How Audrey Hepburn Became A Fashion Icon

by Cheyenne Kennard

I will always have a place for Breakfast at Tiffany’s on my “Favorite Movies of All Time” list. The first time I watched it as a college student, I could relate to Holly Golightly so much that I felt as if the writers for the film had somehow strung my inner monologue together into a script. What young person can’t see themselves in a character that is lost in life and has decided to wreak havoc in New York as a result? Audrey Hepburn plays the part of Holly flawlessly, but good acting isn’t all she is known for. In addition to appearing in many wildly successful films, this leading lady has earned the title of “Fashion Icon.” How has she become so renowned? Read on to find out.

SIMPLE FROM THE START

Although she was descended from Dutch nobility, Audrey did not grow up in the lap of luxury. As a young girl she was put in a boarding school and on the weekends when the other children saw their parents, she was alone. Her father rarely visited her at all, and her mother was later described as a strict and unfeeling woman. The second world war meant many moves for Audrey and her mother, and Audrey said she grew up feeling like a prisoner to the Nazis. She had to change her name to Edda, live in a cellar to avoid being injured by the shooting outside, and she lost several family members to the war.

After dealing with starvation and violence, it makes sense that Audrey would be drawn to the world of beauty and art. She originally wanted to be a dancer, but despite training at the Rambert Ballet School in London, her life took a different path. She only started acting to make money, but her looks and talent in the field caught the attention of audiences worldwide, and so she became a star.

SOMETHING OLD AND SOMETHING NEW

It is difficult to pinpoint one thing that led to Audrey’s instantaneous and long-lasting fame. Most of my research has led me to believe it was a combination of factors, but mainly her ability to combine a refreshing newness with class and timelessness.

 

Something new Audrey brought to the fashion world was her body type. Her initial appeal lay in the fact that very few female celebrities looked like her. Molly Haskell, a film critic, said “She set her own pace and style with a look that decidedly ran counter to then-prevailing standards of female beauty. She was patrician, exotic, and boyishly slender at a time when the accent was on big-breasted bombshells and girl-next-door types.” Audrey herself speculated about how her body type became so admired. She felt that, in recent years, society had moved from focusing on sex to focusing on femininity. Since she was considered a feminine ideal, it makes sense that the world fixated on her.

As well as bringing a new beauty standard to the table, Audrey often donned Christian Dior’s “New Look,” a style that “celebrated ultra-femininity and opulence.” (MET). During WWII, women’s fashion had been practical and utilitarian. By the time Audrey starred in her first film, fashion had moved in the opposite direction. In films such as Sabrina and Roman Holiday, Audrey can be seen in the cinched waists and full skirts that Dior had introduced and popularized. Wearing the “New Look” would have made her appealing to those who were up to date on fashion, and could have helped catapult her to fame.

Despite all of the change and new ideas that Audrey embraced, she was not above sticking to tradition. She didn’t believe in becoming a “slave to fashion,” meaning, she didn’t like buying new clothes every few months just to follow the trends (Ferrer, 154). Her main stipulations were that clothes should be of good quality, and that “less is more.” She preferred not to wear ostentatious clothing, as she didn’t want to seem better than anyone else. The French word “depouille,” which means, in Audrey’s words, “without ornament…with everything stripped away” best defines her fashion choices (Audrey 23:17-23:23).

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE

There’s no denying that Audrey was an inspiration to fashionable women, but her appeal to men also played a role in her success. During her peak, men worldwide were in awe of her. Her romantic allure only grew as she continued to accept roles in romantic films, starring alongside Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and other handsome and popular actors. In many of her main roles, she embodies what is now called the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. The pixie dream girl is a whimsical, eccentric character who is full of life. The character exists for one purpose: to break a tough, introverted male character out of his shell and show him the joys the world has to offer. This type of character probably had a lot of appeal for downtrodden men in the years after WWII. They likely enjoyed watching characters like Sabrina, Holly, and Eliza drag grumpy and unsuspecting men into adventures and whirlwind romance. Of course, we now recognize the flaws in the pixie dream girl trope, but in the 1950’s men consumed Audrey’s films in blissful ignorance.

FASHIONABLE FRIENDS

As amazing as Audrey proved herself to be, no one becomes a fashion icon without help. There were several friends, costume designers, and other creators who helped build Audrey’s legacy.

