Is this the most gorgeous dress in all of the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire films? Quite possibly. It’s certainly one of the most sublime of all the many evening gowns sported by Ginger in her various outings with Fred, from 1933 until 1939, at RKO Studios. Designed by Bernard Newman, who had already dressed Ginger in Top Hat and Follow the Fleet, it comes from the film regarded by many as the best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals – Swing Time (1936). Here’s Ginger in the outfit she’s wearing when her character, Penny, meets a rather overdressed Lucky Garnett (Astaire) for the first time.Lucky has just had a narrow escape from a wedding – his own – and meets Penny when he asks her for change on the street. Determined to get his lucky dime back from her, he follows her into her place of work – a dance academy – where the only way to get to meet her is to enrol as a student. Cue the classic Pick Yourself Up number in which Penny sports what is now an iconic day dress, black with a white peter pan collar.Ideally matched as dance partners, Penny and Lucky are offered employment in the Silver Slipper nightclub, giving Penny the first chance to show off her slender figure in a fluid, flowing – though slightly fussy – evening dress with frou-frou sleeves and trim. Needless to say, the couple fall in love on the dance floor but, quelle surprise, it’s complicated. On a trip to the countryside with friends, Penny prays for a chance to get Lucky alone, while Lucky - who is still engaged to the woman he inadvertently jilted – does his damnedest to avoid any (non-dancing!) physical contact. It’s all very silly, and very funny – and they both look stylish and cosy as they sing Dorothy Fields’s supremely witty lyrics to A Fine Romance.The kiss finally happens – and Penny finally gets lucky (and Lucky) when he gets a load of her in THAT dress. (Her other admirer, smoothie bandleader Riccardo, has already seen it, prompting him to say: “How can I keep my mind on the music when she’s dressed like that?”.) Bernard Newman, the creator of Ginger’s Swing Time wardrobe, had been a successful bespoke designer at Bergdorf Goodman in New York but came to Hollywood on the recommendation of the elegant RKO star Irene Dunne, having designed gowns for her to wear both onscreen and off. One of his Dunne films was Roberta (1935), which featured a fashion show sequence and also starred Astaire and Rogers. After only two years in Hollywood, Newman returned to Bergdorf Goodman but continued to design for Ginger for a few more films. And in case the front view and the rear view of this divine dress aren’t enough, here it is in action – viewable from every side ….
Category Archives: Movies
The biggest professional thrill I’ve had this year – so far – was curating an exhibition for the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, of photographs (from The Herald newspaper’s archive) of stars of the movie, music and entertainment worlds who visited the city between 1920 and 1990. I’ve written about it here before but now I have a little film about it too – thanks to my brother who makes videos for blogs and websites and offered me the chance to record the exhibition before it’s taken down (though the end, which has already been postponed due to the interest the photos have attracted, is not yet in sight). Here it is. Next time, I’ll know to tell him not to get so close – and I’ll maybe not be as subtle with the make-up!
Grace Kelly. The name is synonymous with Hollywood’s glamorous heyday, timeless style, cool elegance and storybook romance. It may be exactly 30 years since her untimely, shocking death – on September 14, 1982 – but the fascination for the movie star who married a prince is still strong, and her influence is still keenly felt in the world of fashion and beyond.
During her 52 years – half of them as Grace Kelly, half as Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco – the bewitching blonde from Philadelphia established herself as a movie goddess, a style icon and a fairytale princess. In other words – a total one-off.
Throughout her pre-princess career, however, all Grace Kelly wanted was to be an actress – and a serious, respected one at that. And although she only made 11 films (squeezed into three and a half years), they include four classics and one Oscar-winning performance.
Born in Philadelphia in 1929, she was the daughter of a wealthy businessman – and two-time Olympic gold medal winner – who had made his money in the construction trade and was able to provide his children with a very privileged upbringing. The family had a 17-room mansion in Philadelphia and a holiday home in New Jersey. Servants waited on them, a chauffeur drove them, and the children attended the best schools.
