TBT: My Fair Lady (1964)

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Cecil Beaton designed more than 1,000 garments for My Fair Lady (1964), and while I’m not going to catalog every single one of them, let’s see how far I get, shall we? I love the hell out of this musical, for the music as much as the costumes. Maybe more for the music (despite Julie Andrews getting snubbed, Audrey Hepburn being dubbed, and Marni Nixon doing all the work), because the costumes have such a 1960s aesthetic rather than the 1910s period the film is set in. The storyline is pretty damn retrograde, as well. But who cares? It’s a freakin’ classic and some fine eye-candy!

Studio boss Jack Warner bought the rights to the Broadway hit musical My Fair Lady, intending to make a big-budget film version. His purchase required that he use Cecil Beaton — the play’s costume designer — to oversee all design aspects of the film, but Warner didn’t want to use the same actors. He did end up with Rex Harrison reprising his role as Henry Higgins, plus Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle.

It was Beaton who would be the most contentious of these theatrical holdovers, however, due to his conflicts with director George Cukor. There was a typical clash of egos and personalities, enhanced by Beaton’s flamboyance and Cukor’s more closeted style (there’s even a rumor that Beaton stole a lover from Cuckor). The director argued with the designer’s wish to take cast photos on set, as this took a great deal of time away from shooting the actual movie. It seems like a tempest in a teapot today because it resulted in a ton of glorious portraits of Audrey Hepburn in costume, and filming time was still quite efficient at under four months, from August to December 1963.

Let’s dive in to Cecil Beaton’s amazing costumes for Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle as she transforms from Cockney guttersnipe to elegant lady under Professor Higgins’ tutelage. I’m ignoring the men’s costumes because that’s how we roll around here (besides, I’ve got plenty with just Hepburn’s gowns!).  Hepburn herself could tell from Beaton’s costume sketches that he had the skill and taste to make this film look amazing, and she insisted on only being photographed by Beaton.

 

Opera Crowd Costumes

My Fair Lady (1964)

The film opens at Covenant Garden, where fine ladies and gents are leaving the opera. Even in this short scene, the extras are dressed divinely.

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Notice that blue coat on the woman going down the stairs? Yup, Audrey wanted to try on all the costumes, & Cecil Beaton photographed her.

The colors are more eye-poppingly 1960s than muted 1910s, but the rich folk glitter with jewels and feathers as they should.

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Random opera-goer in hot pink!

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Stunning beaded opera coat.

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Beaton’s sketch for that coat.

 

Eliza the Street Urchin – “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”

My Fair Lady (1964)

She starts out wearing Edwardian working-class mix-and-match garb. According to TCM, a mix of petroleum jelly and clay was used to create her “unkempt” hairstyle, and it took the makeup team several tries to make naturally beautiful Hepburn look grimy and dull.

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Cecil Beaton used several tricks to emphasize Eliza’s transformation. He asked Hepburn to wear weights around her lower legs for a gawky gait, and he put her in a straw hat in these first scenes to emphasize her square jawline. The hat change, in particular, would be dramatic later in the film when she wore sleeker hairstyles.

 

Eliza Visits Professor Higgins

My Fair Lady (1964)

Her version of ‘proper’ dress is still very mix-and-match (and she’s still wearing her flower-seller apron), but here she has ostrich feathers in her hat to jazz it up.

 

Eliza’s Grey Scalloped Dress – “Just You Wait”

My Fair Lady (1964)

The first dress she gets at Professor Higgins’ house is rather schoolgirl-ish and prim. The wide-set hairstyle with a bow makes Eliza look younger.

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It’s mostly a 1910s hairstyle — but with a hint of 1960s bouffanty wiglet action.

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Cecil Beaton’s costume sketch looks even more girlish. The final costume wasn’t quite as short.

 

Eliza’s Blouse & Brown Skirt – “Servants Chorus”

My Fair Lady (1964)

This blouse and skirt combo are evocative of the Edwardian ‘New Woman’ style that was popular from the 1890s-1910s, featuring readymade blouses that middling-class women could wear for working in offices and shops. Of course, what Eliza strives for is a job in a flower shop.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Just barely noticeable is a ball trim or braid applique on the skirt.

 

Eliza’s Blouse With Tie & Tan Skirt – “Servants Chorus”

My Fair Lady (1964)

Same style of outfit as Eliza continues her lessons, now the blouse has a tie and this skirt has a subtle pinstripe.

