Monday, February 16, 2015

Style Essentials--Audrey Hepburn's Costumes Cause the (Oscar) Drama in 1954's SABRINA

The Academy Awards are almost upon us and and, as they do every year, my friends Aurora, Kellee, and Paula have been throwing their month-long 31 Days of Oscar blogathon.  It is held in conjunction with the annual programming on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and celebrates all the winners, losers, and snubs of Oscar history.  This year I chose to look at the intrigue surrounding the one Academy Award--for Best Costume Design--given to 1954's Sabrina.

On screen Sabrina is such a sweet tale--a Cinderella story that largely mirrored Audrey Hepburn's own off screen.  Even with co-stars like William Holden and Humphrey Bogart--one who fell head-over-heels in love with her and one who did not--it's really Audrey's film.  As the title character, it's a glorious follow-up to her Oscar-winning debut in Roman Holiday (1953). And it's her style we remember. Many don't realize that much of the drama behind-the-scenes on the film had to do with that very costume design.  Some of the drama would even play out in front of the audience at the Academy Awards, and it would continue in a manner that seems tailor-made for Hollywood.  It all begins with costume designer Edith Head and ends with fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.

In 1953--the year when Sabrina was in production--Edith was the head of Paramount's costume design department.  She had been at the helm for 15 years, and had worked with her mentors Howard Greer and Travis Banton for 15 years before that.  She started at the studio in 1923 with no real experience in design outside night classes at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (now CalArts).  In fact, she bluffed her way into an assistant's job for Greer by "borrowing" sketches and then presenting them as her own portfolio. He recalled:

We placed an ad in the papers and a young girl, with a face like a pussy cat crossed with a Fujita drawing, appeared with a carpetbag full of sketches.  There were architectural drawings, plans for interior decoration, magazine illustrations, and fashion designs. Struck dumb with admiration for anyone possessed of such diverse talents, I hired the gal on the spot.  [But] she came to work the next morning and looked out from under her bangs with the expression of a frightened terrier.

According to Greer, Edith quickly confessed to "[picking] up everybody's sketches [she] could get her hands on" at Chouinard.  Even so, her audacity impressed him. There was something about her that gave him faith she would rise to the challenge and he began to teach her everything he knew--from design to production.  Not only was Edith a fast learner, but she was strong in areas that were valuable to artists like Greer and Banton.  She was an outstanding organizer and manager as well as a truly gifted politician. They also discovered she was a talented designer after all.

Edith Head during her first decade at Paramount (above)
and her iconic look as head of Paramount's costume design department

Once Greer left to start his own fashion line in 1927, Edith worked closely with Banton on films such as Shanghai Express (1932) and My Man Godfrey (1936) where she generally designed for everyone except the star.  She also created all the costumes for other films, such as westerns, that did not feature a major star.  Banton made his own exit in 1938 and, as a result, Edith was made head of costume design at Paramount.  In this role, she would be responsible for some of the most iconic costume design of all time. By the time she was assigned Sabrina, the following are just some of the highlights of her career:

The Lady Eve (1940) and Double Indemnity (1944)--Barbara Stanwyck was a close friend who was once considered unattractive by studio brass until she benefited from Edith's transformative powers of design.  Most of Stanwyck's films are by Edith.
This Gun for Hire (1942)--Like Barbara, most Veronica Lake movies can be credited to Edith, including Sullivan's Travels (1941) all the way through her three films noir with co-star Alan Ladd.
Notorious (1946)--This is Edith's first film with director Alfred Hitchcock and they would go on to have a long successful working relationship.  In fact, the look of the 'Hitchcock Heroine' is perhaps Edith's biggest claim to fame--she is behind the style of To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), The Birds (1963), and more.  Rear Window (1954) was done at the same time as Sabrina.
All About Eve (1950)--A favor for friend Bette Davis at 20th Century Fox that turned into an Oscar for Edith's well-known costume design.
A Place in the Sun (1951)--Edith won another Oscar for her costume design, this time for Elizabeth Taylor that immediately resulted in thousands of knock-offs and established the prototype for prom dresses forever.

