I’m certainly a bit late to the party in discovering Audrey Hepburn at twenty-four. In reading Sam Wasson’s “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” which offers a comprehensive behind the scenes look at the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” I was taken by the politics governing Hepburn’s wardrobe choices in both that film and early in her career. In addition to the struggle between renowned costume designer Edith Head* and designer Hubert de Givenchy in terms of credit due in dressing the star, there is, of course, the controversy surrounding Givenchy’s little black dress, which is an icon within itself. The novel details the impact playing scandalous Holly Golightly had on Audrey’s career, particularly with Holly embodying everything studio heads thought Audrey was incapable of (including Capote, who favored Marilyn Monroe for the part). Thanks to Audrey’s great talent, and importantly to the transformative power of fashion and its reflection of gender politics of the time, Audrey was able to truly take on Holly and be the modern woman.
Hubert de Givenchy, who would go on to collaborate with Audrey throughout her career, and became a lifelong friend, was initially reluctant to help the star assemble her wardrobe for “Sabrina,” and only agreed to a meeting as he thought her to be Katherine Hepburn. Audrey chose the now-famous pieces on her own, becoming a fashion icon in her own right. In contrast to the wardrobe for “Roman Holiday,” in which Edith Head attempted to cover up her boyish figure, which contrasted with the ideal, buxom beauty of the time, Givenchy’s clothes fully celebrated it, emphasizing her tiny waist and delicate features with V-shaped backs and large skirts.
Following 1957’s “Funny Face,” there was a non-negotiable clause that Givenchy be the only designer to dress Audrey in her films, and Head wasn’t too pleased. With Head contributing minor clothes to the film, including for “Paul” (George Peppard) and smaller roles, Givenchy had almost full-reign over Audrey’s wardrobe. Although the film version didn’t uphold several of the more bold choices of Capote’s novel (Holly was openly bisexual and Paul was gay), the role still maintained Holly’s unwillingness to be domesticated and to cater to a man-a somewhat uncommon sentiment of the time. These garments figured to be essential to Audrey’s transformation into Holly, who differed significantly from her previous, family-friendly roles, and would be critical in convincing the public that she was ready to take on new, riskier roles.
Dior’s “New Look” had pervaded the runways following the Second World War. Women, who had entered into housewife duties following their husbands’ return from the war, were soon given respite in the form of luxurious clothing that celebrated a woman’s figure and was a step away from the more dowdy and ration-friendly fabrics of the time. With the “New Look” firmly in place, black, at once functional and minimalist prior to the war and during the Great Depression, became dressy once again. As the domesticity of the fifties gained strength, color was customary in signifying femininity, and as Wasson states, “only the bitches wear black.” The color of Holly’s iconic dress when perusing the windows of Tiffany’s was an interesting choice given that the scene takes place early in the morning, and is also symbolic of Holly’s confidence in its understatement. Givenchy’s little black dress wasn’t accessible to the general public, yet similar dresses soon increased in popularity. Holly, originally hailing from the lower-class in Texas, and expectedly knowing relatively little about European fashion, made the dress, confident sense of style, and open-mindedness, accessible to all.
* Edith Head is the inspiration behind Edna Mode, the vivacious costume designer in “The Incredibles.”