My Fair Lady (1964)

 

Eliza’s Red Dress – “Servants Chorus”

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Red is striking and unusual, perhaps more so because Eliza literally can’t speak in this scene — so her dress is the loudest thing about her.

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The back does appear to be closed with buttons, unlike some of the other costumes that do use zippers.

 

Eliza’s Green Dress & Blouse – “The Rain in Spain” & “I Could Have Danced All Night”

My Fair Lady (1964)

The pinafore / jumper style dress-over-blouse is schoolgirl-ish again, yet it has a very full dancer’s skirt, appropriate for Hepburn’s dancing ability and the second song. Note the purple flowers at her waist — a token of her flower-selling days.

My Fair Lady (1964)

I don’t know if this is actually a Cecil Beaton sketch, but it’s close…

Interestingly, the blouse only was owned by Hepburn (no idea where the dress is!) sold for over $7k at an 2018 auction and was described as: “Ivory chiffon blouse is woven with a silk stripe, with cuffs and neck trimmed with a ruffle and accentuated by self-covered snap buttons, which also close the front of the garment. Blouse is couture-sewn, with hand-finished seams, but with cotton facing on the interior neck and cuffs for the purpose of rigidity.”

My Fair Lady (1964)

From the auction listing.

 

Ascot Crowd Costumes – “Ascot Gavotte”

My Fair Lady (1964)

THE most iconic scene in the film, even without Audrey Hepburn’s outfit! The over 400 extras’ costumes are fan-freakin-tastic, taking historical inspiration, mixing with 1960s haute couture, sticking it in a blender, painting in all black / white / grey, and spitting it out into a gloriously campy, flamboyant, stagey, wonderful three and a half minutes of cinema.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Beaton’s sketch for the scene.

Cecil Beaton wrote that he was inspired by the famous Black Ascot of 1910 (immediately after the death of King Edward VII, so attendees dressed in mourning), but I think he may have also been inspired by designer Paul Poiret’s fashions, including his notorious ‘lampshade’ tunic style of 1911.

1910, Black Ascot

1910, Black Ascot – most attendees wore full black mourning garb.

1910, Black Ascot

1910, Black Ascot – one attendee in black & white.

1912, Paul Poiret, V&A Museum

1912, Paul Poiret, V&A Museum – a ‘lampshade’ gown.

1910, Paul Poiret, Met Museum

1910, Paul Poiret, Met Museum — he also used stripes to striking effect.

1914, Ascot

1914, Ascot — black & white was fashionable for Royal Ascot in this period.

1913, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costumes Parisiens No. 59 - H. Robert Dammy

Black & white hobble skirts were fashionable, along with big hats — 1913, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costumes Parisiens No. 59, H. Robert Dammy (Wikimedia Commons).

1913, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costumes Parisiens No. 90 - Loeze

Grey & white stripes were also posh in the period — 1913, Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costumes Parisiens No. 90, Loeze (Wikimedia Commons).

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I think this sketch is for the costume in the above photo at the far left.

According to TCM: “When Hepburn arrived at the studio for her first meeting with Cecil Beaton, she was so impressed with his costumes she insisted on trying on many of the extras’ gowns, complaining that Eliza didn’t get enough pretty clothes. As a result, Beaton arranged with Warner to spend two days photographing her in most of the women’s costumes.” Many of these pictures ended up in the book, Cecil Beaton’s Fair Lady, that Beaton published combining his on-set diary observations and sketches.

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This Poiret-inspired gown, in the center, is modeled by Hepburn in photos below.

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Audrey wears the bow gown from the extras in this shot.

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The tall black, white, & grey ostrich feather hat in the center is worn by Hepburn with a different gown, below.

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That extremely pointy black hat, center, & the gown are modeled by Hepburn below (& I swear the dress is vinyl or pleather!).

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She’s wearing the outfit seen on the extra, above to the right.

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At the very center is a lace dress & grey hat that Hepburn models in this photo.

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At the fence, left to right, there’s a lace dress with grey sash, all-white dress with black & white hat, & a black & white dress with white hip bow.

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Seen at the fence on an extra.

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Seen at the fence on an extra & near Mrs. Higgins’ race box.

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I’m not sure if this is the same as the last dress at the fence (with a different hat), but it’s close.

