The satirical American newspaper the Onion recently ran a story with the headline “College-Aged Female Finds Unlikely Kindred Spirit In Audrey Hepburn,” lampooning modern American girls’ continued fascination with the star (along with their habits of hanging posters of Breakfast At Tiffany’s in their dorm rooms).
What gives this slight starlet such staying power? A talented actress, an icon of fashion, a loving mother, and an active humanitarian, Hepburn remains one of the world’s most beloved women even two decades after her death. Ranked as the third greatest screen star of all time by the American Film Institute, she possessed grace and beauty that still enchant us today. The winner of the 1953 Academy Award for her role as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, she received further Academy Award nominations for Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Wait Until Dark. Her timeless, iconic style, both on and off screen, has long been admired, and she is seen by many as the epitome of grace, class, and elegance.
Fan Phenomena: Audrey Hepburn focuses on the transformative nature of Hepburn’s star persona, exploring her journey from ingénue to UNICEF ambassador. The book looks at her iconographic relationship with female culture and fashion and situates Breakfast at Tiffany’s alongside the works of Edith Wharton and Sex and the City.
About the Author
Jacqui Miller is a senior lecturer in visual communication and subject leader for degree awards within the field of media and communication at Liverpool Hope University.
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By Jacqui Miller
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Audrey Hepburn: Fashion, Fairy Tales and Transformation
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s in particular, Audrey Hepburn portrayed characters that underwent an identity transformation. In the case of Princess Ann, Sabrina Fairchild and Holly Golightly, for example, it was mostly self-motivated, but for others, such as Jo Stockton and Eliza Doolittle, it was an imposed transformation. Hepburn once admitted that she relied upon her costumes to help her construct her characters, rather like a little girl playing at dressing up.
To her, the costuming was a crucial part of the acting process, especially as she had never had any formal acting training. Audrey explained, as quoted by Melissa Hellstern in How to be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life:
Clothes, per se, the costume is terribly important to me, always has been. Perhaps because I didn't have any technique for acting when I started because I had never learned to act. I had a sort of make-believe, like children do.
Hepburn's ability to transform her characters so easily – tackling within the same film the opposing roles of princess/lady/socialite and girl-next-door/flower girl/chauffeur's daughter with equal conviction – is perhaps due to Hepburn having undergone her own personal off-screen identity transformation from Edda Hepburn van Heemstra, the little girl born into Dutch aristocracy in 1929 who dreamed of becoming a ballerina like her heroine Margot Fonteyn, into Audrey Hepburn, one of the most influential twentieth-century movie stars and fashion icons.
Unlike the female sex symbols of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Jane Russell and Bridget Bardot, whose glamour and star personas appeared manufactured or contrived in order to appeal to a male audience, Hepburn was very much a 'woman's woman', appealing to a female audience through her natural beauty, individual feminine style and exceptional fashion sense. Hepburn's look of the 'modern woman' was partly due to her lifelong friendship with the French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy whom she met on the set of Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954) in 1953 and who would design her clothes for the next forty years. Hepburn claimed, as quoted by Pamela Clarke Keogh in Audrey Style, that Givenchy's clothes were 'the only clothes in which I feel myself. He is far from a couturier; he is a creator of personality'. Givenchy and Hepburn collaborated on many of the costume designs for her films, creating what became known as 'The Hepburn Style', and although Edith Head won an Oscar for the Costume Design on Sabrina (and previously designed Hepburn's costumes for Roman Holiday [William Wyler, 1953]), Givenchy had provided design sketches for many of the outfits worn in the film, including Sabrina's ball gown. Therefore, it was partly due to her relationship with Givenchy, as well as the inspired use of on-screen fashion, that enabled Hepburn to create, develop and transform her characters in some of her most popular films, in particular, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957), Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961) and My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964).
