It was a wintry morning at Fifth Avenue on Oct. 2, 1960 when Audrey Hepburn got out of a yellow cab and stood outside the window display of Tiffany & Co. She was holding a Danish in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. She was wearing a long satin black dress and the famous 128.54 carat yellow Tiffany diamond necklace by French designer Jean Schlumberger. This was the first opening scene of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Hepburn was playing the character of Holly Golightly. It was also the first time that Tiffany’s allowed a Hollywood movie crew to shoot inside the store, surrounded by the planet’s most valuable jewelry and 40 security guards. Hepburn’s black dress in that scene received great media attention and reinvigorated her acting career and the career of its designer, Hubert de Givenchy. The little black dress (LBD) had become a cultural icon, so popular that other designers copied Givenchy. They used different materials and features to revamp their designs, such as satin, lace, and leather, that they adorned with sequins and other embellishments. The dress could be with or without sleeves, with straps, with a sweetheart or halter neckline, long or short—the iterations were endless. The dress was distinguished for its simplicity, elegance, and timeless look.
A fashion love affair
Hepburn first met Givenchy, the designer of her LBD, while on a trip to Paris in 1953. Before their meeting, Givenchy was an unknown designer in his 20s who had set up his own fashion house and had opened his first store at the Plaine Monceau in Paris in 1952. That was also a time in fashion when other French designers like Christian Dior were starting out their fashion careers.
Hepburn was a dainty 24-year-old Belgian actress, fresh from her film success Roman Holiday, who was visiting Paris for location shoots on her upcoming film, Sabrina. She had heard of Givenchy, and she visited his atelier. She tried on a few dresses and she asked the 26-year-old designer if he would like to design her wardrobe for Sabrina. Givenchy declined her offer because he was too busy preparing his next collection. Hepburn, however, was so persistent that she invited him to dinner. Givenchy accepted her dinner invitation, and there he realized how charming she was. A fashion romance and a lifelong friendship had just begun. Their friendship was fueled by their love and respect for each other.
Every piece of clothing that Hepburn had worn in Sabrina had been made by the French designer. The next year, 1955, the filmwon the Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the Oscars. Hepburn was so fascinated with Givenchy’s beautiful work that she remained loyal to him on and off the stage. Givenchy designed her wardrobes for seven subsequent films for free and most of her personal casual wear.
His irreplaceable talent showed off in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when he designed several stylish dresses, including the most influential LBD for the film’s opening scene. Givenchy had designed three copies of the LBD for that scene. The original version was actually shorter, and it’s stored at Givenchy’s private archive. The second copy resides at The Garment Museum in Madrid (Inventory: MT-100793.) Givenchy donated the third copy to French writer and philanthropist Dominic Lapierre and his wife to help raise funds for their charity, City of Joy Aid, which benefited the poor of Calcutta, India. This copy was auctioned at Christie’s in London in 2006 and it was sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for the historic price of £467,200! The original estimate was £50,000–£70,000.
During the 1920s, the fashion world underwent a sheer magnitude of cultural changes. The World War I, women’s suffrage, invention of film, automobiles, use of cosmetics, jazz music, and other changes influenced women’s lifestyle. Clothing designs reflected a sense of freedom and feminine expression. Creativity exploded. Paris had become the fashion capital of the world. A hub for revolutionary designers and artists. Parisienne fashion designers like Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret, and Madeleine Vionnet rocked the fashion world with their stunning innovative styles.
After the slaughter of World War I, women wore black day dresses to mourn their loved ones. Besides mourning, the black dress was also associated with widowhood, nuns, social withdrawal, servants, and the poor. Chanel changed that perception with her revolutionary fashion creations that used nontraditional cloth like jersey and unconventional cuts often inspired by men’s clothes. While other designers created fancy, colorful clothes to offset the gloom of the war, Chanel produced a bold and simple black dress that could be worn for business and formal events. Chanel’s intention was to make the dress affordable, versatile, and available to all women.
Chanel’s creation of the black dress reached the other side of the Atlantic when it appeared on the American Vogue cover on October 1, 1926. It was an illustration of Coco Chanel’s long-sleeved design in a straight line made of black crèpe de chine and accentuated with four diagonal stripes. The Vogue editors had nicknamed the design “The Ford” after the era’s popular black Model T Ford automobile. The nickname of this elegant dress also inspired another sense: it resembled Henry Ford’s own car, who had said that Model T was “available in any color… so long as it’s black.”
Chanel’s design was the beginning of a new fashion horizon for the modern woman and it had several incarnations since. Other designers adopted her concept and created many iterations of black dresses not only for the public but also for prestigious clientele and Hollywood actresses. For example, costume designer Travis Banton debuted the LBD for Hollywood star Clara Bow in the hit film It (1927). In the film, there was a scene where Bow took scissors and transformed her black work dress into an evening dress that she wore on a date to the Ritz. Her entrance into the Ritz made Bow a fashion icon overnight, and the LBD received much media attention.
The LBD in Breakfast at Tiffany’s continues Hepburn’s legacy of simple, timeless glamor in our modern times. Hepburn’s and Givenchy’s collaboration revolutionized the fashion world and turned the iconic black dress into a must-have garment in every woman’s wardrobe. Over the years, designers like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano referenced Givenchy’s original design and added their own touch to it. The LBD has become a popular culture that other movie stars and prestigious personalities wore such as Natalie Portman, Princess Diana.
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