Edith Head and the ‘Sabrina’ dress

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Hollywood costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorléac was mentored by the legendary Edith Head, who died 29 years ago today. He is frustrated by long-standing accounts that credit Givenchy with the classic black H-neckline dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina” [“Impressions of a Legend,” Oct. 3]. Here, from his memoir-in-progress, Dorléac gives Head her say on the controversy:

Secondhand accounts can ruin someone’s reputation as much as malicious rumors. Therefore, I feel it is time to set the record straight.

In early April of 1974, I had the following conversation with Edith Head in her bungalow on the Universal Studio lot while we looked at a rack of costumes she was going through to select garments for her Vogue fashion shows.

She pulled from the rack a crumpled and sagging black dress, and examined it.

I stared at the dress, recognizing it immediately. “That’s the infamous ‘Sabrina’ dress, non?”

“No! It’s the muslin [first-fitting dress], although it’s made in rayon taffeta. See the peplum here? I did away with it when I finalized its look.”


“But, by all the accounts I have heard, didn’t Givenchy make it?”

“Ha,” retorted Edith, “that story has been circulating for years, thanks to Miss Hepburn.”

“But why?”

“So she could gain his favor, I suppose, and get clothes free.” She paused and fluffed up the skirt. “During preproduction for ‘Sabrina,’ she was in San Francisco touring with ‘Gigi,’ and had no time to come to Hollywood for a meeting. So, once more, I went to see her like I did for ‘Roman Holiday,’ when she was performing in New York. She was pleasant enough, but very tenacious in her taste. Her manner remained aloof, although somewhat sad and unhappy. She smiled only when it was necessary. I was beginning to believe the rumors I had heard of how some journalists and other actors regarded her as being self-absorbed. And I realized that any confidence I had built up with her before, now carried little weight. She handed me a croquis, a rough sketch similar to the quick ones I had shown her originally for ‘Roman Holiday,’ and said she had made it while viewing Givenchy’s runway show in Paris. Years later, I learned she had gained access to the showing giving the name ‘Miss Hepburn.’ As she was hardly known at the time since ‘Roman Holiday’ hadn’t yet been released, Givenchy thought it was Katharine Hepburn. The sketch of this dress and several others she pulled forth were the costumes she wanted for ‘Sabrina.’”

“But, how could she have been so insistent when you were the costume designer?”

“She had gone to Billy Wilder, the director, explaining that in the story, after she had returned from finishing school in France, she should have real Parisienne clothing. As all directors do, he agreed, in order to keep his star happy. So, in an effort to appease both of them, I consented to the look, but suggested a few changes here and there,” she said proudly, “to give it my touch.” She scrutinized the creation like she had never seen it before. “It was a nice enough design originally but looked even more spectacular when I did away with this awful one-sided peplum and added the bows.”

“Yes, it was stunning, along with the black on white embroidered gown. Did they send you the fabric from his atelier?”

Once more Edith chuckled. “The drawing she presented was of a solid color, supposedly satin, and not embroidered. I never received a thing from Givenchy. My sketch artist did all the final renderings and the patterns were made at Paramount. The wool for her suit, the silk taffeta, the embroidered organza and all the other fabrics used came from local fabric dealers.”

“Then you really designed everything?”

Oui, mon petit.”

“Didn’t it outrage you when you were accused of taking credit for something you supposedly didn’t do?”

“I really didn’t care. Couture has copied my things for years, in addition to countless other costume designers, claiming theirs were the original ideas. It’s all part of the business, unfortunately.”