While Grace Kelly’s three siblings took after their sporty dad, she was – said her younger sister, Lizanne – “a shy, retiring girl” prone to respiratory problems who avoided the rough and tumble of physical games and preferred reading and imaginative play. Her father, whose approval Kelly seems to have sought throughout her young life, didn’t know what to make of her – or how to handle her. Indeed, in just about every soundbite he ever gave when she was famous, he said that it had been her elder sister that he had expected to become a star.
Mousey Grace took her family by surprise when she announced, at the age of 17, that she was leaving for New York to study at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Not only was she leaving home, but she was determined to support herself – which she did by working as a model, and an extremely busy one at that. Her natural shyness with new people was often misinterpreted as aloofness, but it’s impossible to find a quote from anyone who knew her which does not mention her warmth and lack of affectation, even as she became a major star and then a royal.
Her first professional roles were on the stage but it was as an in-demand member of the emerging stock company of actors working on live television dramas made in New York that she first attracted attention in the business, not least for her dedication to her work and her discipline. She made her movie debut in the noir-ish drama Fourteen Hours (1951) but it was the brooding western High Noon (1952) in which she had her first sizeable role – as Gary Cooper’s young Quaker bride.
Impressed by the way even Cooper’s eyes shone with expressiveness when she watched the film afterwards, and deeply dissatisfied with her own performance and “flat eyes”, Kelly headed back to New York to study more so that she could do better. But the general consensus was that although she wasn’t great, it hadn’t been a disaster.
Producer Stanley Kramer later pointed out that despite being miscast and despite having to play opposite an established star with huge presence and charisma, “Kelly wasn’t swallowed up, because that ladylike quality she had came through.”
It certainly came through enough to persuade MGM to offer her a contract, one which she was reluctant to accept because she wanted to be able to continue acting on the New York stage. However, the promise of a location shoot in Africa with screen legend Clark Gable persuaded her to sign on the dotted line (in the airport en route to the Congo)- and her resulting performance, as a prim Englishwoman, earned her a surprise Oscar nomination and launched her on her meteoric rise.
But she really hit her stride – and began her run of classic performances – when she was chosen by Alfred Hitchcock to play the two-timing wife of murderous Ray Milland in his London-set thriller Dial “M” For Murder in 1953. Hitchcock saw in Kelly something that her own studio did not: he was attracted to her “sexual elegance” and he gave her the chance to make great use of it in Dial M, Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955).
In an era of voluptuous pin-up girls, Kelly’s refined, ladylike sex appeal stood out alongside her intelligence, and although she was often described as “ice cool” or in other glacial terms, what Hitchcock capitalised upon was the warmth and passion that simmered below the surface. Kelly was, after all, rumoured to have had tempestuous love affairs with some of her leading men (notably William Holden).This passionate, sexy side was hinted at more with each of his films, finally exploding – with fireworks – in To Catch a Thief. Indeed, the English director once said: “Grace Kelly’s apparent frigidity was like a mountain covered with snow, but that mountain was a volcano.”
Not only did Hitchcock fall in love with Kelly professionally and personally – in the same way as he had done with Ingrid Bergman, who, by coincidence was Kelly’s favourite actress – but he had tremendous respect for her and accorded her more freedom than most of his stars. She formed a terrific relationship with the esteemed costume designer Edith Head, in whom Hitch had the utmost confidence, and they collaborated on the wardrobes for the Hitchcock movies; Hitchcock being a director who took a keen interest in the finest details of his films.
By the time Kelly met Prince Rainier of Monaco, during the Cannes Film Festival of 1955, the 25-year-old actress was already well on her way to becoming the style icon that she is today. From the get-go, her demure appearance – characterised by a penchant for pearls and a habit of wearing white gloves – had singled her out and sparked trends. When she won her Oscar, for the now less-well remembered drama The Country Girl – in which she courageously allowed herself to be seen looking frumpy and bespectacled – she dazzled the Academy audience in a mint-green satin gown which she had designed with Head. And, once her royal engagement was announced, in January 1956, there was almost daily speculation in the press about the contents of her trousseau – and of course the wedding dress itself.
