When we learned about the death of Hubert de Givenchy, it piqued our curiosity to about the legendary French designer and his enduring influence on the world of fashion. Most obituaries focused on his renowned relationship and collaboration with Audrey Hepburn – and that iconic “little black dress” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s – but didn’t go much deeper.
So, we launched an investigation of our own. A few keywords typed into the ProQuest search box revealed some remarkable discoveries: Givenchy was a fashion provocateur who was compared to Picasso, and his impact was so profound, he literally changed the way we dress today.
It started with an episode of the docuseries VideoFashion1, available from Academic Video Online, which celebrated 40 years of the designer’s illustrious career, and steered us to seek additional details from The Women’s Wear Daily Archive2 and ProQuest Historical Newspapers.3
House Givenchy burst onto the Paris fashion scene in the early ‘50s, making an immediate mark with a striking, avant-garde approach to women’s clothing. While Givenchy’s unconventional shapes and unusual fabrics were adored by daring fashionistas, his sense of style proved more challenging for others.
In a 1957 Women’s Wear Daily article by B. Taub2, Givenchy was a “creative interpreter of the youthful spirit,” whose work was often misunderstood. “Like the parallel experimentation in painting, architecture, sculpture, music and poetry,” she wrote, Givenchy’s artistry “seeks new shapes and forms to express the contemporary spirit.”
According to Taub, French novelist and statesman Andre Malraux said 20th century artists were driven by exploring and challenging the qualities of their materials and medium, and this was true of Givenchy who literally found inspiration in material.
“The fabric inspires me,” he explained in the VideoFashion documentary, Givenchy1. “If sometimes I take a piece of fabric and leave the fabric in front of me for one day, two days, and suddenly I’m thinking. I try to realize something with the fabric sometimes.”
Taub called this an “intellectual approach” which, like the painters who were concerned more with the act of painting than representing the natural world, meant Givenchy’s early designs were “not always understood and often impractical to wear.” His clothes were less about flattering women’s figures than about defying convention and creating abstract forms, making him the “dressmaker’s equivalent of Picasso.”
So, what kinds of scandalous forms did Givenchy feature in his unconventional couture? Surprisingly, one of the most controversial styles he embraced in his collections was the shift dress, also known as a chemise, which is cut to hang straight down from the shoulders.
We know it as a classic style of dress which for many women is a wardrobe staple, but in the documentary, fashion writer Bernadine Morris said Givenchy’s emphasis on the chemise was revolutionary in 1957.
“Do you know why?” she asked. “The dress didn’t have a waistline! And that was one of the first stories I was covering.”
She recalled, as part of this assignment, questioning taxi drivers about “whether they would like their wives to wear a chemise and they said, ‘absolutely not.’”
“Almost any new fashion causes a lot of excitement, complaints,” she continued. “And, of course, that one went on to become a uniform of the mid-20th century.”
But the unconventional silhouettes that Givenchy celebrated were not without admirers. Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy most famously embraced such avant-garde styles. Another well-known and adventurous fashion maven who touted the “extreme look of Givenchy designs” was Gloria Swanson, star of the classic Sunset Boulevard, according to another article from Women’s Wear Daily3 in 1957.
Then in her 30s, Swanson, “past the junior level,” was “personal proof that the barrel chemise is right for someone only slightly over 5 feet tall, when the general criticism has been these are only for the tall and young.”
“I love them because they are the first really new looking clothes we’ve had in 10 years,” Swanson told the publication. “There’s been no impulse to buy new clothes until these short chemises came along.”
Another way Givenchy revolutionized the way women dress was by popularizing women’s separates – different articles of clothing that could be swapped around and worn together – which is basically the way all men and women shop for clothes and dress now.
The narrator in the documentary explained, Givenchy “felt that blouses, skirts and jackets could be mixed and matched – a point of view virtually unheard of in the early 1950s.”
Fashion, for Givenchy, was “a bit like decoration,” he said in the video. “You try to select the rug, the curtain, the sofa and this was really fascinating.”
In 1952, presented with his very first collection, Givenchy introduced one his most recognizable signature items, the Bettina blouse. Named for his early muse, model Bettina Graziani, this was a hugely popular white poplin shirt with voluminous ruffled sleeves and eyelet adornments.
Variations of the Bettina reappeared in collections by Givenchy and other designers over the decades. Fashion photographer for The New York Times4 Bill Cunningham showcased several contemporary versions in 2001, mostly in “diaphanous organdy,” including “street versions,” “luncheon versions” and “two sheer beauties” from Saint Laurent.
Cunningham wrote that Givenchy originally showed “separates cut from cheap cottons because he couldn't afford luxury fabrics. The store buyers dismissed his offering as a flash in the pan, when in fact it was a visionary look at what would happen 40 years later.”
ProQuest has digitized the complete archives of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Women’s Wear Daily – you can browse entire issues (including ads) or pinpoint your search with names, dates and keywords to explore all facets of culture (art, politics and, of course, style) through the lens of fashion.
There’s a dissertation for that!
Dissertations are an invaluable source of academically reviewed, scholarly thinking. For many researchers, one of the biggest concerns when writing a paper is that they have missed relevant articles or information. With deep coverage and extensive bibliographies that surface sources and ideas that would otherwise be missed, dissertations are essential and illuminating resources.
ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global is the largest commercial repository of graduate dissertations and theses containing over 4 million works from across the globe, and with more than 130,000 added to the database each year. A recent ACRL/CHOICE review hailed the database as “highly recommended for beginning students through professionals/practitioners.”
Brown, B. P. (2012). Pretty in Pink: Jacqueline Kennedy and the Politics of Fashion (Order No. 1516845). (1038409713).
Li, J. (2011). The Connotation and Relation Research Among Brand Culture, Dress Style and the Theme of Oroduct (Order No. 10549277). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1874384567).
Joseph, G. (2011). Paris & London: Fashion Cities. An Analysis of Each City's Path to Leading Significance in the Fashion Lexicon (Order No. 10305729). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1859516773).
Smith, K. E. (2001). The Influence of Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy on American Fashion, 1952–1965 (Order No. 1405993). (194154209).
Taylor, D. A. (1997). Fair lady, Huckleberry Friend: Femininity and Freedom in the Image of Audrey Hepburn, 1953-1967 (Order No. 9736644). (304386165).
Fashion Studies Online: The Videofashion Library brings together 1,200 hours of vivid video capturing the many faces of fashion—including nearly 40 years of worldwide fashion shows, designer profiles, documentary segments, and more—into one convenient online learning interface.
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