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Story of a Dress: “Sabrina”

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

How the 1954 Audrey Hepburn film sparked a costume-design controversy — and created fashion’s most iconic designer-muse relationship.

A behind-the-scenes look at Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn on the set of 1954’s “Sabrina” — Hepburn is wearing the organza gown roundly agreed to be designed by Hubert de Givenchy.

It’s now among the most famous stories in fashion and costume design, how Hubert de Givenchy was working in his Paris atelier one day in 1953, awaiting the appointed arrival of “Miss Hepburn.”

Hubert de Givenchy in his studio in 1955.

Givenchy was excited: He was a fan of Katharine Hepburn and was thrilled that such a major Hollywood star wanted to meet with him. Just 26 years old, Givenchy had opened his atelier the year before, following stints in the studios of Cristobal Balenciaga, Jacques Fath and Elsa Schiaparelli. And while The New York Times had proclaimed him a star following the debut of his first collection in 1952, Givenchy knew Katharine Hepburn becoming a client would boost his profile considerably.

“Suddenly a beautiful and very tiny, skinny person came [into the studio],” Givenchy recalled to Charlie Rose during a 1998 interview, recounting his first meeting with Audrey Hepburn, the young actress who actually had made that appointment in the summer of 1953. “And she asked me to do the dress for Sabrina. I said, ‘It’s difficult, because it’s collection time, and I don’t think I have time to help you.’ She asked me, ‘But please, I want to try your clothes.’”

Not yet enchanted by the 24-year-old gamine — who had arrived wearing slim black capri pants, a T-shirt, ballet flats and a gondolier’s hat emblazoned with the word Venezia — Givenchy pointed her to racks of finished pieces from his collection and told her she could look through those. He didn’t know Audrey Hepburn was already a fan, having splurged on a Givenchy coat with some of the money she had earned on Roman Holiday, the 1953 film that within weeks would vault the actress into stardom in the U.S., but wouldn’t be released in France until April 1954.

Between takes during filming of the train-station scene in “Sabrina.”

Hepburn selected three looks from the racks: a slim two-piece suit of gray wool, for the train-station scene following Sabrina’s return from Paris; a black silk cocktail dress with bows at the shoulders, worn during a night out in New York; and for the party scene, an evening gown crafted of a black strapless bodice over a white slim skirt and overskirt, both embellished with black embroidery and jet beading, with the overskirt finished with a black organza ruffle. Hepburn added a turban-style hat for the suit and an evening hat for the cocktail dress and pronounced his designs “perfect,” Givenchy said. The pair also made plans for dinner, and it was that evening when their close friendship began to take hold. Upon Hepburn's return to Hollywood, the director of Sabrina quickly agreed with her assessment of the couturier's designs. “Billy Wilder said, ‘It’s just what we need for Sabrina,’” Givenchy told Charlie Rose.

Based on Sabrina Fair, a 1953 play by Samuel Taylor, the film tells the story of Sabrina Fairchild, a chauffeur’s daughter who has loved David Larrabee, the younger, playboy-like son of the wealthy Long Island family that employs her father, for most of her life; but after she returns from an extended trip, it’s the older, more serious brother, Linus, who ultimately wins her heart. (Fun fact: Margaret Sullavan played the role of Sabrina on Broadway, with Joseph Cotten assuming the role of Linus.) In the film, which differs markedly from the play, Sabrina departs New York to attend culinary school in Paris, and that plot point spawned Wilder’s idea of sending Hepburn to Paris in advance of filming, both to soak up Parisian culture and ideally bring back the type of haute couture her character might wear after experiencing a sophisticated transformation.

Hepburn on the tennis court with Billy Wilder.

Wilder’s plan, however, didn’t take one thought into account: that costume designer Edith Head had been excited to work on Sabrina. The chief designer at Paramount Pictures since 1938, Head had just worked with Hepburn on Roman Holiday, and for that film she soon would win an Oscar (her fifth win in eight nominations up to that point). The costume designer was clearly anticipating the possibilities of Sabrina. “Every designer wishes for the perfect picture in which he or she can really show off design magic,” she said in Edith Head’s Hollywood, a 1983 “posthumous autobiography” co-written by Paddy Calistro and released two years after her death. “My one chance was in Sabrina, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Audrey, Humphrey Bogart [as Linus] and William Holden [as David] — it was the perfect setup. Three wonderful stars, and my leading lady looking like a Paris mannequin.”

In her 1959 book The Dress Doctor: Prescriptions for Style, From A to Z, Head also tells the story of working on Sabrina, but omits a few key details. During her first costume meeting with Hepburn, she says, the actress — now more self-assured and with Wilder in her corner — presented her own ideas for Sabrina: Givenchy’s sketches of the three looks she had fallen in love with in his atelier. Head says she was saddened by this turn of events. “The director broke my heart by suggesting that, while the ‘chauffeur’s daughter’ was in Paris, she actually buy a Paris suit,” she wrote. “I had to console myself with the dress, whose boat neckline was tied on each shoulder — widely known and copied as ‘the Sabrina neckline.’”

