BY DESIGN : Polite Society : Talk About 'Sabrina' Revives Cocktail Dresses and Low Heels


When word got out that a modern version of the movie "Sabrina" was in the works, more than a few fashion designers ran out to rent the 1954 original, a charming Cinderella story starring Audrey Heburn as the chauffeur's daughter, Humphrey Bogart as the aging tycoon and William Holden as his playboy brother.

The result of their infatuation is sweeping through stores now: a chic '50s look that has nothing to do with the new film and everything to do with the old one.

Everywhere there are Sabrina-type shoes, polite pumps with two-inch heels, and Sabrina-inspired dresses, black satin cocktail numbers, sometimes with bell-shaped skirts resembling long ballerina costumes.

The legendary Edith Head received the on-screen "costume supervision" for the original movie, and even accepted an Oscar for it, but it turns out that the film's key designs--the famous black satin cocktail dress, a slender coming-home-from-Paris suit and the long embroidered white gown--were actually done by Hepburn's favorite couturier, Hubert de Givenchy.

At the time, the gentlemanly French designer quietly told people that the pieces were his but didn't complain publicly about the lack of an on-screen credit. In "Edith Head's Hollywood" (E.P. Dutton, 1983), co-written by the designer, Paddy Calistro writes: "After her death in 1981, people who worked with Edith at Paramount confided that she actually had not designed the black dress, that it was made at Paramount, under Edith's supervision, from Givenchy's sketch."

Givenchy ultimately confirmed that the designs were his.

In what will likely be his last proprietary word on the subject, the designer, who plans to retire after the ready-to-wear shows this month, included a demure Sabrina dress in his final haute couture collection.

Another tribute to Sabrina comes from Badgley Mischka, a New York-based duo that has long admired old Hollywood. Theirs is a corset-like ballerina bodice over a full satin skirt and five layers of silk tulle. The length looked modern and right, co-designer Mark Badgley says, adding: "It was a new proportion of the cocktail dress that doesn't exist in women's wardrobes."

Calvin Klein pays homage to Hepburn as both Sabrina and as Holly Golightly, her character in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," with a black satin cocktail dress that borrows the former's bateau neckline and the latter's sheath shape.

The ballerina dress filters down to a more moderate price range in the spring collections now being shown to store buyers.

The current ladylike silhouette is grounded in polite shoes with short heels. Klein, Marc Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi, Manolo Blahnik and Prada have all done takes on the Sabrina heel, with prices ranging from $250 to $500. Such stores as Nordstrom will soon show their versions of the look for $100 to $200.

The appeal of these foot-friendly pumps has been evident at Prada in Beverly Hills, where the Sabrina heels have sold out and been re-ordered. "Women still want to wear high heels, but it hurts to walk in them," explains Prada shop owner Judy Leaf. "This has the appearance of a high heel because of its shape, but the heel is low. They're understated, charming little shoes."

The creators of the new "Sabrina," which is scheduled for a Dec. 15 release, bristle at the word remake. Julia Ormond steps into the title role, with Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear as co-stars.

Costume designer Ann Roth insists that "fashion in this film is a non-event." She did, however, take the same tact as Head by creating clothes based on the style of the leading lady. Ormond is neither the elegant gamine type nor model-slender.

"[She] plays a high school girl on Long Island who shopped in malls and she was dressed in that manner," Roth says. "She was sent to France to work for a fashion magazine and we wanted her to be very much of a misfit in that world."

As the character evolves, Roth says, this Sabrina moves into confident classics, not high fashion. So, rather than black satin cocktail dresses and embroidered gowns, perhaps the next Sabrina-inspired fashions will fall within the more realistic world of jackets and pants.

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