Hubert de Givenchy

One of the defining features of Audrey’s career was her partnership with French designer Hubert de Givenchy. In 1953, while she was working on Sabrina, Hepburn paid Givenchy a visit as she was interested in him designing some dresses for the film. At the time Hepburn was relatively unknown (her debut film Roman Holiday hadn’t come out yet) and Givenchy was expecting Katherine Hepburn. When Audrey Hepburn showed up at his door instead, he told her he did not have the time to design for her, but that she could choose some outfits from a rack of clothing already made. Although she made a disappointing first impression, Audrey persisted, and after the two had dinner together their lifelong friendship started to take shape. Her forty years of companionship with Givenchy influenced Audrey’s style both on and offscreen. In her own words: “Fashion came into my life when I had my very, very first haute couture dress made by Hubert de Givenchy. The beauty of it was extraordinary.”

After their initial meeting, Givenchy went on to design clothing for Audrey in films such as Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Charade. He accentuated the graceful line of her body, and saw his clothes as “a vase that is kept simple so that nothing will detract from the natural beauty of the flower itself.” (Ferrer, 152). Audrey felt that she and Hubert were very similar, and that they were both sensitive people with an appreciation for simplicity. She said: “There’s a purity about his (Hubert’s) clothes, but always with a sense of humor.” She talked about how he would create something simple that had a small, fun detail. An example of this would be the little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was simple, with the detail of a cut out section on the back.

Hubert and Audrey were more than casual friends, or colleagues with a mutual understanding. Audrey’s son has recalled that, towards the end of her battle with cancer, Hubert arranged for Audrey to fly home from Switzerland on a private jet so she would not have to deal with a public flight while sick. He told her that she had been “everything to him.” If you look back at both of their careers, one would not have been the same without the other.

Edith Head

If you look into any of Audrey’s earlier films, you will likely see Edith Head credited somewhere. The designer worked with Audrey on Sabrina, Funny Face, and Roman Holiday. Head designed costumes for Paramount Pictures as well as Universal Studios, and was nominated for over 30 Academy Awards in her lifetime. She also boasts the most Oscars ever won by a woman.

Despite her accolades, Head had difficulty when it came to Audrey Hepburn. The designer saw Audrey’s unique body type as something she needed to hide. In Roman Holiday, the costumes Audrey wears were apparently meant to compensate for her thin frame. Nevertheless, Head’s contributions to the film were enough to earn her an Academy Award. Head and Givenchy collaborated to create the costumes for Sabrina, a film in which Audrey captivated audiences in chic Parisian outfits. Funny Face was another success for Head and Hepburn, with some of Audrey’s most memorable fashion moments coming from the film. They may not have gotten off to a great start, but Edith Head’s hand in Audrey’s first films certainly helped her continue to build notoriety. Head also admired Audrey, saying that “Audrey knows more about fashion than any actress save Dietrich.” (Haddock).

Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton was a man of many talents. He was mostly known as a photographer, but also dabbled in costume design and interior design. He was an avid fan of Audrey Hepburn, calling her an embodiment of the feminine ideal. He dressed Audrey for her role as Eliza in My Fair Lady, and also spent time photographing her. He felt that “she (Audrey) owes a large debt to ballet for her bearing and abandon of movement, which suggest a personal quality, an angular kinship with cranes and storks.” Audrey returned his fondness, saying that he made her feel beautiful: “‘between the clothes and the photographs I looked smashing.’” (Sotheby). Audrey’s and Beaton’s collaboration was a success, with My Fair Lady becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1964. Beaton earned an award for Best Costume Design, and the film was added to the National Film Registry in 2018 for preservation.

Alberto de Rossi

Like Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey had a close, almost familial bond with Alberto de Rossi. Alberto was an Italian makeup artist who shared many of Audrey’s ideals. He felt that, instead of following makeup trends, women should stick to colors and styles of makeup that suited their skin tones. He also thought that eyebrows should be natural and never shaved off or over-plucked. His influence can be seen in Audrey’s thick, natural looking eyebrows that were in contrast with some of the thinner, plucked looks of the time period. Alberto’s biggest contribution to Audrey’s career was the technique he used on her eyelashes, which Audrey’s son, Sean, described as “a slow process of applying mascara and then separating each eyelash with a safety pin.” Audrey’s large eyes enchanted many, and were one of her defining features which de Rossi helped emphasize. Alberto’s elegant, timeless makeup looks are still admired today.

ONSCREEN FASHION

Audrey’s offscreen fashion was memorable, but some of her most iconic fashion moments occurred on screen. Films like Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s have yielded images that we still associate with Audrey today. This is not a complete list of all of Audrey’s films, but rather a list of some of the more fashionable ones, as well my personal interpretations of how her costumes enriched the plotlines and the characters she played.

