Audrey Hepburn's Eternal Style Influence
The release of a new documentary reminds us all of the impact she had on modern style
Like so many women, I had a poster of Audrey Hepburn stuck on my bedroom wall when I was younger. It was a picture of her gazing backwards over one shoulder, wearing a strapless pale pink Givenchy gown with her hair piled in a bun on top of her head. I looked at it every morning during an unhappy first year at university and it always made me feel slightly better.
Her poise, her understated elegance, her beautifully clothed characters running through the streets of Rome and Paris, and her enduring relationship with Hubert de Givenchy are a few of the many reasons Hepburn became the emblem of 20th century fashion. But there is also an indefinable quality about her — something in the way she looks and dresses that draws people of all ages to her.
It is this essence of her that 26-year-old London-based director Helena Coan has tried to capture in Audrey — a documentary just released on Amazon and iTunes. In it, she follows the behind-the-scenes story of Hepburn, the twice-divorced, professionally restless woman so often trying to escape from the voracious demands of her own fame.
The documentary itself strikes a sad note at many points in a journey that spans the major events of the 20th century from World War II in Holland — where Hepburn grew up as the child of divorced Dutch aristocrats and volunteered for the Resistance — to her heyday as one of the screen’s most recognisable icons; and her later work with Unicef in the 1980s.
Coan’s documentary was produced by the same team that made McQueen — that fascinating dive into Lee McQueen’s life — and so it should come as no surprise that clothes feature heavily in Audrey. Partly because it is nigh on impossible to chart Hepburn’s life without touching upon the enormous impact she had on fashion, and the way her style would later became emblematic of an entire era.
The problem with icons is that after a while we stop seeing them clearly. Hepburn’s images have become so ubiquitous that I am not alone in being almost numb to them. Whether it is a little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or a little white dress in Sabrina, I knew her most famous outfits so well that I have stopped appreciating just how beautiful they were. Which is why it took this documentary to remind me of her immaculately tailored clothes — and how quietly revolutionary they must have been.
Though she was already an Oscar winner and a muse to Givenchy, Hepburn had a down-to-earth fashion sense in her daily life that was still quite unusual at that time.
In the 50s, women rarely left the house without a low heel on and, more often than not, would be wearing a full-skirted dress with stockings. But in Rome, where Hepburn lived for more than 20 years, she was rarely seen out of her ubiquitous ballet flats — which she preferred to heels — and her colourful gingham or navy cropped trousers, which she wore with oversized jumpers or shirts.
In fact many of the staples we wear today — the ones that are a wonderful mix of comfort and style — were pioneered by Hepburn. Her simple pale-pink wedding dress from her second marriage was a precursor to the one Lily Allen wore to wed David Harbour in Las Vegas.
Hepburn’s love of black polo necks has been regularly copied over the years — although none of us can quite emulate the way she looked in Funny Face, when her character transforms from studious librarian to fashion icon by wearing a black polo neck, black trousers and black penny loafers out to dinner in the French capital.
It is a similar story with oversized white shirts — which Hepburn regularly wore on film in both Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s — and in real life right up until the 90s with print trousers or fitted checked skirts. Hepburn knew instinctively that a white shirt should be worn slightly large with something slim-fitting on the bottom half — a style lesson that is still applicable today.
But of course, Hepburn wasn’t beloved only for her understated elegance — as my teenage years of gazing at her in a silk gown proved.
As the former Givenchy creative director Clare Waight Keller explains in the documentary, the relationship between Hubert de Givenchy and Hepburn was far more than just a professional one. Their lifelong collaboration may have begun during the 1954 film Sabrina — when the designer’s modern approach to tailoring first rocked the fashion world — but the two quickly became the sort of friends who would lean on each other for the rest of their lives.
And perhaps that is why Hepburn always looks so luminescent in his double breasted wool skirts and his beaded bodice gowns — because he really knew her and made the outfits especially for her.
“I dressed many other actresses, but I never made such a friendship, had such close collaboration with anyone,” said Givenchy about his greatest muse. “And this new style, this new way of dressing, its way of moving was born in parallel.”
In return, she generously credited him with turning her into the icon she is. “Hubert made all the dresses in my first films. It was he who gave me a look, a type, a silhouette. It was he who made me visually what I became,” she later said.
In the trailer for Audrey, the narrator explains, over flashing images of the actress in yards of couture satin and silk, that, “she was a fashion icon, but she was also so much more than that”.
Of course she was — everyone in the public eye is more than how they are perceived. But Hepburn’s partnership with Givenchy and her own clothing choices became a symbol of something beautiful to young girls everywhere — particularly, perhaps, unhappy ones unaware of how much better life could get.