'At midnight, I'll turn into a pumpkin and drive away in my glass slipper' (Anya, Roman Holiday)
Hepburn's first significant on-screen identity transformation was in William Wyler's romantic comedy Roman Holiday – her first Hollywood film role. In a reversal of the 'Cinderella' story, Hepburn plays the young Ruritanian Princess Ann (see Figure 1) who has become tired of her role as the personification of 'sweetness and decency' and bored of all the endless functions, conferences and parties that she is expected to go to during her demanding goodwill tour of European cities. After attending a lavish ball thrown in her honour, the princess retires to her bedchamber where she is undressed, briefed about the next day's duties and put to bed by the Countess Vereberg (Margaret Rawlings). However, her disillusionment with her restricted and rather old-fashioned royal lifestyle is apparent:
Princess Ann: I hate this nightgown. I hate all my nightgowns, and I hate all my underwear too.
Countess: My dear, you have lovely things.
Princess Ann: But I'm not two hundred years old. Why can't I sleep in pyjamas?
Princess Ann: Just the top part. Did you know that there are people who sleep with absolutely nothing on at all?
Note how the nightgown in this scene closely resembles the nightwear that Hepburn would later wear in the 'I Could Have Danced All Night' (Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, 1956) number in My Fair Lady as she begins her character transformation from the common flower girl to the lady (a reversal of her identity change in Roman Holiday). Hepburn's ability to combine comedy with an element of naive charm is demonstrated when the princess gets hysterical and has to be sedated by the royal doctor. Then, in an act of anesthetized rebellion, she defies the orders of the palace and escapes into the city of Rome in the back of a truck. After falling asleep on a park bench – homeless and alone in an unfamiliar city – she is rescued from her downward identity spiral by American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), her aristocratic identity temporarily discarded and replaced by the anonymity of an ordinary (and, at first, seemingly drunk) tourist. In another scene, this time in Joe's apartment, the princess shows delight at escaping the constraints of her aristocratic existence – and, with it, her clothes – by innocently declaring, 'I've never been alone with a man before, even with my dress on. With my dress off, it's MOST unusual'. With this transformation comes a great sense of freedom and independence:
Princess Ann: I could do some of the things I've always wanted to.
Joe Bradley: Like what?
Princess Ann: Oh, you can't imagine. I'd do just whatever I liked all day long.
As part of her transformation, Ann adopts the enigmatic persona of Anya Smith or 'Smitty' who spends the night in Joe's apartment, cuts off her hair, dresses in those much desired pyjamas, smokes cigarettes, gets into a fight on a barge, causes havoc on the streets of Rome on Joe's scooter, and almost gets arrested by the Roman police force for her erratic driving (with Gregory Peck in Figure 2). In other words, the Princess does everything a princess is not supposed to do – and she revels in it. Costuming is again crucial as Ann undergoes a series of subtle changes to her outfit that results in the creation of Anya. First, she purchases a pair of flat sandals in the market; second, she goes into a barbers and demands that her long hair is cut off; third, she rolls up the sleeves of her semi-formal blouse to give a more casual appearance; and finally, she opens the neck of her blouse and adds a neckerchief to complete her visual transformation.
According to Ian Woodward in his book Audrey Hepburn: Fair Lady of the Screen, Hepburn once said, 'If I'm honest I have to tell you I still read fairy tales and I like them best of all', and Roman Holiday certainly has some fairy-tale elements such as Anya's lost slipper at the ball, finding her 'Prince Charming' albeit in the form of an 'average Joe', and the 'pumpkin moment' when Anya returns to the palace to transform back into Princess Ann. However, there is no happy ending for the princess as she must lose her 'prince' once she returns to her royal life.
'Paris is always a good idea' (Sabrina Fairchild, Sabrina)
A year later in Billy Wilder's comedy Sabrina, Hepburn played another modern-day Cinderella; Sabrina Fairchild, a chauffeur's daughter, who has grown up living above the garage belonging to the wealthy Larrabee family of Long Island. Sabrina is a young, lovelorn girl who dreams of being swept off her feet by her 'prince' in the form of the youngest Larrabee son David (William Holden) – a three-time married playboy who has never given her a second glance. However, after being sent on a trip to Paris by her father to learn how to cook (and, hopefully, to forget David), Sabrina returns home two years later having transformed mentally and physically from the 'scrawny little kid' with her hair in a ponytail and wearing a girlish 'sack-dress' and collarless black shirt (see Figure 3) into a French- speaking, chicly dressed 'sophisticated woman' in a stylish dark two-piece double-breasted suit and accessorizing her stylish Parisian outfit with kitten heels, gloves, a light-coloured turban hat and bohemian-style hoop earrings (see Figure 4). She also has the ultimate French fashion accompaniment – a toy poodle (humorously named David), also exquisitely dressed in a diamante collar. In a letter written to her father a few days before returning from Paris, Sabrina demonstrates how she has considerably matured as she pronounces, 'I have learned how to live; how to be in the world and of the world.'