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In the center, I see the hat the Hepburn is wearing in the following photos, but I couldn’t screencap the rest of that striped outfit.

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This lady in ermine spots walks behind the professor & his mother. Hepburn models the gown below.

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Undoubtedly this hat is in the background somewhere in the scene. The dress is the same white lace one worn above.

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I saw this outfit on an extra in the distance but couldn’t get a clear screencap.

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Cecil Beaton & Audrey Hepburn.

 

Eliza’s Ascot Ensemble

My Fair Lady (1964)

Hepburn’s dress is described in the Debbie Reynold‘s Profiles in History auction catalog thusly: “Constructed of a silk linen undergarment with back zipper closure, overlaid with fine lace which is hand-embroidered in a delicate flower motif. The dress is trimmed in black velvet striped ribbon, with a large bow at the left breast. … The large picture hat is constructed of a lightweight cotton burlap, trimmed in black velvet with white and black ostrich feathers on one side, as well as a small sprig of faux lavender pansies attached to the crown.” Reynolds paid $100,000 for the outfit, and in 2011, it sold for $4.4 million.

My Fair Lady (1964)

While it’s a stunning gown, I have to note that this bodycon silhouette is far more 1960s than 1910s. It’s a mermaid evening gown, pretty dang sexy for Royal Ascot even today!

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Beaton’s sketch for the costume.

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Image from the Debby Reynolds auction catalog.

 

Eliza’s Ballgown

My Fair Lady (1964)

Following up the lavish Ascot scene is the equally lavish Embassy Ball scene. While Audrey Hepburn looks stunning here, her gown is incredibly modern. Gorgeous, but modern. And her hair is a super duper 1960s bouffant with a billion wiglets and stuff up in there.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Big hair, don’t care.

Vogue, 1912

1912, Vogue. Yes, the hair is big, but it should be softer, lower, more to the back of the head, not straight up.

1960s Fredericks wig advertisement

1960s Fredericks wig advertisement. That’s what Hepburn’s hair reminds me of, alas.

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The bling is fabulous though!

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Also, you can see the dress construction here is very modern, not ‘teens. It’s a ’60s sheath dress with a loose beaded overlay, instead of the much more constructed, fitted shape of the 1910s.

1910s, Weeks evening gown, Met Museum

1910s, Weeks evening gown, Met Museum. Different silhouette, much curvier due to shaping over a long corset.

My Fair Lady (1964)

This gown is has a very narrow, straight shape.

1910s, Callot-Soeurs evening gown, Met Museum

1910s, Callot-Soeurs evening gown, Met Museum. Just as shiny but with a fitted waist & full bosom.

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The inspiration is there, but it’s modernized.

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Cecil Beaton’s sketch for the ballgown.

 

Embassy Ball Crowd Costumes

My Fair Lady (1964)

Oh dear. While the upper-crust crowds at the opera and Ascot had hints of the 1960s, their clothes mostly gave a feel for the ‘teens period. But Cecil Beaton (or the costume department) went off the rails when it came to the Embassy Ball goers, at least as far as the materials are concerned. The silhouettes are passable, but wow, the lurex is strong here! The polyester screams out, especially because it’s in garish brights and pastels that look cheap (or maybe they just do today? hmm). I guess they kinda pass the five-foot rule…

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That floral cape on the right is tragic.

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Miss Blue Feathers took a wrong turn on her way to Las Vegas.

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OMG MY EYES!!!

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Just *looking* at that metallic poly brocade makes me itchy.

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“I Dream of Jeanie” time travels back to the 1910s?

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Srsly, that’s a lot of lurex.

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Random old lady in a vaguely historical style but shitty fabrics.

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Cecil Beaton’s sketch of random’s gown, which looks more historical when not in said shitty fabrics.

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The Queen of Transylvania looks like a trashy drag queen.

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Tiered fringe always looks cheap, IMO.

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Cecil Beaton’s sketch of the queen doesn’t make her look that much better.

 

Eliza’s Peach Suit – “Show Me” & “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” (reprise)

My Fair Lady (1964)

This might be the most historical outfit in the whole movie. I’ve seen many fashion plates with this shape of jacket over a peplum skirt. It marks Eliza’s complete transformation, not just into a fancy lady at a ball, but an independent woman striking out on her own, fully changed from the old flower-seller she used to be.

