The Actress and the Outfit: Audrey Hepburn and that Little Black Dress

It's almost 55 years since Audrey Hepburn made fashion history with the Little Black Dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's. We look at the arrival of the iconic LBD and its effect on fashion and the movies over the years...

 

The opening scene to Breakfast at Tiffany’s introduces us to Holly Golightly – and perhaps the most iconic and influential movie outfit of all time.

The Little Black Dress had been around since Coco Chanel in the 20s, but Count Hubert de Givenchy, the French couturier and Audrey Hepburn’s best friend, modernised and accessorised it to knockout effect.

Audrey Hepburn was a late starter to the role after Marilyn Monroe pulled out, concerned that playing a prostitute would tarnish her public image. Givenchy knew exactly what would complement Hepburn’s slender physique and perfect bone structure: a combination of simplicity, elegance and a hint of the illicit.

Part of it stemmed from necessity – Hepburn was a natural introvert pushed into playing the extrovert. She needed props – and Givenchy (with help from the legendary costume designer Edith Head) gave them to her.

The black sheath dress itself – voted the best ever worn by a woman in the movies* – was straight lined, elegant and a world away from the tiny-waisted, hour-glass shapes favoured by women in the 50s (and, of course, Ms Monroe).

Givenchy’s current creative director, Riccardo Tisci, says of the dress: “It was 1961 and this dress is, in a way, very sixties. The front is severe, elegant, very clean, but at the back there is the very interesting neckline, somewhere between ethnic and Parisian; a softness that other designers in that time didn’t have.”

That timeless quality means that the dress is still highly influential – and highly valued – 50 years later. One of three copies of the dress made for the film was sold at London auction house Christie’s for a staggering £467,000 in 2006.

One of three copies of the dress made for the film was sold at London auction house Christie’s for a staggering £467,000 in 2006

But let’s not forget the accessories that helped make that dress so iconic – and make Hepburn so inseparable from Holly Golightly. There are those black satin, elbow length opera gloves for a start – offering a delicate hint of S&M while drawing the eye to Hepburn’s exquisitely shaped upper arms and shoulders.

Then there’s that insanely long (20-inch) cigarette holder – again ostensibly an opera accessory but subconsciously planting the idea that this was a woman who plays by her own set of rules. And as the act of smoking has progressively retreated from polite society, the erotic charge of that delicate bakelite tube has amped up considerably.

The final parts of the iconic outfit are fittingly representative of the chiarascuro whole: the dazzling light of the Tiffany’s pearl and diamond jewellery and those dark, mysterious Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses.

Of course that initial impression of elegance, expense and mystery is then deliciously undermined by Hepburn tucking into a sugary donut – possibly for the only time in her life. But that contrast sums up the yin and yang underpinning Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly – the mix of light and dark, scandal and innocence, catwalk haute couteur and cat-loving homeliness.

It’s all there to see, 55 years later, in that delightful outfit worn by that delightful actress. So whether you watch her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s  or gaze on those stunning photographs in the National Portrait gallery – you are duty bound to acknowledge that true class and great fashion is timeless.

* LoveFilm Readers Survey, 2010.

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