And this leads us to Sabrina.  This was a film where Edith had worked with both director and star before--Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity (1944) and she had just finished Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn.  Edith had won four of her eight Oscars by this point in her career and, in fact, was about to win her fifth for Roman Holiday.  From all accounts, this should have been smooth sailing.  But there was one big difference--Audrey was about to become a star.

Roman Holiday finished production toward the end of 1952.  Though it wouldn't be released until August 1953, studio heads at Paramount knew they had a hit on their hands and that the world was about to be introduced to a very special actress.  Sabrina would be the perfect follow-up for their new star.  Familiar with the story, Audrey understood that the character undergoes a metamorphosis--she starts as the mousy daughter of a chauffeur, goes to cooking school in France, and comes back as a Parisian sophisticate.  It occurred to Audrey that one designer should be responsible for the "before" wardrobe and another--ideally a couturier from Paris--should design the "after." She approached Billy Wilder, who approved of the idea, and off Audrey went to Europe to meet fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Hubert de Givenchy (above)
and with new muse Audrey Hepburn

Givenchy had only recently launched his own fashion line in 1952, but had worked for many years in couture. Though he was first rejected by his idol Cristóbol Balenciaga----a man who would later become his mentor and very close friend--he was immediately hired by Jacques Fath.  After a year with Fath came another year with Robert Piguet, which was followed by six more months with Lucien Lelong (the brief tenure only because the great house closed in 1948).  Finally, Hubert spent four years with the legendary Elsa Schiaparelli where he was eventually put in charge of running her boutique. Once he felt confident enough to start out on his own, the House of Givenchy was born.

From the beginning, his collections were "met with adulation by the press and buyers alike." Hubert always credited Balenciaga for inspiring his direction in design:  "If I hadn't known [him], I might never have discovered the basic truth about fashion....Creating a perfectly simple dress from a simple line--that is a great design!"  Along with his mentor, Givenchy "had a desire to express a purity of line rather than decoration" and believed following this philosophy would result in "consistent perfection."  That said, the two approached a garment's creation very differently.  In contrast to Balenciaga--who first did a sketch, then a canvas pattern (a toile), then chose the fabric, and finally created the dress--Givenchy liked to begin with the fabric and let that inspire the garment. Eventually the two became very close; Balenciaga's admiration was so strong that he sent all his clients to Givenchy when he closed his own house in 1968.

Audrey was a huge fan of fashion.  She once told Vogue's Paris bureau chief Susan Train, "Clothes are positively a passion for me. I love them to a point that it is practically a vice."  At the time, she considered Givenchy “the newest, youngest, most exciting couturier" and was "captivated" by his work.  An introduction was arranged thanks to Gladys de Segonzac, who was both married to the Paris head of Paramount as well as employed as the directrice of Schiaparelli who Givenchy knew from his years working there.  But it's important to remember that this was a time when Roman Holiday had not yet been released, so the only 'Hepburn' that Givenchy knew was named Katharine. Instead, a very different woman knocked at his door. He remembered,

[A] very thin person with beautiful eyes, short hair, thick eyebrows, very tiny trousers, ballerina shoes, and a little T-shirt. On her head was a straw gondolier’s hat with a red ribbon around it that said VENEZIA. I thought, "This is too much!"

Givenchy's directrice Dreda Mele agreed that "Audrey was always very definite in her taste and look. She came to [Givenchy] because she was attracted by the image he could give her. And she entered that image totally. She entered into his dream, too....They were made for each other." The team was not only impressed by the strength of her style and intuition, but were amazed by her natural "luminescence." It was clear that Audrey was as beautiful inside as out.