The marriage of the Hollywood princess and the European prince in the summer of 1956 may have seemed like the ultimate happy-ever-after, but Kelly was a real woman who, by all accounts, felt real frustration at not being able to continue as an actress – though she did tell friends that playing a princess was to be her greatest role.
She and Rainier had four children and it was a miscarriage shortly after she had agreed to return to Hollywood to star in Hitchcock’s Marnie, in 1962, that put paid to a resumption of her career. Later – just six years before her sudden death – a new chapter of performing began when she came to the Edinburgh Festival to read poetry. This seemed to give her a new lease of life, alongside the charitable and cultural work she carried out in Monaco.
She died after suffering a stroke that caused her to lose control of her car on a journey from the family home in France to Monaco. Princess Stephanie, her daughter, was a passenger in the vehicle but survived the accident.
Her death robbed her adopted country of a much-loved princess, but she was already a movie and style icon, one whose influence remains as strong as ever …
* First published in The Scotsman, Thursday September 13, 2012
This is our first glimpse of Grace Kelly in one of her most stylish – and summery – films, To Catch a Thief, the 1955 romantic suspense movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Sunning herself at the Cannes Beach Club, she pauses mid suncream application as she clocks our hero, ex cat burglar and Resistance fighter John Robie (Cary Grant), strolling by. It’s quite a while (20 minutes) before this first, fleeting, appearance by Kelly – and there’s another ten minutes before she is next onscreen – but there’s still plenty of style to ogle, in the debonair form of Cary Grant.
When Francie (Grace Kelly) and Robie are finally introduced over dinner, she is a goddess-like vision in this elegant, flowing – and very now – strappy blue chiffon gown, created by the film’s costume designer, the inimitable Edith Head. Despite being the daughter of an oil tycooness who talks about “cuddling up to her jewellery” in bed, Francie, tellingly, is initially seen sans bijoux. There’s not so much as a pearl earring on her .. Francie is next seen just for a few seconds in a yellowy day dress before she slips into her bathing gear – this stunning ensemble which causes heads to turn as she strolls through the hotel lobby en route to her swimming date with the one-time cat burglar she’s sinking her claws into…Edith Head may well have been briefed by Alfred Hitchcock to dress his heroine in cool colours in order to underline the idea of her as an ice princess (and, presumably, play to Grace Kelly’s image as “the fair Miss Frigidaire”), but Francie is not exactly backwards at coming forwards – and on to the object of her desire. Dressed in a demure, dusty pink day dress (which, personally, I can’t stand), Francie whisks John off on a racy car trip. Driving at speed with a smug, knowing, in-control, look, she calls the shots about where they’re going and where they’ll have the picnic during which she famously asks: “Do you want a leg or a breast?” ..Having sussed that the object of her desire is also the object of the police’s, Francie tells John to come to her suite for cocktails and a bird’s eye view of the firework display at 8pm sharp. “I haven’t got a decent watch,” says John. “Steal one,” she replies. For the rendez-vous, she wears a simple, strapless white chiffon number chosen to showcase her mother’s (fake) diamond necklace.Francie has to work at it but she does manage to seduce John into some romantic action. (Her attempts at seducing him into some cat burglary aren’t quite as successful.) When they meet a few days later, and a contrite Francie confesses that she has fallen in love with him, she is dressed simply in a cream coat with a black top or dress underneath.The climax of the film is a lavish masquerade ball, with all the guests decked out in the style of the 16th Century. This proved to be the most expensive scene costume-wise that Edith Head had ever designed, and it’s an absolute riot of Crayola-coloured, crinolined dresses. Francie’s golden gown – the only strapless one in sight – stands out. To end, here’s a couple of shots that aren’t from the film. The first is a publicity shot of that extraordinarily simple yet stunning, icey blue Grecian gown: And the second is a favourite shot of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant off-duty. She’s wearing her own clothes (or at least clothes that weren’t seen in the film), and doing for espadrilles what Audrey Hepburn did for ballet pumps ..
Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rear Window (1954) is not only a masterwork of suspense; it’s also something of a fashion show with Grace Kelly/Lisa Freemont trotting out one gorgeous summer ensemble after another for both our and James Stewart’s delectation. After all, as James Stewart’s character points out: this is the Lisa Freemont “who never wears the same dress twice”.The costumes in this ravishing-looking film were designed by that doyenne of movie designers, Edith Head, and they had to highlight the differences between Lisa Freemont, socialite and model, and her relationship-shy guy, photo-journalist LB Jefferies. We know Lisa is a class act from the first moment we glimpse her in smouldering close-up, leaning in for a kiss – the simple, elegant single strand of pearls speaks volumes. If the pearl necklace and tasteful make-up didn’t immediately connote class and wealth, then Lisa’s description of her beautiful dress being “straight off the Paris plane” gets the message across. With its deep “V” neckline at the front and back, and full, frothy skirt, it strikes the perfect Grace Kelly balance between sexy and chic, and was undoubtedly one of the most influential movie dresses of the 1950s. As you can see here, she wore it with a thin black patent belt, strappy black heels and a white cape and gloves.
According to Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press), Hitchcock’s brief to Edith Head was that Grace “was to look like a piece of Dresden china, nearly untouchable”. And yet, for most of the movie, it’s Lisa who is trying to seduce the incapacitated (he has broken his leg) Jeff … For her second seduction scene – where she’s thwarted by her man’s fascination with his neighbours and the possibility that one of them has bumped off his wife – Lisa is a vision of sophisticated sensuality in a black chiffon dress and the ubiquitous pearls, this time a triple strand necklace.
On the third evening of Jeff’s “last week” in his plaster cast, Lisa turns up looking suitably business-like in a sleek, mint-green skirt suit – after all, she is about to go into action as a detective, having been informed, by Jeff, that he saw their murder suspect going through a handbag stuffed with trinkets . As she unpins her veil and peels off her gloves, she explains to Jeff why this makes it all the more likely that he has done away with his wife: “Women don’t keep their jewellery in a purse getting all scratched and tangled up. And they don’t leave it behind either..”
For this scene, the single strand of pearls is back, along with plain, pearl disc earrings – but the whole effect is enhanced by Lisa’s beautiful satin halterneck top and, especially, the fabulous, clunkingly great, multi-strand pearl bracelet on her wrist. Not only does it add a bit of pearly pizazz to the elegant ensemble but it adds weight to Lisa’s case for the prosecution.. “Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take make-up, perfume and jewellery. .. It’s basic equipment. And you don’t leave it behind in your husband’s drawer.”Next, Lisa gives Jeff a masterclass in what else a woman would pack if she was going away for the night … an exquisite negligee. The story goes that when Hitchcock saw Kelly in this nightgown, he asked Edith Head to put in “falsies” to beef up her cleavage. But an indignant Kelly instead stiffened her back and stuck her chest out, and she and Head managed to convince the director that his instruction had been followed. The weakest link, in my view, in Grace Kelly’s wardrobe for Rear Window is the day dress she wears when Lisa goes snooping in the suspect’s apartment. It has always reminded me of curtains -albeit expensive ones.. See what I mean?I think the other issue I have with this frumpy frock is that I could equally imagine Stella (the wonderful Thelma Ritter), Jeff’s middle-aged, world-weary nurse, wearing it. I much prefer Lisa’s final look of the film – which is inspired by her man’s wardrobe, and which we see in a slow tracking shot, from the Gene Kelly-style loafers up to the watermelon pink men’s shirt (which Head nipped in with a scarf ring at Kelly’s waist).
