Sabrina is one of those dreamy Audrey Hepburn films to watch on a rainy Saturday with the romantic Cinderella storyline, a European make-over and a fabulous, chic wardrobe that is perfectly representative of the early 1950s.
As the mousy chauffeur’s daughter who goes to Paris to escape from the pain of unrequited love, and returns as an elegant, matured young lady, Audrey needed an incredibly stylish wardrobe, from a real Parisienne designer.
As an unknown in her debut film Roman Holiday, Paramount’s head costume designer Edith Head had full control in what Audrey would wear and designed clothes to cover her supposed flaws – her prominent collarbone, long neck and thin arms. But after winning the Best Actress Academy Award and finding herself as the toast of Hollywood, Audrey was now in a position to express what she wanted to wear on screen.
Edith Head had been excited with the prospect of dressing a “leading lady looking like a Paris mannequin”, however she was bitterly disappointed when director Billy Wilder told her that Audrey would be wearing real French couture. Besides, Paramount did not have a permanent tailor and the work they did in the wardrobe department was American style tailoring.
In her autobiography, The Dress Doctor, Edith described how she visited Audrey in San Francisco, where she was starring on stage in Ondine, to discuss the costumes for Sabrina. She had even created little Audrey figurines for Audrey to doodle on. But as she recalled, “The director broke my heart by suggesting that while the ‘chauffeur’s daughter was in Paris she actually buy a Paris suit designed by a French designer.”
Edith hoped that when Audrey returned, she could convince director Billy Wilder that the costumes were wrong and she could then design them herself. But Edith would still design Audrey’s pre-Paris costumes, a cape worn in New York and the shorts and shirt on the yacht scene. She would also dress the supporting cast and extras.
Cables between producers, which are collected in the archives at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverley Hills, chart the discussions about selecting a designer wardrobe from Paris.
Audrey was stopping over in Paris on the way to Bordeaux and Beiritz for a June holiday with her mother and so it was decided this would be the perfect opportunity for her to pick up the wardrobe.
Producers suggested that Gladys de Segonzac, wife of Paramount’s French head of production, make some selections from Balenciaga in Paris, and Audrey would pick them up on her way back to New York in August, because Mrs de Segonzac, “being in the Paris couture business, knows Paris clothes better than Miss Hepburn.”
But being so close to July collections, it was not possible to make selections from Balenciaga. A cable from producers on July 7 1953 noted:
“Balenciaga cannot provide Audrey Hepburn wardrobe in time due to pressure work preparing autumn collections. Best alternative is top couturier Givenchy who can arrange send completed wardrobe to American own responsibility by August 10th. Airmailing sketches and samples Wednesday direct to Edith Head. Will cable later today regarding prices but wish soon as possible approval Givenchy arrangements. Audrey asks loan approximately 200,000 francs to be repaid New York. Please authorise as soon as possible okay.”
With her pay cheque from Roman Holiday, Audrey had bought an off the rack Givenchy coat, and so she offered his name as the designer for the film. Audrey soon relegated control over the fashion choices and when in Paris she personally paid a visit to Givenchy. As the famous story goes, Audrey Hepburn, a relative unknown, arrived at Givenchy’s Paris shop dressed in Capri pants, a white t-shirt and ballet slippers. When she was announced as ‘Miss Hepburn’, he assumed it was Katherine Hepburn who was visiting.
“My first impression was of some extremely delicate animal. She had such beautiful eyes, and she was so extraordinarily slender, so thin”, he remembered. He explained to her he didn’t have time to show her his collection personally, but she offered to look through the rails and choose some pieces herself. She had an eye for what would compliment her figure, choosing to emphasise her faults instead of cover them up.
She selected three outfits – the wool double-breasted suit worn when arriving back from Paris, the ball gown which wows the rich society guests and a black cocktail dress with the celebrated boat neck line, which Audrey had chosen because it hid her prominent collar bone.
