Bette Davis is an icon of Golden Hollywood, the actress that young girls interested in the performing arts aspired to be. She appeared in classic film after classic film and stole each scene she was in. And those Bette Davis Eyes.. well, that's another post.
Even the biggest stars, however, can have their slumps, and in the late 1940s Bette was having hers. That all changed when she was cast as declining star, Margo Channing, in the instant classic All About Eve (1950).
The costumes for the film, except for Channing's wardrobe, had already been designed by Fox's Charles LeMaire. Edith Head, who was friends with Davis, greatly wanted to do the job, and as LeMaire was already working on several other films, he helped arrange it (very nice and unselfish of him, if you ask me!).
The cocktail dress was all the rage at the time, and so of course Margo Channing had to have one. However, the finished result, the brown, off-the-shoulder dress that we know so well was actually an accident. In Edith's words (Edith Head's Hollywood):
My original sketch had a square neckline and a tight bodice. I had extremely high hopes for this dress because the fabric, a brown gros de Londres (a heavy silk) photographs magnificently in black and white, and it was trimmed in rich brown sable.
Because we were working on such a tight deadline, the dress was made up the night before Bette was scheduled to wear it. I went in early the day of the filming to make sure the dress was pressed and camera-ready. There was Bette, already in the dress, looking quizzically at her own reflection in the mirror. I was horrified. The dress didn't fit at all. The top of the three-quarter-length sleeves had a fullness created by pleats, but someone miscalculated and the entire bodice and neckline were too big. There was no time to save anything, and a change would delay the shooting. I told Bette not to worry, that I would personally tell Joe Mankiewicz [wrote and directed the film] what had happened.
I had just about reached the door, my knees feeling as if they were going to give out, when Bette told me to turn around and look. She pulled the neckline off her shoulders, shook one shoulder sexily, and said, "Don't you like it better like this, anyway?" It looked wonderful and I could have hugged her. In fact, I think I did [kind of hard to picture...]. With a few simple stitches I secured the neckline in place so she could move comfortably, and she left for the set. Above all, I did not want to delay the shooting.
A look at all sides of the dress.
Note how the sleeves are not attached to the actual bodice.
Not sure if this is the original or a replica.
Bette remembers that dress fondly in her Foreword to Edith Head's Hollywood: "My own momento to Edith's long career hangs on the wall of my home: a sketch of that fabulous brown cocktail dress... I bought the dress and I treasure the sketch. It's simply signed To Bette, from Edith."
A revised sketch to show the finished gown.
Whoopi Goldberg at the 2016 Academy Awards in an All About Eve inspired gown.