Apart from David Raksin’s lovely theme tune, I’m not much of a fan of Otto Preminger’s newly re-released 1944 noir melodrama Laura – about the investigation into the murder of a beguilingly beautiful young woman played by the luminous Gene Tierney (above, with Vincent Price) – but I do love most of its heroine’s style. The wardrobe sported by Tierney, and designed by Bonnie Cashin, is much softer and less tailored than the clothes worn by other 1940s female characters in film. Here’s how Laura looks when her admirer, the acerbic newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) recalls first meeting her, when she was 17.On the night that seals Laura’s “doom” – when she meets smooth-talking southerner Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price in an especially annoying performance as an especially annoying character) – she’s a vision in a cowl-necked, hip-hugging, vaguely Grecian-style evening dress which is accessorised with a brooch on one shoulder and an elegant cuff.Here it is again, this time in a studio publicity shot … A successful advertising agency executive, Laura might be expected to be kitted out for the office in sharp suits and angular hats – but, as if to reinforce her image as a gentle, kind-hearted creature, she is only seen wearing almost informal workgear (simple sweaters and skirts) and floppy, cloche-like hats. Here she is getting ready to leave the office wearing the hat which Shelby tells her he “approves of”. When she visits the jealous Waldo shortly afterwards, Laura wears this stripy tunic top with a peplum – how 2012 is that? From the start of the film, everyone thinks that Laura has been murdered. The cop investigating the case, McPherson (Dana Andrews), becomes so obsessed by her that he is sleeping in her apartment when she turns up alive after weekending in the country – an angelic vision in a white raincoat and another coquettish, floppy cloche hat. Weirdly, Laura seems more dressed up in the morning, when she’s making breakfast – in her broad-shouldered kimono jacket, palazzo pants and high heels – than she does for going out to work… Another unusual outfit is the pencil skirt and tunic ensemble Laura wears for a little soiree in honour of her homecoming, towards the end of the film. The top with drawstring, peasant-style neck, bracelet-length sleeves and is tightly fitted over the hips and tummy – and it’s quite unlike anything the other female characters are wearing in this film, or any other of the era. Laura wears it with only a diamond ring and a sparkling cuff – and outshines every other dame (as McPherson would say) in the room. When she’s taken to the station for questioning, she throws a matching shawl round her neck.There is one rival in the style stakes in this movie: Laura’s socialite aunt, Ann Treadwell (played by Judith Anderson, best remembered as dowdy and creepy Mrs Danvers in Rebecca). When we first meet her, she is sporting a sarong and a black top accessorised with a series of surrealist-style brooches.
I’m afraid I’ve been a bit of an absent blogger these last couple of weeks because I’ve been completely immersed in a last-minute commission to put together an exhibition based on a book I was trying to get off the ground – about the stars who passed through Scotland from the 1930s onwards.
The idea came up in a conversation with the director of music of the concert halls in Glasgow. We were chatting about the Glasgow Film Festival (currently underway) and the fact that Gene Kelly was to be the subject of its retrospective. I told him that Gene Kelly had come to Glasgow on a flying visit in 1953, to seek inspiration for the forthcoming MGM film version of the Broadway show Brigadoon. And that I had researched his visit – along with those of other great stars. And, most crucially, that there were beautiful, rarely seen, photographs of the occasion in the photo archive of The Herald and Times.
Back in the 1950s, and earlier, Glasgow was the often the first port of call for big entertainment stars performing in Scotland. Indeed, it was often their only port of call north of the border – and some venues, notably the Empire Theatre, were viewed as the testing ground for acts. If you could survive the Empire, you could make it anywhere – that was the philosophy.
Hollywood stars would come to Glasgow to publicise their films with personal appearances (as Cary Grant did no fewer than three times at the peak of his career), to appear onstage (as Mae West and Marlene Dietrich did) and for social reasons (as Elizabeth Taylor and Danny Kaye did).