 

Roman Holiday (1953)

Roman Holiday was Audrey’s debut film, and it was a massive success. She won an Academy Award for her performance, and the film also won awards for the Best Costume Design and Best Story. It was the beginning of Audrey’s work with Edith Head, who would go on to curate her wardrobe for films such as Sabrina and Funny Face.

Roman Holiday is primarily the story of a young woman longing for freedom. Princess Ann is controlled in nearly every aspect of her life, from the moment she wakes until the moment she goes to bed. The duties of being a royal have made her depressed and unstable, so she finds solace in the company of a news reporter after a late night adventure.

During her scenes as a princess at the beginning and end of the film, Ann wears almost entirely white, extravagant outfits. Her dresses have voluminous skirts and sleeves, and she dons flashy diamond jewelry. The clothing looks impractical and constricting, which fits with Ann’s feelings of woe over her micromanaged existence.

As Ann sneaks out of her bedroom, we see her in an ankle length skirt and a white shirt with long, voluminous sleeves. She still looks put together and classic with her hair down and styled, despite it being bedtime. However, her outfit now seems more practical and suited to her personality, and we start to see the real Ann come out as she meets Joe, the news reporter. The next day, when Ann becomes a tourist with Joe as her guide, her outfit evolves to become even more casual and fun. She rolls up her oversized sleeves, ties a kerchief around her neck, and cuts off her hair, creating a breezy and modern look. As she rides a motorbike around the city with Joe, it is clear that this is the truest, most free version of herself, and her outfit helps the viewer see that.

Sadly, when Ann returns home at the end of the film, we see her in another enormous, impractical white dress, complete with heavy, ornate jewelry. Her clothing makes it obvious that she has returned to her life as a royal, and as she speaks to the press she is equal parts sad and elegant.

This is one of my favorite movies Audrey stars in. The plot and outfits are simple and sweet, and it makes for the perfect date night movie. Unfortunately the ending was a disappointment for me, as it seems to reinforce the idea that duty should come before personal happiness.

Sabrina (1954)

Sabrina was another wild success for Hepburn, receiving the awards for Best Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Written American comedy, among others. Edith Head was given credit for Hepburn’s costume design, although Hubert de Givenchy also made substantial contributions.

Sabrina is a coming of age story as much as it is a romantic comedy. Over the course of the film, we see Sabrina transform from uncoordinated girl to stylish young woman. Her first outfit consists of a long, patterned dress with a black shirt underneath. The dress combined with her ponytail hairstyle gives her a simple, youthful look.

The girlishness of the first outfit allows for the audience to be in awe of Sabrina’s new look upon returning from Paris. Contrasting with the flowiness of the first dress, Sabrina’s station outfit is slim-fitting and dark gray with tiny buttons. Her hair has been cut and tucked neatly beneath a white hat, with gold hoop earrings peeking out from underneath.

As the film continues Sabrina continues to stun the other characters (and the audience) with luxurious and mature fashion choices. She is seen in a strapless organza gown and a black cocktail dress, both designed by Givenchy. The sophistication of her outfits show that she has outgrown her childhood love interest, David, and is now ready to be in a relationship with the older Linus instead.

Towards the end of the film when Sabrina believes that Linus does not love her, she ditches the fancy dresses for a large, dark coat that suits her downtrodden mood. Luckily the story has a happy ending, with the two lovers ending up together.

I loved Audrey’s wardrobe in this film, but was unsure about the romance. Humphrey Bogart looks so much older than Audrey that the pair seems strange together, and they didn’t have much on screen chemistry. Apparently my opinion is shared by Audrey herself; she and Bogart didn’t get along while filming.

Funny Face (1957)

Perhaps one of Hepburn’s most obviously fashionable films, Funny Face was not as much of an immediate success as Roman Holiday or Sabrina. Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy were both involved in costume design again, and both were properly credited this time around.

Funny Face is an “ugly duckling” story, although it is difficult to view Audrey Hepburn as unattractive in any way. Hepburn’s character, Jo, is an intelligent and fierce bookshop employee who goes from being indifferent towards fashion to becoming a model. Instead of following a traditional plot, the movie feels more like a fashion show. Jo’s initial outfit, before she enters the spotlight, includes black pants, a black polo neck, and flats, which became an “iconic” look, in spite of the other characters considering it unfashionable.

The iconic fashion moments continued from there, starting with a white silk dress and pink cape, and ending with a voluminous wedding dress with a two-tiered veil. The scene of Jo walking down the staircase in red and white, holding a piece of red chiffon also became a memorable outfit from the film.