Paramount had instructed her on what items she should be choosing. These were a dark travelling suit, a “very smart French day dress”, some “extreme French hats” to wear with the suit, some blouses and a ballgown. She was to send sketches and sample fabrics ahead of time, and that the colours she chose were not to be “dead black or dead white” as these did not work well on black and white film.
She had also been told by cost-saving producers to bring the items through customs as her private wardrobe, without mention of Paramount, as, according to a memo, “it might involve screen credit, duty coming into the country as well as possible holdup bringing it in. it should come into the country as Hepburn’s own personal wardrobe.”
A cable on July 7 1953 reveals how delighted Audrey was with her selection and again, how they would save money by not giving screen credit. It said: “Audrey says wardrobe exactly what she wants. Please advise as soon as possible as she having first fitting Thursday 9th, then flies Nice returning Monday 13 London, stopping Paris for second fitting. Givenchy models exclusive to Audrey and no credit required.”
The Charcoal travelling suit
Billy Wilder in a memo, described how the Glen Cove station scene was “a very important moment in the picture. We simply must sell the girl’s transition. She must look delicious reappearing on Long Island.”
As she waits by the station in a Givenchy suit, a pile of suitcases and a French poodle, she looks so elegant that William Holden, driving past in his sportscar, doesn’t even recognise her.
Audrey was given the stipulation that she was to pick up a dark suit, in either charcoal or navy and not black. It was the type of suit she would wear crossing the Atlantic by plane and arriving upstate New York by train. There were also to be several blouses and fronts to be used with the suit.
What she chose was the double-breasted suit made with grey wool, worn with a white turban and gold hoop earrings for a touch of the exotic.
Even the poodle turned out to be a complicated affair.
In a memo it was noted that a crew member was “going out to see a woman today who has a French poodle. He says it is a slightly complicated situation due to the fact that most of the French poodles in the east are clipped for show purposes and we are asking for a Dutch clip.”
The ball gown
The gown worn to the Larrabee ball was based on Givenchy’s two-piece ‘Inez de Castro’ design for the 1953 Spring/Summer collection, but was full length, strapless and consisting of a silk organdie overskirt decorated with a black floral pattern and a straight pencil skirt beneath.
In this strapless gown, Audrey’s shoulders looked very thin, and cameraman Charles Lang was instructed to be careful about back-lighting to ensure her this wasn’t highlighted even more. However in a preview showing viewers made comment on how thin she was. One wrote on their comment card” “Miss Hepburn’s gowns do not do her justice. Her shoulders are not good and should be concealed. She is too thin to wear such gowns and the black dress is particularly offensive.”
The black cocktail dress
The skirt, with slim bodice and ballerina length skirt showed off Audrey’s prominent collar bone and thin arms, and the bodice demonstrated her 22 inch waist. The style was so popular that the neckline, with small straps fastened with bows, became known as The Sabrina Neckline.
Edith head always claimed that the black cocktail dress with the boat neckline was her design, she even wrote in The Dress Doctor, “I had to console myself with the dress, whose boat neckline was tied on each shoulder – widely known and copied as ‘the Sabrina neckline’.” It was more likely she had recreated the dress and hat from a Givenchy sketch that had been sent over from Paris.
Givenchy himself wrote: “What I invented for her ended up a style so popular that the t-shirts and boat neck dresses of the period became known as the décolleté Sabrina.”
Edith Head’s designs
While the ‘impact costumes were Givenchy, Edith Head designed the remainder of Hepburn’s wardrobe. There was the patterned shift dress worn over a long sleeve black top, as a mournful, mousy young girl watching the glamour of the Larrabee party while safely hidden in trees.
There was a pair of white shorts and a checked shirt knotted at the waist for the yachting scene with Humphrey Bogart, which can be seen as an early version in this costume sketch.
For the costume described as a “street outfit and light coat” she was dressed in slim black Capri pants worn with a high-necked black top, and accessorised with ballet flats and hoop earrings. Over this she wore a black wool coat with hood. (below)