One thing that struck me, while sifting through the pictures I’d selected, was that two of the biggest female stars I was featuring were wearing gowns by Balmain when they were photographed in Glasgow – and, of course, Balmain is a fashion house that is very much back in vogue. Here’s Katharine Hepburn looking gorgeous in one of the dresses designed by Monsieur B for her character in The Millionairess. Check this picture – and 22 others – out at the City of Stars exhibition at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall from Saturday, February 25 until September…
Like Jimmy Stewart’s character, I’m a bit obsessed with Kim Novak’s wardrobe and look in the mesmerizing 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo. Appearance is everything in this haunting tale of obsessive love from Alfred Hitchcock – and this black and white ensemble not only reflects the simple elegance of the woman for whom our hero falls; it also suggests her split personality. Novak’s clothes were designed by the great Edith Head – but she had a very specific remit from the notoriously hands-on Hitchcock. Here’s the sumptuous evening gown Madeleine wears – with antique jewellery – when she knows she’ll be seen for the first time by Scottie (Stewart).The redoubtable Edith Head once said: “To be a good designer in Hollywood, one has to be a combination of psychiatrist, artist, fashion designer, dress-maker, pin cushion, historian, nurse maid and purchasing agent too.” For Vertigo, her inner psychiatrist had a good work-out as Kim Novak wasn’t the most compliant of stars and was particularly unhappy with some of the clothes she had to wear while playing Madeleine. In particular, she hated the dove grey suit which Head designed according to Hitchcock’s instructions. Head later said that she hoped that Novak would be so taken with the evening gown that she would agree to compromise on the grey suit. Here’s how that contentious suit started life .. This suit (which Novak wore without the hat) is what Madeleine is wearing during the most crucial scenes at the beginning of the film – and it is this ensemble which the pathologically obsessed Scottie recreates for the Madeleine look-alike, Judy, whom he makes over in Madeleine’s image. Novak hated the grey suit, believing that the colour washed her out and claiming that the style was very restrictive (she didn’t like wearing a bra and this suit required the correct upholstery..) She even objected to the footwear – “I don’t wear black shoes,” she explained. Head promptly referred her to Hitchcock.Hitchcock asked Novak what her problem was with the black shoes. According to Jay Jorgensen’s excellent book Edith Head – The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press), she said: “Black shoes always sort of make me feel I’m pulled down . I’ve always felt that your feet should be the same as the top of your head, so that you’re connected. Wearing black shoes would make me feel as if I’m disconnected.” Hitchcock listened and allowed her to ditch the shoes when playing Judy, but insisted that she wear them as Madeleine. Novak agreed. Hitchcock wanted the suit to be grey because it was washed-out and he was keen that the character look as if she had just emerged from the San Francisco fog.
Novak is quoted in Jorgensen’s book saying: “I thought, ‘I’ll live with the grey suit.’ I also thought, ‘I’m going to use this. I can make this work for me. Because it bothers me, I’ll use it and it can help me feel like I’m having to be Madeleine, that I’m being forced to be her. I’ll have it as my energy to play against.’ It worked. That suit and those shoes were a blessing. I was constantly reminded that I was not being myself, which made it right for Madeleine.” It seems that Novak did win on the shoes front when it came to famous black and white ensemble that Madeleine wears when she and Scottie share their first kiss… Check out the neutral (tres 2012) footgear:Winter white coats are so chic – and this outfit is the one which seems to best represent the elegant Madeleine. Here’s another shot: Ironically, given the usual stereotype of the brassy blonde, Madeleine is a class act while it is the brunette Judy – the other character played by Novak – who is the more vulgar of the two women, in terms of personal style. Once Scottie has moulded Judy into a Madeleine doppel-ganger, they decide to launch her “new” look with a night out. For the final scenes of the movie, Judy slips into this gorgeous black chiffon halterneck dress, the deep neckline of which evokes the 19th century fashions worn by Carlotta, the subject of the portrait which so fascinated Madeleine. Confused? You will be – but I don’t want to give anything away in case you’re going to go and watch this beautiful film for the first time.The single-most influential aspect of Kim Novak’s appearance in Vertigo wasn’t one of her outfits, however: it was her pinned-up hair – which, as Scottie realised, helped define her look.