As taken as they were with one another, in the summer of 1953, Givenchy had no time at all to create costumes for a Hollywood film. The young 26-year-old fashion designer was still at the beginning of his own brand.  He was working with a small staff and in the midst of readying what was only his fourth collection--for Fall/Winter 1953--that was to show very soon.  Though Audrey could empathize, she wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.  She looked around the salon and asked if she could try on samples that had already been created and shown for his Spring/Summer collection.  Givenchy relented and sat mesmerized as his couture transformed Audrey before his very eyes.    

What's fascinating is the order in which she selected and tried on the clothes.  First was the wool suit that Sabrina wears when she returns from Paris.  It fit Audrey to perfection; both she and Givenchy's runway model happened to share the same tiny waist.  Next came the glorious embroidered black-and-white organdy gown that left everyone breathless.  There was just something about the way Audrey carried the gown; her carriage and the lines of the dress made it seem custom-made for her.  Finally, she slipped into what is today simply known as the "Sabrina"--the black cocktail dress with the bateau neckline, which disguised Audrey's narrow collarbone yet accented her strong shoulders. Even more details of the garments can be found within the photostory below.  Each was perfect for Audrey herself and suggested her style while also being perfect for the character of Sabrina and her evolution.  Director Billy Wilder had final approval, making sure that the clothes worked with the overall production and his own artistic vision.  They did.

Billy Wilder with Audrey on the set of Sabrina

Though she couldn't really object, none of this particularly met with Edith Head's approval.  "Every designer wishes for the perfect picture in which he or she can show off design magic. My one chance was Sabrina," she once said.  "It was the perfect set up [with] my leading lady looking like a Paris mannequin."  Obviously, we know this wouldn't be Edith's only chance.  After all, Rear Window came out the same year as Sabrina--complete with its own high fashion wardrobe for Grace Kelly--and was quickly followed by To Catch a Thief.  Edith had designed for great beauties before and would do so again.  Yet we understand the source of her excitement at this opportunity.  We can also understand her disappointment when she learned she would only be responsible for the "pre-Paris ragamuffin frock" and other less showy outfits in Sabrina.

On September 9, 1954, Sabrina had its premiere.  The movie was an immediate hit, particularly for Audrey and her style.  Not surprisingly, the style that people responded to most came from Givenchy's couture. But unfortunately, audiences did not yet know that the designs were his--sole screen credit for costume design was given to Edith.  In her defense, that was simply the policy of the film industry at the time.  When you consider the vast number of contributors in any production, you can understand why only the head designer received credit.  Studio costume departments are filled with people who work on each design--sketch artists, pattern makers, tailors and seamstresses, and so on.  But clearly Sabrina was a special case.  When Audrey saw that Givenchy was not credited for his contributions, as she expected he would, she hit the roof and worked to change the policy for future films.  

Though some understanding can be granted for the issue of screen credit on Sabrina, none can be given when it comes to what happened during that award season.  Sabrina was one of the best movies of the year and nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Audrey for Best Actress and Wilder for Best Director.  Its only Oscar win came for its costume design.  It was obvious to everyone that the award came in large part for the couture of Givenchy, but once again the subject of screen credit reared its head.  Edith alone accepted the award (photo below). But while she remembered to thank the Academy on the stage, she never once acknowledged Givenchy's contributions in her speech.  Not that this is any excuse, but I suspect in her mind he was just another person working on her team.  He was a young designer and she was at the high point of her career, winning back-to-back Oscars and even dressing that year's Best Actress winner Grace Kelly for the show.

Edith with her Oscar for Sabrina (above)
and Grace Kelly winning that year's Best Actress Oscar (for The Country Girl) wearing Edith Head

This would have been bad enough, but Edith never gave credit to Givenchy outside the Oscars either. Practically to her grave, Edith insisted that all the designs in the film were her own.  To get a great sense of her perspective, you can read the LA Times article by costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorléac who was mentored by Edith and spoke with her in 1974.  As they discuss, there are indeed sketches from Edith of the black cocktail dress (one shown below) and she did show a sample in her fashion shows.  But from all accounts, reason for both sketches and samples is that duplicates of the dress were needed for safety (in case of spills, for instance).  This perpetuation of such injustice--something that Givenchy himself graciously did not address until after Edith's passing--is why she has so many detractors today.  She is often accused of taking credit for others' work--starting with the story of her hiring at Paramount--and those accusations now plague her six decade long career.  The tragedy for me, as someone who deeply admires Edith and is personally influenced by her work, is that she clearly did not need to do this.  As you saw from the list of films in the opening of this article, her own talent was enough.

