Think of cinema’s ultimate fashion moments, and chances are the little black dress created by couturier Hubert de Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is at the top of the list. The designer and actress had already successfully collaborated in Sabrina in 1954 and Funny Face in 1957, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s would prove to be their style masterpiece. When the film opened on this day in 1961, audiences collectively gasped at the chic vision of Hepburn wearing a full-length black dress with a cutout back that outlines her lean shoulder blades. She models the glamorous gown on a deserted New York City sidewalk at dawn while eating the film’s eponymous breakfast. With a little rhinestone tiara perched atop her blonde-streaked beehive, elbow-length black satin gloves, a heap of pearls draped around her neck and dark oversized sunglasses, Hepburn is a fashion star. The moment symbolized Hepburn’s style takeover of Hollywood and popularized a new look for the modern woman that was in direct contrast to Christian Dior’s New Look (see the barely contained curves of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor), which remained the standard for Hollywood’s leading ladies more than a decade after its introduction. Hepburn had no bosom or hips to speak of; she was still a waif despite having given birth three months prior to the shoot and was forced to invent her own standard of style. Together Hepburn and Givenchy created a woman who didn’t need yards of fabric to be fashionable, just a little black dress (well, a floor-length one, in this case), some well-chosen accessories and an effervescent personality to match.
The dress that is now often called “the definitive LBD” doesn’t appear again in the film, but Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, sticks to a similar knee-length version throughout. Holly’s repetition of the same short black dress comes down to a case of economics. Though the themes and characters are sanitized from Truman Capote’s novella, Hepburn’s Holly is still a call girl who has a hard time holding onto any of the money she earns from “trips to the powder room.” Although the character is memorable for Hepburn’s nuanced performance, credit should also be given to Givenchy’s realization of Holly’s penny-pinching fashion sense. The beehive, the pearls and the sunglasses all make repeat appearances as Holly reworks what is ostensibly the same piece into several different looks. By adding a feathered hem here or a broad-brimmed hat there, Hepburn makes style on a budget look easy. Hell, she makes high fashion look easy. Despite the fact that Holly is always running late after hard-partying nights, she throws together last-minute looks that never look anything less than runway quality. Pamela Clarke Keogh, the author of Audrey Style, calls it “hangover chic.” That description certainly applies in the scene where guests arrive for a cocktail party and Holly welcomes them in a Grecian-style toga fashioned from a bed sheet before dashing off to don the ubiquitous LBD, this time accessorized with a two-foot-long cigarette holder. Of course, for Holly, what could have been fashion overkill totally works.
So what was it about Givenchy’s dresses? Edith Head, Paramount’s costume mistress, certainly wanted to know. Head dressed Hepburn for her breakout role in Roman Holiday and took full credit for the costumes in Sabrina (she even accepted the film’s Oscar for costuming despite the fact that the standout pieces were Givenchy’s) along with every other Paramount “A” film since the 1930s. Her designs were purposefully conservative and relied on tried-and-true shapes like the shirtwaist dress in order to avoid dating any of the films with fad fashions. But Givenchy’s innate sense for how to dress Hepburn’s figure coupled with his strong friendship with the actress moved fashion forward at Paramount and forced Head to relinquish some of her power. For Funny Face, Givenchy was given credit for Miss Hepburn’s “Paris Wardrobe” and in Breakfast Head’s role was reduced even further; the credits read: “Miss Hepburn’s wardrobe principally by Hubert de Givenchy, Miss Neal’s wardrobe principally by Pauline Trigère, costume supervision by Edith Head.” Ouch. Head was left with the task of creating some of the plainer clothes and doubles of the Givenchys. Bent on proving that she was capable of designing for Hepburn, she worked with the actress after filming ended, dissembling the Givenchy dresses to see what made them so special. What she found was like many couturiers’ tricks of the trade: a simple aesthetic was a complicated illusion. The dress was stuffed with horsehair and strategically placed lead weights to ensure the fabric fell just right on Hepburn’s frame. The investigative work was for naught, though, when Hepburn backed out of her next picture with Paramount and continued to insist upon Givenchy for her fashion-heavy films. Hepburn, always loyal to the designer, gave Givenchy the credit for her famous style, saying, “In a certain way one can say that Hubert de Givenchy has created me over the years.” —Rachel Chambers
Photographs courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
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.