This stunning yet simple black cocktail dress which Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina is – believe it or not – one of the most controversial frocks in cinema history. It helped to make Sabrina one of the most stylish films of the 1950s – and to establish its young star’s famous chic gamine look. It also marked her first collaboration with Hubert de Givenchy, the French couturier, with whom her style would be inextricably linked for the rest of her life. Being a Cinderella-style love story, Sabrina opens with its heroine dressed in rather dowdier attire, however …
Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe in Sabrina was originally to be designed by Paramount Studios’ costume supremo, Edith Head. In the film, Sabrina, the chauffeur’s lovesick daughter, goes to Paris as an awkward adolescent and returns transformed into an elegant young lady. Edith Head was put out to learn that, after their first meeting, Audrey had asked director Billy Wilder if she could wear “a real Paris dress” in the film. Mrs Wilder suggested Audrey go to Balenciaga but when the young star turned up, the couturier was too busy see her and sent her to his young friend, Hubert de Givenchy.
Givenchy later recalled: “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 a collection – I can’t make you clothes.’ Audrey asked to see the collection – and ended up choosing all of Sabrina’s post-Paris capsule wardrobe from it, starting with the super-elegant ensemble with which she wows her childhood crush when she arrives back on Long Island from France.
For Sabrina’s first-ever date with David Larabee (the dashing William Holden), the playboy with whom she has been besotted all her life, Audrey (for it really was her choice) selected from Givenchy an exquisite strapless evening gown with a boned bodice and flowing, full, ankle-length skirt. She asked the designer to alter it to that it would hide the hollows behind her collarbone. He later said: “What I invented for her eventually became a style so popular that I named it ‘decollete Sabrina’.”
Needless to say, Sabrina is the belle of the ball in her black and white Paris dress. It certainly opens the otherwise-engaged David’s eyes, prompting him to say: “Oh Sabrina, if I’d only known…”. But the “if I’d only known” dress isn’t my favourite from the film; I love the cocktail dress and cute catwoman-like hat that our fickle heroine wears when she’s being romanced by David’s brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart). What made this cocktail dress so controversial? Well, here’s a clue:
You would assume that this sketch, by Edith Head, is evidence that she designed the dress which sums up Sabrina’s seductive blend of playfulness and elegance. But that isn’t actually the case – though Head herself allowed the misconception to go uncorrected for the rest of her life. The truth – as explained in Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press) – is that Head’s department was supposed to make this dress, with its distinctive bows on the shoulder and boat neck, from a sketch by Givenchy. Jorgensen explains: “Confusion about the designs in the film began as sketches were done in the wardrobe department to execute all the clothing needed. Edith began sending the sketches out to publicize the film, leading to the assumption that all the clothes were her designs.” Here’s Sabrina wearing it on her pre-theatre dinner date at The Colony with Linus.
The boat neck of what became known as “The Sabrina Dress” – the design of which was translated into a best-selling dressmaking pattern when the film was released – became a hallmark of the Hepburn look. As did the black legging-like trousers and pumps which she wore, along with a slash-necked top, for a casual visit to Linus’s office.
It’s only when Sabrina removes her coat – a collarless number which anticipates the Givenchy coats she sports in their classic 1960s collaboration Charade – and turns around that we see the sly sexiness of the ensemble:
There aren’t that many different outfits in Sabrina – just enough to immediately establish it as a must-see for style lovers. Which must help explain why Edith Head presumably kept quiet about the extent of Givenchy’s involvement in the film and the fact that, with Audrey, he created Sabrina’s Parisian-inspired look, the look that dominates the movie. Not only did Givenchy’s name appear nowhere in the credits, but Head accepted an Oscar for Sabrina and didn’t even acknowledge the French designer’s contribution to the film.
According to Jorgensen’s book, Head even had the gall to parade the original dress down the runaways of her fashion shows. It was only after Head’s 1980 death, that Givenchy, a true gentleman, finally confirmed that the dress had been his design but had been made under Head’s supervision at Paramount…
I hope none of my girlfriends reads this review. Why? Because it’s about a book which should be in the Christmas stocking of every chic movie lover and every Audrey Hepburn admirer – and I know a few.