Edith Head's sketch of Givenchy's LBD (above)
and other sketches that she offered as possibilities for the film

All drama over the Oscar win aside, Sabrina should really be remembered for its continuation of a Cinderella story and celebration of great design.  The world was introduced to Hubert de Givenchy through this film and it captures the very beginning of his loving friendship with muse Audrey Hepburn.  This movie is also an example of how costume design made an impact, and continues to make an impact, on fashion. Because they are modeled by Audrey, every one of her outfits in Sabrina acts as inspiration to designers and fans.  But the hugest hit and longest legacy has got to be its Little Black Dress--from its color to its silhouette. Though couturiers like Lucile and Coco Chanel had broken ground in the 1920s by introducing black as an option for our clothes (with a special assist from costume designers like Travis Banton), it was Givenchy's one-two punch of Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) that really sealed the deal.  Women went mad for the evolution of Little Black Dress and our wardrobes would never be the same.  Then there was the bateau neckline of Sabrina's dress, which was very new at the time in fashion.  It was so new, in fact, that this is what made some suspect that Edith had not done all the costumes for the film.  The boatneck, as it's also called, became so famous on Audrey that it is now often known as the "Sabrina." And of course the lines of the dress, perfect in their simplicity with a nipped in waist and full ballerina skirt, would be done again and again by Givenchy, including for Funny Face (1957). One can see examples of both the neckline and dress copied all over the world.

In 1962, Audrey proudly declared in Ciné Revue, "Everything I have worn for the last 10 years has come from Givenchy.....It is because he creates quality clothes which combine simplicity and beauty."  Their mutual admiration resulted in 16 movies together and he would supply much of her offscreen wardrobe as well.  That said, many books on fashion continue to state that it is this film that is of particular inspiration to designers. See where it all began in 1954's Sabrina.

Sabrina before she goes to Paris
 in the "ragamuffin frock" created by Edith Head for the character

Sabrina at cooking school in Paris--still wearing Edith Head--
before her transformative hair cut

Sabrina still in Paris but after cropping her hair...
thinking of her return to America with all she's learned and become

Sabrina's return from Paris in Givenchy 

“That jazzy suit,” as Audrey called it--an Oxford-gray wool-ottoman tailleur with a double-breasted scoop-neck jacket and slim, calf-length vented skirt.  Hat is a turban of pleated pearl-gray chiffon created by Givenchy’s in-house milliner.  Both were samples from his Spring/Summer 1953 collection, and the suit and hat were presented together when shown on the runway.

Details from Vanity Fair article "When Hubert Met Audrey"

Front and back of the suit in its entirety

Transformation is so complete that 
even David (William Holden) doesn't recognize Sabrina

Sabrina's "welcome home" party gown by Givenchy

White strapless organdy ball gown embroidered with flowers of black silk thread and jet beads, and a detachable train with black ruffles that brushed along the floor. Another sample from Givenchy's third collection for Spring/Summer 1953.

Details from Vanity Fair article "When Hubert Met Audrey"

As we watch David fall in love with Sabrina,
we catch glimpses of the real-life romance between Bill and Audrey

What can be more luxurious-looking
than couture on an indoor tennis court

Though Sabrina is in love with David,
she starts to get to know--and love--Linus (Humphrey Bogart) as well

Sabrina goes sailing with Linus in Edith Head--
a plaid shirt with simple white shorts

Sabrina in Givenchy's LBD for cocktails with Linus

The "Sabrina"--According to the Vanity Fair article "When Hubert Met Audrey," the dress was made with ribbed cotton piqué woven by the venerable fabric house Abraham.  This one certainly photographs more like satin, so perhaps this is one of the copies made at Paramount.  Tiny bows act as fasteners at each shoulder and the dress also buttoned down a deep V in the back. Its most groundbreaking and influential feature, though, is its "shallow, razor-sharp horizontal neckline," which was known as the bateau before the film and simply as the "Sabrina" now. 