The costumes we see aren’t saying as much about the character as they are about the fashion world itself. The two characters that aid in Jo’s transformation, Dick and Maggie, are based on the real photographer Richard Avedon and fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Avedon’s photographs often captured movement and emotion, and Funny Face replicated this in Dick’s photos of Jo. The pictures were sometimes blurred (copying “the Avedon blur”) and Jo would be instructed to look angry, ecstatic, or sad. The chaos of the fashion world as well as Dick and Jo’s budding romance are highlighted, although at times overshadowed, by the beautiful costumes.

Musicals can be a hit or miss for me, but I enjoyed and related to the character of Jo throughout this film. Her character development paled in comparison to the amazing wardrobe, but I can’t really complain. I especially loved the scene with the red dress on the stairs. Definitely worth the watch.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

One of Hepburn’s most memorable movies, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was unequivocally successful, winning awards for Best Foreign Actress, Best Musical Score, and Best Original Song. It was inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame as well as the National Film Registry. Givenchy designed what is perhaps the most popular “little black dress” of all time for this film, further solidifying Hepburn as a fashion icon.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s follows the story of Holly Golightly, an extraverted and eccentric young woman who has moved to New York in an attempt to escape her past. In the first scene we see Holly wearing the unforgettable yet simple black dress: elegant, sleeveless, and paired with a layered pearl necklace and long gloves. Holly gives off a sophisticated, almost aloof air at this point in the film.

As we get to know Holly, her simplistic, classy clothing choices start to clash with her erratic and child-like behavior. It becomes clear that Holly’s outer image is contrived and she is dressing the way she does to attract rich men. Despite her outfits being part of a carefully crafted lie, there are some moments where Holly’s true self can be seen in her clothes. For example, she wears what appears to be either a curtain or a towel during a party scene, accompanied by enormous blue earrings. In another scene, she wears a bedazzled eye mask and earplugs. When Holly starts to fall in love with her neighbor Fred, her clothing around him becomes less flashy and more plain and genuine. While singing “Moon River,” she wears a simple gray sweatshirt and blue trousers. She also ditches her all-black ensemble on an outing with Paul, choosing a bright orange coat to wear instead.

In addition to using elegant black clothing as a disguise, Holly wears sunglasses to further hide her true personality. Although they are often confused for Ray Ban’s, Holly’s sunglasses are actually Oliver Goldsmith Manhattan shades in tortoiseshell.

In emotional moments of the movie, Holly removes her sunglasses, such as in the scene where she says goodbye to her ex-husband. In other scenes, such as the scene where she hides from Paul at the library, she uses her sunglasses to put a barrier between herself and others. Holly’s outfits throughout the film show her varying degrees of vulnerability. The character struggles to feign class and elegance while she grapples with anxiety, loss, and past traumas. No wonder this is Hepburn’s most memorable role!

As I mentioned at the very beginning of the article, this is one of my favorite movies. Holly Golightly is an incredibly well-written character, and no one could have captured her spirit like Audrey Hepburn. Apparently Marilyn Monroe was supposed to play Holly, but I believe Audrey was the correct choice.

My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady, a film based on the 1956 musical of the same name, was yet another award winning movie for Hepburn. It won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, and was one of the most popular films of the year. Although Hepburn performed in this movie, she was not the person singing the songs. She was dubbed by Marni Nixon, something that apparently made her insecure about her voice.

Like Sabrina, the movie adaptation of My Fair Lady is a transformation story. The brash and opinionated Eliza Dolittle becomes a “lady” with the guidance of Professor Henry Higgins. Early on in the film, before Eliza learns to dress well, she often chooses to wear mismatched patterns and colors. For example, when Eliza first shows up at Professor Higgins’ office to inquire about speech lessons, she chooses to pair a brown and white outfit with a crazy looking pink and orange hat. These strange color choices match Eliza’s initial vibrant personality well.

Later on, as Eliza is dressed by others and then learns to dress herself, the colors in her outfits are much more toned down and she begins to wear a lot of delicate and feminine hues, such as white or pink. Eliza goes to two very formal events in the film, the first being at the Ascot Gavotte. At this event, Eliza ditches the studious beige and white clothes from her time learning from Professor Higgins and dons the lace covered mermaid-style gown that appears on the film’s poster.

