The Review/Feature/

A Little Black Dress and Pearls

Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly is one of the rare pieces of pop that changed culture

by Craig Caron
Mar 31, 2017

A shark rising from the depths towards a nude swimmer; a giant (perhaps even 50-foot) woman attacking cars on a freeway; Rhett Butler clutching a bare-shouldered Scarlett O’Hara. Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.

On Sunday, October 2, 1960, on the same stretch of sidewalk now cordoned off by New York City police around Trump Tower, Audrey Hepburn stood in front of Tiffany & Co. filming the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's. As the strains of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” play over the credits, Hepburn silently drinks a coffee and eats a pastry from a brown paper bag.

This sequence, which lasts all of a minute, remains one of the most referenced visuals in Hollywood history. Today, over 55 years since the film's release, images of Hepburn as Holly Golightly can still be found everywhere, from purses to pint glasses. Like Marilyn Monroe over the subway grate (how many people remember which film this was originally from ?) or the Guerrillero Heroico photo of Che Guevara, Breakfast at Tiffany's exists in that rarefied sphere of images that have become untethered from their source. The little black dress, the pearls, and the foot-long cigarette holder are part of the everyday visual topography of our culture. Enter a dormitory and you'll find the film's poster tacked to any number of walls. Stroll through a department store and you'll meet Ms. Golightly's gaze staring out from the cosmetics counter or any number of brandable accessories. A Google image search for Breakfast at Tiffany’s yields as many modern restagings of the scene as stills from the actual movie.

From left: Kelly Ripa via Instagram; [re-]Mixing Hollywood by Antoine Tempe & Omar Victor Diop; 2012 Entertainment Weekly cover with Tina Fey; Lego restaging by Alex Eylar,

Even if this image has taken on a life of its own, however, it is still intertwined with the 1961 film — a film that is sadly marred by one of the most reprehensibly racist portrayals of an East Asian character in all of popular cinema history. That iconic first scene is immediately followed by one in which Holly has a run-in with her upstairs neighbour Mr. Yunioshi (played by Mickey Rooney), a buffoonish caricature with thick glasses and buck teeth who will make several equally offensive, plot-irrelevant intrusions over the course of the film’s 115 minutes. In the weeks leading up to the film's production, a Paramount press release announced that the renowned Japanese comic “Ohayo Arigatou” would be playing the role of Yunioshi; there was no such person, of course, Arigatou and Yunioshi both being loathsome bits of “comic relief” dreamt up by Rooney and the film’s director Blake Edwards. (The film’s screenwriter, George Axelrod, repeatedly implored Edwards to remove the character from the film, to no avail.)

Protesting an outdoor screening of the film in 2008, community activist Christine Fa suggested that “the American public has canonized Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a reminder of a more genteel, ‘golden’ era. They consider the film so iconic, they’re willing to condone its racism: a sad reflection of Americans’ tendency to minimize racism within society.”

Breakfast at Tiffany's on screen at TCM Classic Film Festival. Photo by Turner Broadcasting Corp.

There is certainly a disturbing trend of downplaying the dreadfulness of the Rooney material. Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective, a documentary featured on the film's DVD, mostly regards the character as a “reflection of the time,” and instead devotes an large chunk of its 20 minutes to the US internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

Perhaps the film does deserve to be shelved, as some of its opponents have demanded. There are certainly precedents for big-studio films being suppressed due to overtly offensive content: Song of the South might have its cultists, but thanks to Disney’s vaulting of the film it has long since left the popular consciousness. That said, even in such instances it’s important to consider whose tastes are ultimately being served by such self-censorship on the part of studios. Why can there be serious discussion about suppressing Tiffany’s — a film beloved of generations of women — while equally offensive films beloved of young men are sacrosanct? (There seems to be no end in sight for the James Bond franchise, for example.)

In his behind-the-scenes-of-Tiffany’s book Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., Sam Wasson argues that Holly persists as a cultural icon not because she's a representative of postwar affluence, but because she is one of the first true ’60s women: “All of a sudden living alone, going out, looking fabulous and getting a little drunk didn't look so bad anymore. Being single actually seemed shame-free.... Audrey's Holly showed that glamour was available to anyone, no matter what their age, sex life, or social standing. Grace Kelly's look was safe, Doris Day's undesirable, and Elizabeth Taylor's — unless you had that body — unattainable, but in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Audrey's was democratic.”

Audrey/Holly remains a fashion icon for generations who weren't even born when Hepburn passed away in 1993. The actress regularly makes Forbes' annual list of “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities,” gracing magazine covers and posthumously acting as spokesperson for perfumes, chocolates, and cosmetics. (Her estate is managed by her sons, with proceeds going to the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund.) Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2014, Hepburn's friend and couturier Hubert de Givenchy observed that he had “seen I don’t know how many young girls in little black dresses or little narrow trousers with black T-shirts. They seem to adore Audrey more for the clothes than the movies — maybe they don’t even know the movies.”

The oft-told story of Hepburn's first meeting with Givenchy holds that the designer accepted an appointment with the then unknown actress by mistake, thinking she was the other Ms. Hepburn. Audrey persevered, however, charming the young Frenchman and leaving with three of his creations (two gowns and a grey suit). Givenchy first dressed Hepburn for the screen on the 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina, in which the actress plays the proverbial ugly duckling who, after two years abroad in Paris, returns home and enchants wealthy heirs Humphrey Bogart and William Holden with her newly worldly ways. More than anything, Sabrina's metamorphosis is spelled out with a shift in wardrobe from frocks to haute couture.

