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
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.
The colors are more eye-poppingly 1960s than muted 1910s, but the rich folk glitter with jewels and feathers as they should.
Eliza the Street Urchin – “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”
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.
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
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”
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.
Eliza’s Blouse & Brown Skirt – “Servants Chorus”
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.
Eliza’s Blouse With Tie & Tan Skirt – “Servants Chorus”
Same style of outfit as Eliza continues her lessons, now the blouse has a tie and this skirt has a subtle pinstripe.
Eliza’s Red Dress – “Servants Chorus”
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.
Eliza’s Green Dress & Blouse – “The Rain in Spain” & “I Could Have Danced All Night”
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.
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.”
Ascot Crowd Costumes – “Ascot Gavotte”
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.
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.
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.
Eliza’s Ascot Ensemble
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.
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.
Embassy Ball Crowd Costumes
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…
Eliza’s Peach Suit – “Show Me” & “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” (reprise)
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.
Eliza’s Pink Dress – “Without You”
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.
What’s your favorite costume in My Fair Lady?
All the non-Patreon FrockFlickers: AAAAAAOOOOOOOOOWH.
Heh, I put A LOT of work into this one, so it’s worth paying for ;)
I too love it. Especially Eliza Doolittle’s Ball Gown.
That ballgown is one of my favorite movie costumes ever. I actually made a replica a few years back (complete with giant hair!) and got to wear it– felt like a Hungarian princess! https://itsallfrosting.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/my-fair-lady-ballgown-part-x-final-photos/
Absolutely gorgeous recreation. Thanks for including the website link to view it.
Forget Eliza’s Hungarian Princess, go for Queen Maud of Norway, nee Maud of Wales.
I have pictures of the Ascot Races gown from the Golden Age of Hollywood exhibit I saw this year. Just saying :P
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
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.
Wait, somebody actually wore that three pronged monstrosity of a tiara in the Real World? Why???
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!
I hope there was a large dedicated costuming staff. I feel exhausted just looking at the crowd scenes.
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…
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.
Re: the black & white at Ascot: Beaton was a long-term Aubrey Beardsley fan, and in some respects it’s a Beardsley fantasy moved on a couple of decades.
For ‘bodycon’ – see Longchamp races in 1908 – Mme Margaine-Lacroix sent her models there in the ‘tanagréenne’ gowns – v clingy knitted jersey:
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!
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?
There was a touring production of a MFL revival starring an actress named Shereen Ahmed whose father is from Egypt which had just started when the quarantine began- I heard an interview about it on NPR in January and really wanted to see it: https://www.npr.org/2020/01/15/795934723/one-directors-secrets-to-success-chaos-confidence-and-collective-genius
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.
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!
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!’
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!
I remember when i was a kid watching this film in the 80s. I liked the aesthetic, but i had no idea what the time period was supposed to be. I was like “hmmm… looks early 1900s” then “oh wait. Is it 1920s?” And then “oh, but that’s clearly 1960s. Is that when it was made? Maybe it’s not supposed to be old timey”, and finally “if that pink dress was teal, it would look like my the bridesmaid dresses at my aunt’s wedding”
And yeah, that pink dress makes my skin crawl.