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?