plaid button-up shirt for sailing, or Capri pants, a boat-neck tee (all designed by Givenchy) and ballet flats for a trip into the city, Sabrina is the picture of casual sophistication. Givenchy, unlike Head, showcased Hepburn’s rail-thin physique, big feet and ears and long neck. Head had taken the opposite approach for Roman Holiday, working to disguise Hepburn’s boyish figure. Givenchy and Hepburn knew what they were doing: Sabrina made the actress a veritable fashion icon.

Five months later Head won and accepted the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in a Black-and-White Film for Sabrina. According to her biographer, David Chierichetti, Head “said nothing, counting on the fact that Givenchy was such a gentleman he would not make a fuss. He didn’t.” Head continued to take credit for Sabrina dresses, even after working with Hepburn (and, remotely, Givenchy) on Funny Face in 1957 and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961. Once her ruse was discovered by Chierichetti, Head snapped, “I lied. So what? If I bought a sweater at Bullock’s Wilshire do I have to give them credit, too?” Although some years later Head finally admitted, “Audrey could have been a designer herself, she had such perfect taste,” and she was right. Hepburn meeting Givenchy for Sabrina is one of Hollywood’s great fashion collaborations. Givenchy found his muse, and together they discovered a style that was all Hepburn’s own. —Rachel Chambers and Ali Basye

Photographs: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Bottom: Left: The Givenchy gown. Right: A costume by Head. Can you spot the difference?

Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.

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