On Two Holly Golightlys

How would you style your Holly Golightly little black dress? I wear mine with a scarf and pearls--I think it's a modern take on Audrey Hepburn's audacious hats. Photo by Erin K. O'Neill

Every woman who has ever worn a little black dress has had to reckon with Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey wore some killer nascent ‘60s threads from Givenchy, and 49 years later, she still looks magnificently current.

I don’t care how bad cigarettes are; I want that foot-long cigarette holder Holly carried around. So glamorous! And “Moon River,” at least when Audrey Hepburn is singing it folk-style on her window ledge in skinny jeans and turban, melts me every time.

But, as fond as I am of the movie, I am infinitely more in love with the novella by Truman Capote. Grittier and set in New York during World War II, the Holly Golightly of the novella has a different style altogether.

Capote’s Holly Golightly was very thin, with hair as short as a boy’s and dyed many colors. She is a glamorous party girl, but with a different fashion edge as shown in the movie. She calls herself a wild thing, and abhors being put in a cage.

“She was never without dark glasses, she was always well groomed, there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and grays and lack of luster that made her, herself, shine so,” the nameless narrator, whom Holly calls Fred, write of her. Without the super-feminine hair and over-the-top accessories Audrey Hepburn sported, this novella-Holly comes off as even more minimalistic and androgynous.

And then there’s her apartment: “Her bedroom was consistent with her parlor: it perpetuated the same camping-out atmosphere; crates and suitcases, everything packed and ready to go, like the belongings of a criminal who feels the law not far behind.” Out of this mess comes another outfit: “. . . a pair of lizard shoes . . . a blouse, a belt, and it was a subject to ponder, how, from suck wreckage, she evolved the eventual effect: pampered, calmly immaculate, as though she’d been attended by Cleopatra’s maids.”

Her calling card reads, “Miss Holiday Golightly, Travelling.” Everything about Holly screams transient.

Her dark sunglasses are described as prescription glasses.

When arrested for involvement with the mob, she is pictured in the papers in blue jeans and a windbreaker. Holly “suggested a gang-moll hooligan: an impression dark glasses, disarrayed coiffure and a Picayune cigarette dangling from sullen lips did not diminish.”

A news article about her arrest says, “Miss Golightly, a fragile eyeful, even though attired like a tomboy in slacks and leather jacket, appeared relatively unconcerned.”

Holly’s makeup is armor. “She powdered, painted every vestige of twelve-year-old out of her face.”

The worst of it all, for me, is the end. Audrey Hepburn may have been a more polished and feminine Holly. The movie may have transformed the nameless homosexual writer narrator neighbor into Paul Varjak, a straight man with a cougar benefactress who falls in love with Holly, played by matinee idol George Peppard. The movie may have upheld sexual norms that Capote’s novella thoroughly subverted (not to mention the extremely racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese photographer who lives upstairs). And maybe, I could forgive all that in the film, if Holly had gone to Rio.

In the novella, Holly flees to Rio after her arrest, and then sends the writer-narrator a postcard from Buenos Aires. The first we hear of Holly, in the novella, is that a carved mask of her visage has been spotted in Africa. We know she leaves New York, from the start, and doesn’t come back.

People don’t fall in love. People don’t belong to one another, as Paul Varjak so famously pleads with Holly Golightly in the rain, holding Cat between them in the rain at the end of the movie. Holly is a wild thing, she couldn’t be put in a cage, and that’s what made her great.

©Erin K. O’Neill, 2010.

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