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.”

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.