Audrey Hepburn is one of the most enduring stars to emerge from the classic Hollywood era, much of which is attributed to her timeless style. The image of her in a black dress as Holly Golightly is forever embedded in our pop culture subconscious, and that look alone continues to influence women and the fashion world today. While Hepburn collaborated with a few directors numerous times and had her share of serious relationships, it was fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy with whom she formed the longest-lasting partnership in her life. For the Classic Movie History Project, I’ll be looking at Hepburn’s unforgettable style on screen and off as defined by her symbiotic collaboration with Givenchy, and the lifelong friendship they shared through their successes.
Fresh off of her star-making role in Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn played the eponymous Sabrina in Billy Wilder’s 1954 romantic comedy. While famed costume designer Edith Head was working on the film, Wilder wanted Hepburn to have genuine French couture following her character’s return from studying abroad in Paris. The actress flew to the City of Light to seek out suitable fashions to bring back to the Sabrina set, and there was one particular designer she was interested in meeting.
In 1953, at 26 years old, Hubert de Givenchy’s star was on the rise in the fashion world. He had just opened the House of Givenchy a year before, and Hepburn was already a fan of the designer before meeting him. The first extravagant gift she bought for herself with money earned from Roman Holiday was an original Givenchy coat. When Givenchy heard that a “Miss Hepburn” was eager to meet him, he naturally assumed it must be the great Katharine Hepburn. Roman Holiday hadn’t been released in France yet at the point of this meeting, so Givenchy had never heard of Audrey Hepburn.
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 a red ribbon that read Venezia.
While he was taken by Hepburn, he couldn’t oblige to design new fashions for the actress to wear in Sabrina, as he was in the midst of working on a new collection. Instead, Hepburn asked if she could browse completed garments from his collection, and she soon began trying on his designs. Straight off the racks, the clothes fit the actress perfectly, making her an ideal Givenchy model. The two followed their meeting with dinner that evening and found they had many traits in common besides their shared taste in fashion. Hepburn then returned to the set of Sabrina with three Givenchy originals from his new collection in tow, which would be making their world debut in the film.
Following the filming of Sabrina, Hepburn won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Roman Holiday. Though she was unable to attend the ceremony in Hollywood due to her commitment to Ondine on Broadway, she collected her Oscar following a performance at Broadway’s Century Theatre. That night, the public saw Hepburn in one of Givenchy’s creations for the first time, wearing a belted white floral dress. Since its appearance in 1954, it has become one of the most iconic dresses worn at an Oscar ceremony and is often cited as the best Oscar dress of all time.
Hepburn didn’t have to wait long to be honored by the Academy again, as she earned another Best Actress nomination for her work in Sabrina in 1955. The film received a total of six nominations but went on to win only one for Best Costume Design. Though anyone who’s seen the film remembers Sabrina’s stylish French wardrobe as designed by Givenchy, it was the film’s credited designer Edith Head who collected the Oscar. Hepburn was upset with the outcome at the Academy Awards, knowing that an acknowledgment as huge as this for Givenchy would’ve given him a huge boost to his career. While Givenchy took the blow with grace and continued to work on his designs, Hepburn vowed to make it up to him.
It would be a few years before Hepburn and Givenchy had the opportunity to work together again, but in 1957 they collaborated on back-to-back films, Funny Face and Love in the Afternoon (the latter of which reunited her with Sabrina director Billy Wilder). The former film couldn’t be a more perfect reunion for the two style icons, as it was primarily set in Paris and revolved around the fashion world. Edith Head was the film’s official costume designer as she was on Sabrina, but this time around it was made clear in the credits that “Miss Hepburn’s Paris Wardrobe” was designed by Givenchy. Just like Sabrina, Funny Face saw Hepburn transform from a gamine girl to a sophisticated young woman, becoming one of Hepburn’s most essential films.
Following their collaboration on Love in the Afternoon came their most famous collaboration for the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Based on Truman Capote’s novella of the same name, the author suggested in his story that his heroine Holly Golightly could easily go through life donning a simple black dress and a rotation of hats. The black dress Givenchy designed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s has since become one of the most iconic pieces of clothing in film history, and the overall wardrobe he created for the film continues to influence the fashion world today.
After the success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hepburn and Givenchy collaborated on the ill-fated Paris When It Sizzles. For the film, the actress was reunited with Sabrina co-star and former flame William Holden, and the two made the film in fulfillment of their Paramount contracts. The studio didn’t have a lot of faith in the picture and ended up shelving it until after the release of Hepburn’s next film Charade. Along with the wardrobe credit Givenchy received for his work on the film, he was also given screen credit for the perfume she wore in the film.
Back in 1957, Givenchy created the fragrance L’Interdit, which he said “was created in the image of Audrey Hepburn, as a tribute to her beauty and as something interdit (forbidden) to others, thereby exclusive.” Hepburn’s face was featured in advertisements for L’Interdit and has been cited as the first official celebrity perfume.
Givenchy signed on to design Hepburn’s wardrobe for Charade, which became one of her most successful films following what was one of her career misfires in Paris When It Sizzles. She was reunited with Funny Face director Stanley Donen for a film that many claim to be “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made.” It was yet another movie set in Paris, so it naturally called for Givenchy’s French designs. Hepburn and Givenchy followed up Charade with the 1966 film How to Steal a Million. The film was also Hepburn’s third and final collaboration with William Wyler, the director that helped make her a star in Roman Holiday. While Hepburn and Givenchy would work together on two more films and in various public events, How to Steal a Million was the pair’s last big showcase. The two were so strongly linked together that the film even mentions the designer’s name in reference to her character’s attire.
A few years after the release of How to Steal a Million and following Hepburn’s divorce from her first husband Mel Ferrer, she married her second husband Andrea Dotti. For their wedding, she wore a pink long-sleeved dress designed by Givenchy. Following her wedding, she took a break from films and lived in Italy, devoting herself to her family. After her return to the screen in the 1976 film Robin and Marian, Hepburn and Givenchy reunited for the 1979 thriller Bloodline. The pair worked together onscreen for the last time for the 1987 TV movie Love Among Thieves.
While the two only worked on nine films together, Hepburn proudly displayed Givenchy’s designs off-screen. Hepburn said she felt most comfortable in clothes designed by her dear friend:
Givenchy’s creations always gave me a sense of security and confidence, and my work went more easily in the knowledge that I looked absolutely right. I felt the same at my private appearances. Givenchy’s outfits gave me “protection” against strange situations and people. I felt so good in them.
Throughout their stylish partnerships, the two shared an incredibly strong bond that lasted until Hepburn’s death on January 20th, 1993. A few months before her death, Hepburn wanted to be at home in Switzerland with her family for her last days but was unable to fly a commercial plane because she was still recovering from surgery. Givenchy arranged for socialite Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon to send her private jet to take Hepburn from Los Angeles to Geneva. He even requested that the jet be filled with flowers for his friend for the flight.
Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy are forever synonymous with one another, with academic Jayne Sheridan even begging the question “Did Audrey Hepburn create Givenchy, or was it the other way around?” The forty-year friendship and professional partnership the two shared was truly a rewarding one, as their work together continues to inspire women and the fashion world today.
Much of the information I gathered on the two style icons for this post was from the book Audrey and Givenchy: A Fashion Love Affair by Cindy De La Hoz. It’s a wonderful little coffee table book that I highly recommend to anyone who appreciates Hepburn’s onscreen style.
I wrote this entry as a part of The Classic Movie History Project, where bloggers are writing about the stories behind Hollywood’s greatest stars and films. Click the banner below to read a rich array of posts!