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French actress Leslie Caron – forever “Gigi” in the hearts of 1950s Hollywood musicals fans – has cleaned out her closet. She’s selling her designer discards on June 26th at Sotheby’s in London. Thirty lots comprising over 60 pieces and spanning three decades, 50s to 80s, by Givenchy, Dior, Saint Laurent et al. will be up for bids, with estimated prices from £300 to £3000 (about $570-$5700). (See kerrytaylorauctions.com for details.)
This collection isn’t just prestigious previously-owned couture; it’s steeped in movie star mystique. No, you won’t find any of the lavish “Gigi” wardrobe, designed by Cecil Beaton, but several 1964 Saint Laurent suits specially made for Caron’s career-woman role in “A Very Special Favor” (with Rock Hudson) can be had. And numerous items – the Saint Laurent tangerine silk sequined gown Caron wore in the company of Kirk Douglas at the Cannes festival in 1966, her glittery Dior ensemble when she gave Steve McQueen an award at the Golden Globes in 1970 – come with photographs of Caron looking divine in them at glamorous events.
“These are clothes I kept all this time in my cupboard, to wear,” explains Caron, receiving in her elegant Paris apartment, shared with a little white dog named Prunella and filled with paintings, books, and photos (including departed friends like Rudolph Nureyev and Francois Truffaut). “But recently I tried on one or two outfits, and I thought, no. They’re really for a younger woman.”
With her trim figure (those size four vintage frocks still fit) and high spirits, Caron is easily recognized even today as Gigi, the mischievous little girl Maurice Chevalier thanked Heaven for. Yet she will be 75 in July, she has three grandchildren, and the discreet red tab in her lapel is the Légion d’Honneur, France’s most distinguished decoration. Something like Lot 9, a 1960s Saint Laurent cocktail dress she describes as “black ribbons, flesh showing on the sides”- so daring Prince Radziwill (Jackie O’s brother-in-law) told Caron he’d never let his wife wear it – doesn’t really suit the current Caron.
Lifestyles have changed too, with fewer occasions worthy of gowns like Caron’s above-mentioned tangerine silk “mermaid dress”, which she remembers going “whoosh, whoosh, like the sound of waves, with the sequins bumping into each other.” In those days, she says, meaning her decades as Hollywood film actress and spouse of British theatre director Sir Peter Hall, “It was de rigueur that movie stars look special. Studios knew the public adored seeing stars dressed in fantastic expensive clothes. Lunches, cocktails, theatre, receiving at home…London premieres with the Queen attached…Hats and gloves, high heels, you had to dress up a lot.”
Caron has kept a lower profile since moving back to Paris in 1976, though she’s never stopped working. Between film projects (Louis Malle’s “Damage”, “Funny Bones” with Jerry Lewis), television ( “Loveboat”, “Falconcrest”), a book of short stories, screenwriting and even a dancing come-back at age 53 in “On Your Toes” (ended by injury before a US tour), dynamic Leslie found time to restore three little medieval houses along the Yonne river in Burgundy. She transformed them into a small but luxurious country inn, “La Lucarne aux Chouettes” (approximately, “The Owl’s Nest”), which opened in 1992. The chef deals with the daily routine, but Leslie did all the decorating and is often there supervising and greeting guests, many American.
Meanwhile, Caron’s recent films include “Chocolat” with Johnny Depp and James Ivory’s “Le Divorce”, in which she played Naomi Watts’ formidable French mother-in-law. She just traveled to New York to shoot an episode of “Law and Order”, airing next October. And last year she was up for the murdered nun role in “The Da Vinci Code”, but, she says without regret, “They decided I looked too worldly.”
That certainly describes Caron during her Los Angeles and London haute couture heyday. At first, though, when she was whisked off to Hollywood in 1950 for “An American in Paris”, the promising young dancer spotted by Gene Kelly, “I had no clothes at all,” she recalls. “It was right after the war. I had one not-too-bad little suit that I made myself.” The studio heads took one glance and promptly assigned her another young star’s film wardrobe: “I wore Liz Taylor’s hand-me-downs.”
Not for long. From her very first Dior, circa 1953, Leslie acquired the taste for fine clothes. “In the 1950s couture was a form of art,” she muses nostalgically. “It was expensive, but nothing compared to now. And being well-dressed was as important as having good manners, or eating well. What happened? Why does everyone now wear blue jeans?”
Haute couture, says Caron, was not only dazzling but practical: “A dress or suit was built on you. You could relax, it served you well. Dior, Givenchy, Saint Laurent would ask, what are you going to be doing in this outfit? Do you need to run or dance?”
Today Caron goes for casual chic. “I tend to wear slacks all the time,” she says. “This is why I’m selling the couture. Things should go on being useful – houses, clothes, need to be inhabited. It gives me such pleasure to think that someone else can look beautiful in those gowns. Couture dresses are so well-made, they last for ever.”
Most of them, anyway: Caron confides, laughing, “I had one satin dress I wore to a ball last year, and in the middle I had to rush back to my room because the seams split.”
Photo: An MGM publicity shot (1955). Leslie Caron is wearing Lot 4, a Hubert de Givenchy evening gown with an 1880s-inspired swathed and pleated skirt. There’s a whole web page devoted to her wearing the type of gloves here: www.operagloves.com/Classicstars/LeslieCaron/lesliecaron.html