When the stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the enduring 1958 novella written by Truman Capote, debuted on Broadway recently, a number of female audience members showed up dressed as the main character Holly Golightly, an adventuresome young woman in the city. They wore little black dresses accented by dramatic pearls. A few added dark over-the-elbow opera gloves.
That look is pure Holly Golightly as depicted memorably by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 Tiffany movie. (Capote’s novella didn’t have much emphasis on fashion.) The most recent reincarnation of this character on stage wears 25 different WWII fashions as interpreted by famous costume designer Colleen Atwood [from the movie Edward Scissorhands], including a flowing satin dressing gown and shirtwaist dresses with cinched-in waists. The new look was more Carrie Bradshaw circa 1943 than iconic Hepburn.
It is probably best that Broadway went another direction instead of tinkering with the way Hepburn looked in the movie; her style there – high French twist hair, oversize Rayban Wayfarer sunglasses and statement alligator pumps – cannot really be improved upon. That is why the little black dress, along with many of Hepburn’s accessories, is just as relevant today.
In the opening scene of the Tiffany movie, Hepburn is wearing a classic long black gown by Hubert Givenchy. Her bold multi-strand pearl necklace is anchored in the front with a brooch—a look we have frequently seen on First Lady Michelle Obama. And the length of the necklace hangs backwards, down the back of Hepburn’s gown—a look most recently reprised on the Academy Awards red carpet by Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence. While a few of Hepburn’s accessories have a kitschy feel about them today—nobody carries a cigarette holder any more and outside of Britain’s Royal Family not many wear tiaras—but the neckline of the gown, which cuts in at the shoulder blades, is timeless.
The foundation of Hepburn’s Tiffany style is the little black dress (also designed by Givenchy), a wardrobe item now so popular it can just be referenced to short-style style, as a LBD. Nina Garcia, fashion editor at Marie Claire magazine, has written that a LBD is one of the top ten items a woman must own. Tim Gunn, InStyle magazine, and every department store , boutique and wardrobe stylist in the country agrees.
The reason is simple: it’s a wardrobe workhorse. In the movie, we see Hepburn wear her knee-length LBD with a large brim hat or a bib necklace, to a cocktail party and to visit a friend in prison. Now that’s versatility. Like most LBDs, hers is sleeveless and lacking pattern; it’s biggest style statement comes from a deep ruffle hem. But the essential plainness of the dress allows it be dressed up or down, as needed. And black is the best color for hiding everything: stains, a few extra pounds, or even that the fabric is not that expensive. You can’t really pull off a cheap turquoise or white dress—the material will always hint, or sometimes scream, the price point. But black almost always looks rich—at least until it starts to look faded.
The concept of a LBD was born in 1926 when American Vogue published a photo of a simple Coco Chanel black dress, calling it “Chanel’s Ford.” Like a Model T, the sheath dress with long sleeves was a basic model that could a woman where she wanted to go. From that point on, LBDs have been staples of every decade. Marilyn Monroe wore one when appearing with her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller. In a 1985 runway show, designer Karl Lagerfeld was credited with reinvigorating the concept of a black go-to dress as a wardrobe essential.
Now the LBD is everyone’s BFF. Harper’s Bazaar singled out the top LBDs of last year; they included work by Miu Miu, Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs—and, of course, Chanel. Nordstrom advertises its LBD boutique and so does Target. Hepburn herself once said that her look was attainable for anyone. “Women can look like me by flipping out their hair, buying the sunglasses and the little sleeveless dresses.”
Clearly she was right. Just stick with black for that little sleeveless dress. Hepburn showed us definitely over fifty years ago that it’s a classic.