She wanted to wear a real Paris dress in Sabrina. Audrey Hepburn had a style that was very much her own, knowing exactly what complimented her slender figure, and insisted that she selected her own wardrobe for the film. In Billy Wilder’s 1954 romantic comedy, Audrey played Sabrina Fairchild, a chauffeur’s daughter, who falls in love with one of the sons of her father’s wealthy employer. Lovesick, she leaves for Paris, only to come back two years later and cause an uproar when both high society sons, David (William Holden) and Linus (Humphrey Bogart), fall for her.
Edith Head, the wardrobe supervisor for the film, had prepared sheets of drawings on which she and Audrey could collaborate sketching the dresses. She was shocked to hear the actress’s wish, as this was a film that would have given her a great opportunity to design for a leading lady “looking like a Paris mannequin”.
Sabrina transforms from a shy girl into a sophisticated Parisienne after her trip to Paris. When she returns, her hair is fashionably cropped, too, because, as one of the characters she meets in Paris says about her previous hair-do, “this is not a hair style suitable for Paris”.
One of the outfits Audrey selected in Paris was the elegant double-breasted wool suit, collarless, that she wears on her first day back home. The actress was given instructions by Edith Head to buy a dark suit, “the type you would wear crossing the Atlantic by plane and arriving in up-state New York by train”. She was also advised by the costume designer not to choose “dead black or dead white” (and go instead for dark blue or oxford or charcoal grey), as these non-colours did not show up well on film, so costumes were usually made in derivations of tones. Audrey chose “that jazzy suit” – an Oxford-grey wool-ottoman tailleur with a cinch-waisted, double-breasted scoop-necked jacket and a slim, calf-length vented skirt. Hepburn finished off the suit with the hat with which it had originally been presented, a miniature turban of pleated pearl-grey chiffon, created by Givenchy’s in-house milliner.
Some sources say that Billy Wilder’s wife (others say that Gladys de Segonzac, wife of Paramount’s Paris executive) sent Audrey to Cristóbal Balenciaga in Paris. The designer would surely have provided her a fabulous wardrobe, but he was too busy preparing his latest collection. He sent Audrey to his friend, Hubert de Givenchy, who had worked for Balenciaga. As it turned out that Givenchy couldn’t design something specifically for her either, as he was in the middle of a collection himself, Audrey asked him to show her his previous collection. It was exactly what she needed and she ended up buying a capsule wardrobe, formed of three outfits (the aforementioned suit and the two gowns she would wear in the film). It was their first collaboration.
Edith Head, much to her disappointment, had to design the rest of Hepburn’s outfits, a lot less glamorous, but which, in my opinion, beautifully shaped up her character. The costume department also had to manufacture duplicates of the Givenchy clothes that would be needed in case the original ones were ruined during production.
Sabrina had to look like a princess when she arrives at the Larrabee ball, out-shining the other women in their New Look evening dresses. The bustier gown in white organdy was decorated with a navy floral embroidery pattern of silk thread and jet beads and the flowing over-skirt was split at the front to reveal a pencil skirt beneath. Costume here both serves the narrative and intentionally creates a visual impact. This has always been the debate whenever a fashion designer works on a film. Couture costume becomes iconic because, more than making the character, it has an independence of its own.
There’s something special about a gown taken out of its context.
The checked shirt knotted at the waist and with collar and sleeves turned up, paired with little white shorts and espadrilles suited Audrey just as well as the glamorous Givenchy gowns.
The film wouldn’t have been the same without John Williams’ sense of humour.
The black cocktail buttoned down its deep V back before flaring out below the fitted waist into a full ballerina-length skirt and had a sharp boat neckline with small straps fastened with bows. Givenchy said that he adapted his design to Audrey’s desires, as she wanted a bare-shoulder evening dress modified to hide her collarbone. What he invented for her became a style so popular that the designer named it décolleté Sabrina. Audrey wore the little black dress that accentuated her tiny waist with long black gloves, black pumps, and that cute catwoman-like jewelled hat, paved with rhinestones. It is a medieval-looking toque that Audrey found in Givenchy’s atelier. “Audrey always added a twist, something piquant, amusing, to the clothes”, says the designer.
Clothing manufacturers reproduced the bateau neckline dress by the thousands the year the movie was released. Edith Head would make sketches of the dress for books and appearances and signed them with her name. Only after Edith’s death did Givenchy, a true gentleman, confirm that the black cocktail dress was his original design, and had been made under Head’s supervision at Paramount.
I have previously mentioned that both the studio and the costume designer kept quiet about Givenchy’s involvement in the film. Not even when she won an Oscar for the costumes in Sabrina, did Edith Head acknowledge the French designer’s merits – he was the one who created Sabrina’s Parisian-inspired look after all, the look that dominates the movie and that has become one of fashion’s lasting legacies. “Imagine if I had received credit for Sabrina”, said Givenchy, “at the beginning of my career. It would have helped!” However, Givenchy gained something much more valuable from this film, his lifelong friendship and collaboration with Audrey. After Sabrina, she requested Givenchy to design for all her films. “His are the only clothes in which I am myself. He is far more than a couturier; he is a creator of personality.”
Described as a “street outfit and light coat”, this costume was very much a hallmark of Audrey’s look: slim black Capri pants
(a style launched by this film), high necked black top plunging into a V-neck at the back, ballet shoes and a black wool coat on top.
Photos: stills from the film, Classiq Journal. Credit: Paramount Pictures
Editorial sources: Classic Hollywood Style, by Caroline Young, Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Designer, by Jay Jorgensen. The article “When Hubert Met Audrey”, by Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair, December 1995