1914, fashion plate, The Delineator, Met Museum

The peach suit is reminiscent of styles seen in period fashion plates, like this 1914 one from The Delineator (Met Museum).

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1911, fashion plate, Met Museum

This 1911 fashion plate (Met Museum) has both the pointed jacket style & a similar hat shape.

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Eliza’s Pink Dress – “Without You”

My Fair Lady (1964)

When I first saw this movie as a little girl, I loved this dress. Now I can’t stand it. Remove the high collar and long sleeves, and this is every bridesmaid gown from 1960 to 1980.

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Cecil Beaton’s sketch for the gown Eliza wears through the end of the film.

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What’s your favorite costume in My Fair Lady?

21 Responses

  1. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I have pictures of the Ascot Races gown from the Golden Age of Hollywood exhibit I saw this year. Just saying :P

    Reply
  2. Josef

    I would love if you reviewed Audrey’s War & Peace it’s mostly pretty and quite entertaining would be very grateful but of course it’s more than 3 hours so I imagine that it would be difficult

    Reply
    • Susan Pola Staples

      I love the ball gown. I believe that the Queen of Transylvania wore real jewels. I sort-of remember reading at the time the movie came out that they, the jewellery, were from the Rothschild Family, which makes sense as Baroness Rothschild was the queen.

      Reply
      • Roxana.

        Wait, somebody actually wore that three pronged monstrosity of a tiara in the Real World? Why???

        Reply
  3. Shashwat

    As much as I love the ascot outfit,the floofy pink monstrosity makes Hepburn look like a granny.In NOT a good way.After so many great outfits,why did they put her in such a pathetic outfit!

    Reply
  4. Saraquill

    I hope there was a large dedicated costuming staff. I feel exhausted just looking at the crowd scenes.

    Reply
  5. Maggie May

    Audrey and Cecil must have had great fun rummaging through the costumes.

    I understand not doing male costumes. But I would have loved a look at Young Jeremy Brett as Freddy…

    Reply
  6. Martina

    The theatre production with Rex Harrison that toured in 1981 had a lot of (reproductions I assume) these costume designs. I was working in the theatre selling tickets and got to go backstage with the wardrobe mistress and see them up close. They were GLORIOUS. Especially the Ascot hats.

    Reply
  7. (MrsC) Maryanne

    I LOVE this movie. I look at his sketches and see, yup that’s 1912. But then the construction filtered some aspects out, introduced others and BAM. I still love it all, in particular the apricot suit (which in my memory was chartreuse, how Freudian) and ASCOT. I hope one day to make hats for that scene!

    Reply
  8. M.E. Lawrence

    Stanley Holloway’s numbers are still my favorite scenes, but Audrey at the races comes a close second. The hats! I hate hats, and never wear them, but these were wondrous, especially when showcased by Hepburn for the Beaton photo shoots.

    OT: I could swear that there was an MFL revival in London a few/several years ago, with an African-Anglo/American musical comedy star as Eliza, but I can’t find anything about it on Google. Anyone know anything about this?

    Reply
  9. Roxana.

    I’m all grown up but I still love the ruffled pink dress. Though yes, it is a bit bridesmaids.
    Ascot is FABULOUS!
    I’ve always had doubts about the historicity of the ball gown but I knew the hair was pure sixties and I love the delicate little tiara and the sparklyness of it all. I think the extras costumes were intentionally made loud and colorful to set Audrey off in her shimmering white.
    Never much liked the peach suit though. Probably because I don’t like the color.

    Reply
  10. Nzie

    That Ascot scene… I mean, it’s just a pleasure to look at. So yes some more modern elements, but so well done… I also loved the pink dress as a kid… but now I see what you mean.. well Audrey Hepburn can carry anything off. How fun that she got to try on the other costumes!

    Reply
    • Roxana.

      So true, Audrey Hepburn can make any outfit look good. And I’m not at all surprised that her reaction to the Ascot costumes was ‘Let me try on them all!’

      Reply
  11. Henry

    A great post, thank you for sharing! It’s interesting because although I agree it looks modern, the beaded overlay of Eliza’s ballgown was actually an original antique found by Beaton. Audrey commented on it in an interview. The under-dress was added by Cecil Beaton and I assume that some beading was added around the neckline. But the rest was original. Perhaps there was some tweaking of the dress in the Wardrobe department to make it more of a 60s sheath!

    Reply

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