In Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, costume supervisor Edith Head), based on the novella by Truman Capote, we get to know Holly Golightly, a mysterious woman-child with a troubled past who refuses to belong to anyone or anywhere. The film reveals much about Holly’s character through its allusions via costume, attests Lisa Magnuson. Holly is presented as young, frightened and damaged; someone who, like a cat, lashes out when others get too close.
Holly’s iconic Givenchy dress seen in the opening scene with its thick, cumbersome necklace and yoked back, arguably the most famous costume in film history, represents Holly’s current status as a call girl. The dress consumes from neck to floor, its heaviness illustrated literally and in spirit. Holly’s circumstances, we learn later, cause the anxiety-driven “mean reds”, pushing our heroine into a cab to emerge at Tiffany & Co. to window shop with a pastry and coffee in hand. She wears oversized sunglasses to shield the audience from her eyes, which are the eyes of a frightened, lost girl in search of a place in which nothing bad can happen.
When Paul Varjak (George Peppard) buzzes his way into Holly’s life, she dresses for “work” (a visit to Sing Sing prison); just rolled out of bed, quickly transforming into the glamorous party girl by assembling her armour. She grabs a man’s (presumably a client’s) dress shirt in order to answer the door, setting the tone that Holly’s vocation is represented through her wardrobe. The sleep mask that recently covered her eyes is a nighttime version of the sunglasses, blocking out the dangerous world during vulnerable sleep hours, as, like cats, Holly is a creature of the night. Milk is poured into saucers for both Holly and Cat. Highlighting the animal skin composition of her shoes (“Black, alligator”) harks back to this association as, like a wild animal, Holly cannot, and will not, be tamed.
Cat, with whom Holly “took up along the river one day”, represents all the wild things of the world, Holly included. After getting dressed during her first meeting with Paul, Holly purrs “Bye, Cat” as she leaves herself behind to meet with Sally Tomato (Alan Reed). When Holly’s drunk, she says “Hi, Cat” and snuggles him affectionately. She is at home and herself again.
Holly is most free, and, thus, most herself when the trappings of vocation are removed, such as the scene in Paul’s apartment when details of her past with beloved brother Fred are revealed. The audience observes as voyeurs through the bathroom window, Holly having locked herself away from a drunken man pounding on the door. She removes her black gown and white scarf in favour of a clean white bathrobe and ballet flats, sneaking out the window and up the fire escape.
Holly’s variegated hair represents her indecisive nature. She won’t associate definitively with anything, not even a solid hair color. In two instances, Holly’s symbol of instability, multicoloured hair, is covered when she is not unclear about goals and motives. While playing guitar on the fire escape, she is Lulamae Barnes, strumming a song that reminds her of the one person she is allowed to belong to: Fred. To see Doc (Buddy Ebsen) off on his Greyhound bus at the station, the calico hair is covered by a white scarf; she is not indecisive in that moment, having decided long before that a deliberately unclear future does not include being wife and mother of someone else’s children in Tulip, Texas.
Holly’s sparse apartment includes a bird in a cage. Holly prowls around outside of the cage as a reminder she is not the one trapped by her surroundings. Her apartment is like the alley in the scene in the rain at the end of the story, with shipping crates and a halved bathtub as furniture, indicating that she is there only temporarily; that she could take off anytime.
The blackness of her dresses, in a time when black was not a common colour for everyday wear, only evening, shows a Holly who is ahead of her time in the sense that she is unapologetically feminine and a modern woman working to survive. “I need money, and I’ll do whatever I have to do to get it” in order to realize her true dream of running off to Mexico with Fred. She is the only woman in black in the party scene; all the other female guests are in light colors, jewel tones and fussy hats.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s takes place in a New York fall. Much of the background is light and bright, highlighting a contrast between Holly’s dark and simple fashion choices. She does not fit in, a modern woman on the move and ahead of her time. During the ‘Day of Things We’ve Never Done Before’, however, she is dressed in civilian (though chic) costume, her orange funnel neck coat coordinating with the fall season as her friendship with Paul deepens, bringing a greater sense of place and belonging. A fur hat maintains semblance of her wild animal identity. The idea to steal from the five and ten store results in pilfering animal masks. Holly’s, of course, is a cat. She does not completely remove the cat mask, but leaves it perched on her head when she and Paul kiss for the first time. The truth of Holly’s identity has become exposed through intimacy with Paul, yet no one shall be granted full access. Paul’s dog mask represents his reality with Holly: dogs will chase cats unsuccessfully until the end of time, but they will never be true friends, as friendships of permanence are simply not in their nature.
In the scene when Paul is invited for dinner, Holly is dressed in contrasting grey-beige sweater and black cigarette pants, a transition from former choices, perhaps indicating that Holly is coming into a more relaxed time as she prepares to settle down with José (José Luis de Vilallonga) in Brazil. The anachronistic sense of being a woman-child is shown through childish pigtails in this scene, and she continues to sport tiny twee bangs highlighting a frightened mix of adolescence and maturity as she prepares to fly into her future.
Holly’s dreams of security and escape to Brazil are dashed, though, when she is arrested for her (unknowing) connections to Sally Tomato’s drug trades. In the car on the way to the airport, after receiving the message that Jose has left her, her plan has changed: she is off to Brazil anyway, but to run away from life, to continue as vagabond, to lack belonging, to discard people away en route to a new destination. We watch as she changes back into a black dress in the back of a cab, once again assuming the armour.
By Lisa Magnuson.
Lisa is fond of things nostalgic in nature, particularly classic films. She lives among the lakes of Minneapolis, Minnesota with her miniature schnauzer, Sir Sean Connery, and edits a blog of classic Hollywood photos, which can be found at nineteen-fifty-four.tumblr.com.
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