The three Sabrina outfits supplied by Givenchy

Though Paramount's eminent costume designer Edith Head was credited with the costumes for Sabrina (and won an Oscar for the film), Hepburn had a stipulation written into future contracts that she would only be garbed by Givenchy. Hepburn's subsequent, eight-film collaboration with the designer is as significant as any of those with her directors or co-stars. “Givenchy’s creations always gave me a sense of security and confidence,” she said; “My work went more easily in the knowledge that I looked absolutely right.” With Breakfast at Tiffany's, the pair’s collaboration reached its apex.

Audrey Hepburn with Hubert de Givenchy, 1956

Tiffany's was one of those rare pieces of pop that changed culture. Holly's dress from that opening scene shifted the very idea of glamour. Though Coco Chanel had popularized the idea of the little black dress in 1926, it had always been an item for the more fashion-forward, especially in the years since World War II when glamour (read: class) came to be represented by elaborate, expensive garments in the style of Christian Dior's New Look. In Wasson's book, designer Jeffrey Banks notes how “Givenchy and Audrey gave us a very realistic, very accessible kind of class. After Tiffany's, anyone, no matter what their financial situation, could be chic everyday and everywhere. The little black dress was easy to emulate: any young woman in 1961 could make one or even afford to buy one... because of its simplicity, any little black dress would do the trick — as millions would soon see, that was the beauty of it.”

Givenchy actually supplied a couple of variations of the dress for the opening scene: one for standing still at the window, another for the shots of Holly walking (the standing dress was too tight for Audrey to properly stroll). It’s fairly unlikely the dresses Givenchy supplied were actually used on screen: though accounts vary, Edith Head almost certainly recreated the dress in the Paramount workshop (it’s common practice in Hollywood to have multiple copies of a single costume).

Breakfast at Tiffany's costume sketch by Edith Head

In 2006, one of the Givenchy dresses sold at auction for £467,200 — but even at that princely sum, it's far from the most valuable element of Holly's iconic look. After filming the coffee-and-pastry opening, the cast and crew moved indoors for another kind of shoot: following months of negotiations, Tiffany & Co. had agreed to allow Paramount to film inside the store in exchange for a photo shoot of Hepburn wearing the 128.54-carat Tiffany Diamond, the largest diamond known to exist at the time. Set by Tiffany's jeweller Jean Schlumberger in a necklace dubbed the Ribbon Rossette, the diamond appears in a series of photos of Hepburn sitting in the store, at a table set for breakfast.

Though Holly never dons the necklace in the film (a similar, much less valuable necklace designed by Roger Scemama was used on screen), thanks to this photo shoot it has become as much a part of Holly's image as the black dress and beehive ’do.

More than half a century later, Holly's image is big business. There's an official Holly product for every hour of the day: snacktime (lunch pails), playtime (Barbie and Funko dolls), bathtime (shower curtains), bedtime (duvet covers, alarm clocks), and, of course, breakfast (innumerable mugs and espresso sets).

In terms of licensed products, only one Tiffany’s image rivals the Hepburn photos: the poster illustration by Robert E. McGinnis. By the end of the 1960s, McGinnis’ work for such films as Barbarella, The Odd Couple, and several James Bond films had made him one of the most sought-after poster designers in the business, but in 1961 he had no film-industry work to his name. “All they wanted [for the Tiffany’s poster] was a single figure, just this girl standing, but with a cat over her shoulder, and that she would be holding her long cigarette holder,” McGinnis recalled.

Robert E. McGinnis, Breakfast at Tiffany's, U.S. one sheet (1961), Paramount Pictures, 27" x 41"

“They sent me a few movie stills to work with... The stills weren't really any good, so I had to take a few leaps of my own. I was shooting pictures of a model for a book cover I was doing, and had her pose with the little orange cat I had back in those days. I put the cat on her shoulder, but the cat wouldn't stay, so she had to put her right arm up to hold it there. That was an accident. I didn't tell the model to put her hand there. It was just the only way she could keep the cat in place. That right there was the missing piece, and it was the only variation from the many movie stills they gave me.”

The cat on the shoulder was essential to Paramount's publicity department, which, fearing that both the film and its star would be labelled indecent, built a promotional campaign assuring parents and watchdogs that Holly was not a woman of loose morals (or, worse, a beatnik), but a “kook”:

Holly Golightly keeps a fish in a birdcage. Holly Golightly takes breakfast on the sidewalk of Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue. Holly has a cat whose name is “Cat.” Kook is not, as everybody associated with Breakfast at Tiffany's knows, a beatnik term. Couldn't be. The Star is Audrey Hepburn, not Tawdry Hepburn.

A rare advance one-sheet sold for $23,000 in 2004.

Despite the spin, audiences who encountered Holly in 1961 didn't meet a kook, but an independent woman. Holly was a herald of many of the changes that were to dominate the decade to come, both on- and offscreen. Even if they don’t recognize it, by adorning their lives with her image, many of Hepburn/Holly’s fans are in fact celebrating the power of clothing to embolden, to instill confidence. As the actress once said, “It's wonderful when a dress can make you take on another personality.”