The hat is a medieval-looking toque paved with rhinestones that gave her the illusion of wearing a storybook crown. Another sample from Givenchy's Spring/Summer 1953 collection, though the hat was not shown with the dress on the runway. Givenchy said, “Audrey always added a twist, something piquant, amusing, to the clothes."

Note how the neckline is particularly flattering to Audrey's narrow neck
and highlights her strong shoulders

The striking simplicity of Givenchy's lines
and he brings something special to the back as well with a deep V and delicate buttons

The hat was chosen by Audrey to include with the dress (it was not shown on the runway this way),
but I always preferred the look without it

Finishing the film in Edith Head again,
but this is a trademark look of Audrey's--capris and ballet flats--that was part of her personal style

Love the inclusion of the V-back on the top that mirrors the look of the earlier LBD


Callan, Georgina O'Hara.  The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers.  2nd ed.  London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2008.  Print.

Collins, Amy Fine.  "When Hubert Met Audrey."  Vanity Fair.  December 1995.  Web.  January 26 2015.

Dorléac, Jean-Pierre.  "Edith Head and the 'Sabrina' Dress."  Los Angeles Times.  October 24 2010. Web.  January 26 2015.

Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style.  London: Dorling Kindersley (DK) Ltd., 2012. Print.

Head, Edith and Paddy Calistro.  Edith Head's Hollywood.  Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2008. Print.

Jorgensen, Jay.  Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood's Greatest Costume Designer. Philadelphia:  Running Press, 2010.  Print.

Mendes, Valerie, and Amy de la Haye.  Fashion Since 1900.  2nd ed.  London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2010.  Print.

Taylor, Kerry.  Vintage Fashion and Couture: From Poiret to McQueen.  Ontario: Firefly Books, 2013. Print.


All screen captures by Kimberly Truhler for GlamAmor

Other Images:
Doctor Macro

This article is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, which is related to TCM's annual programming--
click on the link to learn more about the history of the event and all of this years great entries 


Marline said...

What a treasure trove of information and inspiration about this iconic style-setting film, Kimberly! Beautifully researched and wonderfully written. I enjoyed every minute of this, especially your personal reflections, as I know Edith is a muse of yours. Wonderful post!

Silver Screenings said...

I am disappointed that Edith didn't share the design credit with the fab Givenchy for this movie, but she is no less a hero in my eyes. As you said, she has many impressive movies on her CV.

Thanks for sharing all this background info, and all your research. You've given me a lot more to look at the next time I see this charming film.

Kelly J Kitchens Wickersham said...

To me, it makes sense that Edith didn't share the Oscar with Givenchy given the standards of the times. But as someone who works on films and who rarely gets screen credit for my work, I'm happy that has changed. There are so many people behind the people in charge and it is nice to get credit when credit is due. And I agree that Audrey should have worn her little black dress without the hat. It detracts from the dress a bit.

Irish Jayhawk said...

