Roman Holiday and the Gamine Queen

In 1953, Audrey Hepburn starred in the film that would skyrocket her glamorous career as a gamine icon of the silver screen. The film was Roman Holiday, a modern fairytale where European Princess Ann (played by Audrey Hepburn) takes off on a whim one evening in Rome. The royal lady falls asleep on a park bench and is found by an American journalist Joe Bradley (played by Gregory Peck).

He scoops her up off the streets to rest and wake up in the safety of his home. When she wakes up, Bradley realizes how he might benefit from their chance meeting. Following his journalistic impulses, he pursues an exclusive interview with the princess. Of course, movie magic sprinkles tinsel in the air and a romance ensues.

Part of why Hepburn was cast for the role of Princess Ann was because the director, William Wyler, was in search of an actress who was aesthetically far removed from the popular curvy Italian woman trope. The extremely petite Audrey Hepburn–with her waify frame, preference for flat shoes, and absence of voluptuous cleavage–made her the perfect little “martian” to stick out in a 1950s Roman cinematic landscape.

Edith Head was enlisted to design the film’s costumes. The task required dressing Audrey Hepburn as an off-duty royal, a princess disguised as a random girl in the park. In a video explaining her creative decision-making process, Head explained:

“You see, she’s supposed to be a princess disguised as an ordinary girl on the streets of Rome. So we made her a simple costume, so she wouldn’t look different.”

The video shows Hepburn doing a little twirl in the first wardrobe test for Roman Holiday wearing a crisp white long-sleeve button-up shirt and a plain belted midi skirt. As Head explains her decisions, we see Hepburn rolling up her long white sleeves so they become casually bunched up onto the upper arm.

The thinking here was that the film took place in the summertime in Rome, where it would be hot and humid. Head reasoned that an “ordinary” girl cruising around Rome in summer would probably roll her sleeves up so cool off.

The clip goes on to show Hepburn’s wardrobe test for the princess look. Instead of the obvious indications of royalty, like ostentatious jewels (though she does wear a beautiful necklace) or a tiara, she wears a shapely and distinguished dress made of authentic white lace. “In other words, the type of dress that a real princess would wear under similar circumstances, in a similar locale,” Head notes, “this is what we call transformation through wardrobe.”

Schiaparelli et le Moulin Rouge

Voulez-vous créditer Schiaparelli avec moi ?

Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril in Moulin Rouge.

Elsa Schiaparelli’s work as a costume designer may have been lesser noticed, but her unique vision was never more apparent than in her designs for John Huston’s 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Her illustrious garments first appeared on the silver screen way back in the 1930s. In fact, between 1931 and 1952 she worked frequently as a costume designer for films in Hollywood, France, and the U.K.

Schiaparelli had a famously brilliant career as a couturier, but her prolific costuming work went largely uncredited, possibly dismissed as an early 20th-century female dressmaker. The last and arguably best costuming feat was her final cinema collaboration on the 1952 film Moulin Rouge.

In sharp contrast to the scandalous lack of credit between couturier and costume designer (ahem– Black Swan and Rodarte? Sabrina and Givenchy?) Schiaparelli was rarely credited for her work in cinema. Schiaparelli is hardly a household name unless you’re a sartorial geek. *raises hand* but in fashion history, her name is positively legendary. She established one of the first Parisian fashion houses that produced garments teetering on the edge of fine art and high fashion.

Schiaparelli stole and insect pin, Vogue Magazine.

Schiaparelli was a daring designer with a penchant for Surrealist fantasies, befriended like-minded surrealist creatives like Dalí, Cocteau, and Man Ray. Part of the artistic vision of Surrealism was transcending the logical world and dabbling in a realm where the absurd becomes perfectly reasonable. While the artists of Surrealism were translating these visions into photography, sculptural manifestations, and paintings, Schiaparelli was envisioning the body as a new landscape.

Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí

“In both Surrealism and fashion, the body was woven in fantasy and literally reimagined.”
– Ghislane Wood, The Surreal Body: Fetish and Fashion

She pushed the boundaries of what was formerly considered acceptable adornment for dress– think Lady Gaga meat dress energy. Schiaparelli crafted a lobster dress, trompe-l’œil ripped fabric, a shoe as a hat, ceramic buttons sculpted into the shapes of human circus performers, a mouth brooch with pearls as teeth.