In a publicity photo with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, Hepburn wears the black cocktail dress with bows at the shoulders.

Head’s account, however, not only omits any mention of Sabrina’s entrance-making party gown entirely, she also takes credit in The Dress Doctor for the bow-accented dress designed by Givenchy. But few who knew Head accepted her explanation, partly because the design — especially the high bateau neckline and low V-back — was so divergent from her previous work, and decidedly felt more like Givenchy’s aesthetic.

It’s notable that Head doesn’t discuss in either book the strapless ballgown Hepburn wore for Sabrina’s entrance at the Larrabee party. Thrilled to be invited by a smitten David, Sabrina mentions that “I have a lovely evening dress with yards of skirt and way off the shoulder” — today it's considered among cinema’s most iconic costumes. Givenchy explained to journalist Dana Thomas that the dress seen onscreen differs from his original design, but he was directly involved in that decision: “We just changed the top of the evening dress when she dances with William Holden in the tennis court from black jersey to a white organza bustier, since it was for a summer ball,” he said.

Three looks at the iconic organza “Sabrina” gown, which features the embroidered, jet-beaded bodice Givenchy changed from the original design so it would feel more like a summer dress.

When the nominations for the 1955 Academy Awards were announced, it was Head’s name alone for Sabrina in the category of Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (separate Oscars were awarded for black-and-white and color films from 1948 through 1966) — just as Head’s name, following “Costume Supervision,” had appeared alone in the film’s opening credits. And when she won the Oscar, Head didn’t thank Givenchy; in fact, she sidestepped making a speech altogether. Here’s that moment:

Givenchy took the slights of both the film’s credit and the subsequent Oscar with his characteristic good grace. In the years following Head’s 1981 death, Givenchy quietly acknowledged that the three Parisian looks in Sabrina indeed were his designs. Those who had worked in the wardrobe department at Paramount Pictures in the mid-1950s agreed, noting that the designs had been crafted within the department (a common practice, as multiple copies are typically produced to account for wear or possible damage), but had been created using Givenchy’s sketches.

The “Sabrina” gown when it was brought to auction in 2017.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the reappearance of the strapless evening gown seems to support that claim. Accidentally discovered in a trunk that almost went to Goodwill, the dress was part of “The Personal Property Auction of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” an October 2017 sale presented by Profiles in History, the Calabasas, California-based auction house that specializes in entertainment memorabilia. In addition to her legendary career, Reynolds — who died from a stroke in December 2016, just one day after Fisher’s death from cardiac arrest — was known for collecting and preserving Hollywood costumes and props. Reynolds had worked with Profiles in History on three auctions between 2011 and 2014, with many iconic costumes featured among the lots, including Hepburn’s iconic black and white gown by Cecil Beaton in 1964’s My Fair Lady, which sold for $3.7 million. Is it possible she didn’t realize the Sabrina dress was in that trunk? “It really is one of the four or five most famous dresses in cinema history, and we almost missed it,” Joe Maddalena, president and CEO of Profiles in History, said in 2017. “There’s just no way that Debbie knew she had this. She purchased so many things over the years, at one point it was just likely forgotten.”

Maddalena noted that the gown’s construction backs up the idea that it was crafted within Paramount’s wardrobe department. “A couture dress is completely finished on the inside," he reasoned. “Studio-created costumes are unfinished inside, so a costumer can quickly open and close them if needed on set. This dress is unfinished inside, and it's been stamped by Paramount's wardrobe department.” The highlight of that October 2017 auction, the dress ultimately sold for $217,600.

The costume-design credits at the start of 1957’s “Funny Face.”

Hepburn reportedly never forgot how horrified she was by Givenchy’s lack of proper credit on Sabrina. Her period costumes for 1956’s War and Peace were produced at Cinecitta Studios in Italy, but when she returned to Hollywood to shoot 1957’s Funny Face, Hepburn’s newfound power allowed her to not only demand Givenchy’s services for the film, but also a proper listing in the opening credits.

And when the 1958 Academy Award nominations were announced, Givenchy would share an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design with Head. The pair lost, however, to Orry-Kelly, who won the trophy for his work in Les Girls, starring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor and Kay Kendall.

Sabrina drew rave reviews when it opened in September 1954. Film critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “the most delightful comedy-romance in years,” and said of Hepburn, “indeed, she is wonderful in it — a young lady of extraordinary range of sensitive and moving expressions within such a frail and slender frame. She is even more luminous as the daughter and pet of the servants' hall than she was as a princess last year, and no more than that can be said.” For Hepburn and Givenchy, meanwhile, Sabrina represented not only the launch of fashion’s most celebrated designer-muse relationship, but also a lifelong friendship — in 1991 Hepburn said, “very few words can express 40 years of friendship, and his clothes for me have not only thrilled me, but given me so much confidence.”

For her part, Head continued to defend that the work in Sabrina was hers — according to Edith Head’s Hollywood, she later purchased the black cocktail dress from Paramount to include as part of a touring fashion retrospective. During these presentations, Head would credit the dress as her own design.

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