To be honest, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the 1961 film which transformed Audrey Hepburn from stylish gamine into style icon, is not this movie fan’s favourite Hepburn movie. With a heroine, Holly Golightly, whose “kookiness” irritates and enchants in equal measure, its outrageously offensive and ill-judged portrayal of a Japanese character (by an OTT Mickey Rooney) and its slightly wooden leading man (George Peppard), it’s far from perfect but, as author Sam Wasson points out, it was still a gamble which paid off – for almost everybody concerned – and a film which bridged the gap between the prudish Hollywood output of the 1950s and the more relaxed movies of the sexually-liberated 1960s.
In Fifth Avenue, 5am, Wasson skilfully weaves together all the many strands of the creation of this much-loved movie into a book which is, at times, irritatingly kooky itself (he even adopts Holly Golightly’s habit of dropping des mots francais into the prose) and sometimes unfairly dismissive (he writes off Hepburn’s subsequent film Charade in one line, while the Alastair Sim comedy Laughter in Paradise is, he says “regrettable” apart from the short scene which introduced the beguiling Hepburn to the world.
Nevertheless, the story of the film is a rivetting one: considered simply too risque (Holly is a happy-go-lucky hooker) for audiences who were used to seeing bad girls being punished and only good girls getting the guy and the happy ending, it faced all sorts of obstacles. And one of the major ones was in persuading the practically perfect Audrey Hepburn to take a chance on playing a part which author Truman Capote had wanted for his friend Marilyn Monroe.
Wasson takes as his starting point the story behind Capote’s creation of the original novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Capote’s flighty mother, Lillie Mae, who routinely abandoned him in their native Alabama as she was lured back to the bright lights and rich men of New York, was part of the inspiration for the character of Holly (nee Lula Mae) – along with some of the once wild, now tamed society women whom Capote counted as friends and confidantes.
Alongside the gradual evolution of Holly’s story and the birth of Breakfast at Tiffany’s the movie, Wasson describes the asteroid-like early career of Audrey Hepburn who shot to fame and won an Oscar for her first Hollywood film, the sublime Roman Holiday. While her career was on the ascent, her personal life in the 1950s was punctuated by miscarriages and disappointments – and her husband, Mel Ferrer, as sketched by the anecdotes included here, was a control freak who was jealous of his wife’s success and scolded her in public if she didn’t behave as he expected her to.
Their relationship – his dominance and influence over her; her capitulation and deference to him – moves centre stage late in the book when Wasson reveals that Ferrer’s opinions about Holly Golightly and his wife’s portrayal of her began to interfere with Hepburn’s own instincts, and those of director Blake Edwards.
Indeed, as well-documented as Hepburn’s life and career may be, hers is a particularly compelling strand of Wasson’s book, and his description of how she must have been feeling – an evocation drawn from a number of reliable sources (there is a vast, and extremely readable, notes section at the end of the book) – when she began filming outside Tiffany’s at dawn on October 2, 1960, is quite moving.
A new, first-time mother, she had had to leave her ten-week-old baby on another continent to play a part she wasn’t sure she could pull off and which could, potentially, tarnish her carefully constructed and trusted screen image once and for all. Where we see an impossibly elegant swan
gliding around the pavement of Fifth Avenue, Hepburn herself was a bag of stomach-churning nerves.
That’s just one of a tidal wave of behind-the-scenes insights in this chatty, highly enjoyable book which sheds light on every aspect of Breakfast at Tiffany’s – from the fashion, for which it is legendary, and Hepburn’s relationship with Parisian couturier Hubert de Givenchy, to the ways in which Capote’s story had to be adjusted and altered to fit the requirements of a 1961 Hollywood film.
* Fifth Avenue, 5 AM – Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Aurum, £14.99), by Sam Wasson