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Where is the real Breakfast at Tiffany's dress?

For 50 years there's been a secret about the famous little black dress that Audrey Hepburn wears in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's. It was not the dress originally designed by Givenchy and was in fact created by Edith Head. Whilst I might not have 100% proof of this, it is my considered conclusion after 5 years of researching - researching that has taken me around the world in an effort to discover what happened to the real Breakfast at Tiffany's dress.

My interest in the dress began in 2006 when it was announced that one of three dresses created by Givenchy for the opening scene was to be auctioned at Christie's in London. I'm a huge Audrey fan - of both her professional and humanitarian work and likewise I have much respect for Hubert de Givenchy. At the time, many fans on the notice board noted from the publicity photos released at the time the dress differed slightly from the one used on the movie by way of a thigh length slit on the left leg. I didn't pay too much attention to this at time, I was more concerned with figuring out how to raise enough money to buy the dress. My only auction experience at the time was on ebay and I had no idea the estimate would turn out to be underestimated by a factor of 10!

Two days prior to the auction I travelled down to London to meet a fellow Audrey fan and take a look at the dress in person. I was pretty much in my element at Christie's - not only was the Tiffany's dress on display and I was able to touch it, there was also a Givenchy dress from Charade and various other pieces of Audrey memorabilia not to mention a huge collection of James Bond stuff.

Whilst we were looking at the Tiffany's dress a rather strange, well-dressed old fellow came over and inspected the dress then started grumbling that it wasn't real - he pointed out the Charade dress was real. The main difference as far as we could tell was the Tiffany's dress was machine stitched and well finished, whilst the Charade dress was hand stitched. My companion didn't think too much of this, but I was intrigued so I purchased a copy of the auction catalogue to read on the train journey home.

The auctioned Givenchy dress - notice the Edith Head sketch in the background!

The auction catalogue made it clear the dress wasn't actually used in the movie - it was one of three dresses created by Givenchy for Audrey to wear in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's. One copy was on display at the Museum of Film in Madrid, one was in Givenchy's private archive, and one had been donated to City of Joy Aid to auction off to raise money to build a school in India - the dress at Christie's. It didn't take long to find photos of the dress in the Madrid and confirm that this too had the slit along the left leg and wasn't used in the movie. Therefore, by process of elimination, that only left the copy in Givenchy's private archive as the one that was actually used. There was just one problem - I had a strong suspicion it wasn't! It didn't take long to figure out the dress in Givenchy's private archive was almost certainly the original - the one he worked and crafted meticulously with his own hands - a real work of art by a true artistic genius. The other two dresses, of the same design, were probably run off by one of his staff and given to Audrey to take back to Paramount to be worn in the movie.

So now I had two problems - how to prove the dress in the private archive wasn't the dress used in the movie and if I was correct where the heck is the real Breakfast at Tiffany's dress? I knew I couldn't, and really didn't want to, just ask Givenchy like a muck racking journalist on to a scandalous story. As much as I was excited and intrigued, I didn't want to offend someone I have great respect for. I'd had some brief contact with an author who wrote a book about Audrey's style - a book Givenchy wrote the forward to. I asked her if she knew anything, but I got a terse email reply and I think all I achieved was getting on her sh*t list. I thought this was odd, so I took a second look at that book and the Givenchy dress was strangely conspicuous by it's absence - considering it is probably Audrey's most iconic look and Givenchy was involved at some stage. I then poured over my entire collection of Audrey books (30+) and couldn't find any picture of Audrey wearing a dress with a slit, which only strengthened my resolve to solve this mystery. At this point I decided to focus my efforts on finding the real dress, rather than attempting to prove the dress in the Givenchy archive wasn't the real one - and potentially burn more bridges.

My first clue to who made the real dress was right under my nose. At the same Christie's auction in London was a costume sketch of the real dress signed by Edith Head. True to the version of the dress used in the movie it didn't have the slit, was longer, and was bunched in around the ankles to create that swishing action that's seen as Holly walks away from Tiffany's down W57th Street. Some more interesting information was revealed in the auction catalogue listing for the sketch which stated Edith "created some plain clothes and doubles for the Givenchy dresses"- the source of which was Head's biographer, David Chierichetti. Remarkably, the sketch sold for over $100,000 - not bad for a sketch of someone else's dress, huh? At this point I set about trying to learn more about Edith.

In a biography of Edith written by David Chierichetti, an account of Audrey and Edith taking apart the Givenchy dresses at Western Costume is given by Renue Conley (someone I've not been able to find any information about). The reason given was so they could get the pattern to make some more, but this is highly suspect - Audrey could easily have asked Givenchy for another dress and it would certainly have been beneath her to rip off one of her closest friends designs.