Moulin Rouge was a vision of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s vision of Paris nightlife from the perspective of a tortured, but brilliant, alcoholic artist. He painted the seedy nightlife scene in 19th-century Parisian society, including a few famed women in particular, who have gone down in history thanks in part to his artistic renderings. Jane Avril was one of these gals.

Jane Avril poster, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893.

In designing the costumes for Jane, Schiaparelli based her designs on actual posters rendered by Toulouse-Lautrec. She hits the mark with incredible precision and somehow still adds evidence of her own artistic perspective as a fashion visionary. One of TL’s illustrations of jane Avril depicted a giant snake design affixed to her dress. Somehow, that seems exactly like something Elsa Schiaparelli might have dreamed up as one of her own designs. She was the perfect person for the job.

If we’ve learned anything from studying couturier x costume designer collaborations, it’s that the couturier takes a back seat on credits. The case of Moulin Rouge is so different. Elsa Schiaparelli designed some of the most iconic looks in the film, but it was customer designer Marcel Vertès who won the Academy Awards for art direction and costuming.

Head to Head with Givenchy

One of the most famed costume designers of all time, Edith Head, took home an Academy Award for her work on Sabrina, but it was Givenchy whose work most fans remember.

In the Oscar-winning 1953 film Sabrina, a working-class girl goes from a suicide attempt in the garage of her father’s employer to struttin’ around Paris in haute couture. Whether climbing a tree on Long Island or walking a poodle in Paris, Sabrina Fairchild is easily one of the most timelessly chic characters in cinema history.

Is it her gamine, stereotypical mannequin figure? Her romantic, whimsical attitude? Those daringly short bangs over a bold brow?

Those might all be factors, but one definite contribution is the dynamism of her wardrobe throughout the film. Her clothes have just as much of a plot as her character does, both on camera and behind the scenes.

Prior to filming Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn was sent to Paris to meet a hot young French designer–Hubert de Givenchy. The film’s screenwriter and director, Billy Wilder, sent Hepburn there to get a feel for the magic and style of the city.

Givenchy was initially disappointed when a slender-framed Audrey strolled into his atelier wearing her classic slim pant and flat shoe combo.

The designer had been expecting a different “Miss Hepburn” (Katherine), or so the story goes, but the sartorial relationship between Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy blossomed into a decades-long esteemed fashion muse dynamic.

Much to the dismay of lead Sabrina costumer, Edith Head, director Billy Wilder instructed Hepburn to visit Paris and return with some Givenchy dresses for her character to wear upon her cinematic visit to the La Ville-Lumière.

Sabrina’s costuming aesthetic was divided into two distinct chapters for this film– before knowing the stylish sensibilities of Paris, and afterward. Hollywood costume legend Edith Head was in charge of conceiving the former, and Hepburn retrieved the latter on her own via Givenchy.

This was reportedly a bitter experience for Head, as Sabrina’s more stylish scenes held promise for her to have showcased her abilities within the world of Paris couture. Instead, Wilder went around Head completely and sourced the clothes from an actual Paris couturier. However, that didn’t stop Head from altering the Givenchy garments and sketching her own renditions of them.

As the story goes, Givenchy was expecting to meet the glamorous and esteemed Katherine Hepburn instead of Audrey. His disappointment was evident in his decision to her back to Hollywood with some samples from the previous year’s spring/summer collection.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1955 and won three, including Best Costume Design in Black and White (from 1948-1967ish, costume Oscars were two separate categories: color and black & white).

Who do you think won the award: Edith Head or Hubert de Givenchy?

If this feels like a flashback to the Black Swan controversy, that’s because it is. Givenchy’s dresses in Sabrina became famous, even synonymous with the film. But it was costumer Edith Head who took the Oscar home. She didn’t acknowledge Givenchy in her acceptance speech either. In fact, she avoided an acceptance speech altogether by swiftly accepting the Oscar and exiting stage right.

Controversies aside, both Head and Givenchy’s garments are timelessly chic. The Givenchy clothes are breathtaking, but even before Sabrina matures into a fashion-forward Parisienne, her style is still remarkable.