This three minute scene is as humorous and fun as Eliza’s outfit. Her dress also matches the collision of the new lady-like side to her personality and the old boldness and exuberance. It is properly elegant and feminine, while still being as eye-catching as Eliza tends to be. Eliza’s second big event in the film is the ball, where she wears a beautiful white sheath dress covered in sparkling beads. Her matching diamond choker and tiara make her look like royalty.

The other female characters at the ball are seen wearing bright colors, capes, and feathers, which allows Eliza to seem like even more of a refined and regal presence. Eliza’s last outfit, the one in which she and Professor Higgins finally reconcile their differences, perfectly shows the completed transformation of her character. It is constructed from oodles of sheer pink fabric, with a high collar and a large flower detail. Eliza looks mature and almost like a princess; she has truly changed. Unfortunately she must now end up with Professor Higgins, who I do not see as worthy of her, but to each their own, I suppose.

Although Cecil Beaton did a wonderful job with the costumes, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this film. As you may have guessed, the reason for my dislike is Professor Higgins. He insults Eliza throughout much of the film, which makes it hard to believe when the two characters get together in the end. I have never witnessed such an unlikeable character portrayed as the “good guy.” That being said, I think the movie is still worth watching for the fashion aspect.

BEYOND BEAUTY

In his book, Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit, Sean Hepburn Ferrer writes about his mother’s generosity and selflessness nearly as much as her fashion choices and film roles. According to Sean, Audrey’s acts of charity were inspired by the lack of love she’d received as a child. She wanted to make up for the emptiness that had filled her life for so long. According to Audrey: “‘It always boils down to the same thing. Not only receiving love, but wanting desperately to give it…almost needing to give it.’” (Ferrer, 140).

In 1989, Audrey became a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). She visited countries ravaged by war and witnessed starvation and other results of violence first hand. She arranged for food, vaccines, clean water, and other supplies to be sent to the struggling countries in order to relieve children’s pain. While visiting areas in which malnourished people lived in squalor and were covered in flies, Audrey reportedly did not hesitate to hug the local children. She had no fear or disgust upon seeing downtrodden people, but rather compassion.

Audrey’s last UNICEF trip was to Somalia, and her time there helped bring publicity and aid to civilians, who were living in camps and fleeing from genocide. Upon her return, she said “I am filled with rage at ourselves.” She felt that what was happening in Somalia was akin to the Holocaust, and was upset that the world had not kept its promise to never let the Holocaust happen a second time. Despite how upset she often was over the world not doing enough to help those in need, Audrey certainly did more than enough herself. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work with UNICEF. The aide and publicity she brought to important issues such as war, famine, and neglect likely helped thousands of people.

Perhaps part of the reason the world was so drawn to Audrey Hepburn was because her beauty and style were not shallow. Her looks were not a cardboard cutout with nothing behind them, but rather a reflection of her beautiful soul. From childhood until death she was resilient and compassionate: both soft and tough at the same time. The phrase “the iron fist in the velvet glove” has been used to describe her quiet strength and will. Out of the many icons that will come and go from public consciousness, Audrey Hepburn is one who deserves to stand the test of time.

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SOURCES

Audrey. Directed by Helena Coan, XYZ Films.

Fisher, Lauren. “A Look Back at Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn’s Greatest Moments.” www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/designers/g19405875/audrey-hepburn-hubert-de-givenchy/

Haddock, Victoria. “Edith Head-Part 2.” https://costumesociety.org.uk/blog/post/edith-head-part-2

Hepburn Ferrer, Sean. Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit. Atria Books, 2003.

Hutchinson, Pamela. “Funny Face: a film in love with fashion.” www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/fashion/fashion-blog/2014/feb/27/funny-face-film-love-fashion-audrey-hepburn

McDermott, Kerry. “How ‘Funny Face’ Became the Ultimate Fashion Reference.” www.google.com/amp/s/www.vogue.co.uk./fashion/article/funny-face-fashion/amp

Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Christian Dior: The New Look.” https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/christian-dior-the-new-look-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art/cQKikHJ-Ok8UIg?hl=en

Shaw, Sophie. “Remembering the Work of Edith Head.” www.crfashionbook.com/fashion/g26932618/edith-head-costume-designer/

Sotheby’s. “Cecil Beaton on…Audrey Hepburn.” www.sothebys.com/en/articles/cecil-beaton-on-audrey-hepburn%3f_amp=true

Chey Kennard
Chey Kennard
Cheyenne Kennard obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing in 2019 and now works at a library while pursuing her writing dreams. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Eclipse and Permafrost. When she is not writing, she enjoys reading magical realism, researching fairy tales, and spending time with her fiance. She currently resides in Metro Detroit.

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