What a gorgeous feast for the eyes! SABRINA is a film that would not have become the classic it is if not for Audrey Hepburn and Edith Head (and Givenchy). The plot requires a butterfly-like transformation and they certainly deliver. As per usual, you've delivered a BEAUTIFUL and informative post- thanks again for joining our blogathon!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks so much, Kay! A lot of work, as you know, but worth it in order to present the whole story. Couldn't help a bit of my own editorial since I do love her so much. Loved your own take on Edith and Oscar as well!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks so much, Ruth! I always enjoy hearing your take on these articles. I love how you are looking at Edith even with me delving into this moment of her career. She's a hero to me, too. xo

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks for the comments, Kelly! I'm hearing that from a lot of people--they simply didn't know that was the policy at the time to only list one designer and it helps Edith seem like a little less a villain. lol But I agree--as many people as possible should be credited with their contributions. Costume design is still way behind on things. After all, they only got an Oscar in 1948, so they're still playing catch up. And I KNEW you would agree with me about that hat! LOL I always thought it was so odd in the midst of all that simple perfection... ;)

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank YOU, Kellee, for hosting this unbelievable blogathon (with Aurora and Paula) each year. As I mentioned to you, it's incredible how many GREAT articles are written, and that SO MANY great writers are constantly and lovingly writing about classic film. It's really fun to see them all. xo

Citizen Screen said...

WOW!!! Simply fantastic! While I knew of the "rumors" that plagued Edith throughout her career I thought they were solely based on the fact she took other people's designs to Paramount initially. I didn't know about the drama behind the drama in SABRINA! Fascinating story. And, as always I learned a lot from your expertise. Your enthusiasm and love for this jumps right off the page. Wonderful write-up, Kimberly! Gorgeous photos too.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful and informative post, and I loved all the stills. Notwithstanding the Head/Givenchy issue, the costume design in this wonderful - in my opinion it's one of the best costumed films ever! The scene where she returns from Paris and 'catwalks' at the train station is my all-time favourite costume-on-screen moment!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Awww, thanks Aurora! ((big hug)) I really appreciate your comments, especially because I know how much you already know! Thanks so much for co-hosting this incredible blogathon and giving everyone an opportunity to share their passions for classic film.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks GirlsDoFilm--I appreciate you stopping by and leaving your comments! I have no doubt this is one of your favorites. I think it's a favorite for just about everyone. It's just got that winning combination of stars, story, and style. Love it!

Unknown said...

PLEASE read acclaimed costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac's recent publication THE NAKED TRUTH: AN IRREVERENT CHRONICLE OF DELIRIOUS ESCAPADES. He was mentored by Edith Head who told him detailed stories about not only SABRINA, but other project she designed for.
If you are a connoiseur of design and know what it requires to establish a CHARACTER IN A FILM, it is obvious, just from viewing SABRINA that Head did ALL THE COSTUMES, as there is a thread through the entire film regarding Hepburn's style/look that just DIDN'T HAPPEN, but was created. If you notice, with the exception of only a few pieces (the standard lay-back collar plaid shirt on the boat), the straight-across neckline was used in almost every costume: i.e. jumper at the beginning, black cocktail dress, white with black embroidered gown, black top with toreador pants, apron at the cooking school, etc. This is called creating a look for a specific character ... and Edith was TOTALLY responsible for this. Couture designer's don't think this way, and since Givenchy was just a neophyte at the time, he did NOT PLAN these details for Hepburn as he had never done a film before and didn't have the expertise to put this kind of concept together.
Costume designing goes FAR BEYOND just making a single garment. It also includes supplying all the accessories, like hats, jewelry, shoes, stocking, gloves and bag. They don't just suddenly materialize after a dress is made. Someone puts it all together ... and that is called costumes design. The other half of the job is making sure that ALL THE OTHER ACTORS in the project don't clash with clothing that don't compliment the leading lady. Even is the originally ideas for the dresses were lifted by Hepburn because she wanted to wear Givenchy, this didn't mean that Givenchy did THE COSTUMES FOR SABRINA ... as ONE, he wasn't in the Hollywood Costume Designers guild union at the time (or ever) and couldn't work on a union film for that reason, and TWO, he wasn't around to choose any of the accessories that went with the outfits TO COMPLETE A LOOK.
Go to and read Chapter 1 in full, to get an idea of how informative Dorleac has been with all his accounts.
Acclaimed columnist Liz Smith raved about it in THE NEW YORK SOCIAL DIARY:

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