Based on the Edith signed sketch, the slit in the authentic Givenchy dresses, and the accounts given in the Edith biography, I was pretty sure Edith created the dress actually used in the movie. But why? Mostly on guess work, and somewhat confirmed later by Sam Wasson's book, I concluded that censorship was a big issue for the movie. I'm pretty sure that when Audrey returned to Paramount with the authentic Givenchy dresses with the slit, somebody there considered them unsuitable. Probably because too much of Audrey's leg would have been showing - further highlighting the sexual nature of Holly's character. I don't know who made this decision, but at some point Edith Head took control of this situation and created the phoney Givenchy's that didn't reveal Audrey's legs. As Paramount's top costumer designer and Costume Supervisor for the movie, she probably relished the chance to assert some of her authority and massage her ego a little. To avoid any potential embarrassment to Givenchy and any repeat of the scandal that ensued when Edith Head took credit (and an Oscar) for Givenchy's Sabrina dress, I'm guessing that a deal was made to destroy the dresses once filming was completed. This would explain the account of Audrey and Edith taking apart the dresses at Western Costume.

At this point I'd got everything sewn up (excuse the pun) and I figured I solved the mystery. There were a couple of problems though. I didn't know for sure which version of the dress existed in the Givenchy archive and there were still a few questions I didn't have answers for - such as why did the movie poster artwork show Audrey's leg if she was never photographed in the authentic dresses with the slit and what about the dress in the Timeless Audrey exhibit - maybe that was from the movie?

A year later, in 2007, I was visiting a friend in LA and arranged a meeting at The Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund with Ellen Fontana. It was a really interesting meeting and I got to hear about all the great work they do there. (Please consider making a donation). After talking about Audrey for the best part of an hour I asked about the real dress and got what I believe was a 100% honest reply - that it was in the Givenchy archive. I was skeptical, but at this stage I couldn't rule it out - not to mention a few people on the forum were sure this was the case.

My next break came two years later, in 2009, when I flew to Berlin to visit the Timeless Audrey exhibit and attend the Humanitarian Award honouring Irene Sendler. The first thing I looked for at the exhibit was the dress - I knew they had one from photos of the old Audrey Pavilion. The one on display was labelled as a reproduction and the design differed slightly from both the Givenchy originals and the dress used in the movie, but I wasn't disappointed because this confirmed my theory. I also got chance to speak to Sean Ferrer (Audrey's son), briefly, but I didn't muster the courage to ask about the dress - not wanting to offend or burn my bridges with him.

I'd pretty much resigned myself to not having concrete proof about the dresses until two things happened in 2010. The first was amazing - the dress from Givenchy's private archive went on display at Chateau Haroue in France. I was in France renovating my house and wasn't going to miss this chance to prove my theory correct. I drove all day - over 400 miles (stopping in Paris to pickup a friend) just to see the dress. I wasn't disappointed - it was exactly as I imagined. It was hand stitched and had the slit on the left side - it was Givenchy's original piece and it was perfect and exactly what I was expecting.

The second thing to happen was Sam Wasson's book, Fifth Avenue, 5am. I was, and still am a little critical of this book, but it did help me answer a couple of questions and confirm my suspicions about the censorship. The main question it answered related to the movie poster artwork. In the book Sam interviews the artist Robert McGinnis. McGinnis explains how all the photographs he worked with showed a full length dress without any leg showing and how he exposed the leg to make the poster sexier. Thus confirming it wasn't based on a photo with the slit - none of which seem to exist.

The book also raised another slightly contentious point. In the book there's a statement attributed to Sean that claims two version of the dress were made - the one we see in the movie (the phoney Givenchy) and one with a slit (the authentic Givenchy) to help Audrey walk around because the phoney dress was too tight. Clearly this is bogus - Audrey had no problem walking away down W57th street. In fact it's the swishing of the dress around Audrey's the ankles that really adds to this scene. Audrey also pulls up the dress to cross the street outside of her apartment, so at no time was the slit dress ever used. Honestly, I've no idea why he made this claim. It guess it's possible he was aware of my quest (I posted a lot on the forum about it) and wanted to preserve the commonly held belief that it was a Givenchy dress we all see in the open scene of the movie - which is completely understandable.

I'm writing about my personal quest to solve this mystery because it was exciting and intriguing adventure - not to muddy the water or cause a fuss. I've got fond memories of barely sleeping for 3 days after visiting Christie's whilst I poured over all my books all the related information I could find online. It turned in to a real treasure hunt for me. I can't rule out that I've got things wrong - I may have made some mistakes, but I'm pretty confident with what I have so far. Despite my strong belief that Edith Head created the dress we see in the movie, I always think of it as a Givenchy - the dress we see is clearly based on the Givenchy originals. I do think the changes Edith made enhanced the dress and it's a little sad her contribution to the dress has been ignored all these years, but some would argue she doesn't deserve any credit after taking credit for the Sabrina dress. Most of all I'm disappointed the actual dress from the movie was destroyed and fans like myself will never get to see or touch it the way we've been able to do with the authentic Givenchy dresses. That's assuming the account of Edith and Audrey taking them apart is accurate - who knows it might still be out there somewhere?

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