In many of Hepburn's films, including Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957), Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963), Paris When It Sizzles (Richard Quine, 1964), How to Steal a Million (William Wyler, 1966) and Bloodline (Terence Young, 1979), Paris is the city of ultimate sophistication and life-changing experiences. Sabrina acknowledges Paris's positive role in her transformation in a conversation with the elder Larrabee brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart):
Sabrina Fairchild: Maybe you should go to Paris, Linus. It helped me. Have you ever been there?
Linus Larrabee: [thinks] Oh yes. Once. For thirty-five minutes.
Sabrina Fairchild: Thirty-five minutes?
Linus Larrabee: Changing planes. I was on my way to Iraq on an oil deal.
Sabrina Fairchild: Oh, but Paris isn't for changing planes, it's for changing your outlook! For throwing open the windows and letting in ... letting in la vie en rose.
In contrast to Roman Holiday, Sabrina is at first a young, inexperienced child who then blossoms into an elegant lady. Once this transformation has occurred, Sabrina becomes instantly attractive to the 'Prince Charming' David who eventually sweeps her off her feet at a family ball (although he loses her to the older, wiser Linus at the end of the film). Hepburn felt, according to Woodward, that she was particularly suited to the role of Sabrina, claiming that her character was 'a dreamer who lived a fairy tale and she was a romantic, an incorrigible romantic, which I am. I could never be cynical. I wouldn't dare. I'd roll over and die before that'.
'I'm not Holly. I'm not Lula Mae, either. I don't know who I am!' (Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany's)
Perhaps the most iconic of Hepburn's self-invented characters is the madcap New York party girl Holly Golightly in the 1961 comedy Breakfast at Tiffany's. With her pearls, swept-up hairdo, ludicrously long cigarette holder and 'little black dress', Hepburn helped to transform Truman Capote's heroine into an American cultural icon who, in turn, transformed Hepburn into a much copied style icon (see Figure 5). However, even Holly has a dual identity. While Holly is perceived by some as a 'phoney' and a gold-digger shamelessly using men for her own gain, she is also the epitome of the 'child-woman' who has never really grown up and been forced to use her body to survive. Again, the costuming demonstrates this contrast in characterization in the 'Moon River' (Henry Mancini, 1961) scene as Holly is transformed from the wacky fashionista into her former persona, Lula Mae Barnes, the Texan Hillbilly who ran away from home, and subsequently a premature marriage, when she was 14 years old. In this scene, Hepburn, becomes an image of purity in a white baggy sweater, blue jeans and her long hair wrapped in a white head scarf, as she trades in Holly's chic black dresses for a more honest and fresh-faced appearance (see Figure 6). However, rather than emulating the persona of a fairy-tale princess, Holly Golightly is very much a damsel in distress, a 'wild thing', who is finally rescued by her knight in a taxi cab, the penniless writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard).
'Oh no! You could never make a model out of that. I think my face is perfectly funny!' (Jo Stockton, Funny Face)
Unlike Hepburn's characters in Roman Holiday, Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany's who are mostly self-transformed, in Funny Face and My Fair Lady Hepburn's characters are forced to undergo a transformation for the benefit of others – a glossy fashion magazine and phonetic research respectively. However, the Cinderella theme is still evident. In Stanley Donen's musical comedy Funny Face, Hepburn plays Jo Stockton, a drably dressed, intellectual bookstore worker who is transformed by fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) from 'that creature in the book shop' into the 'quality woman' – the epitome of grace, elegance and pizzazz with beauty as well as intellect. Astaire's character, Dick Avery, was loosely based on the American fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon who provided some of the portraits in the film, including the high-key portrait of Hepburn in which only her main features – her eyes, eyebrows, nostrils and lips – are visible. While Jo describes modelling as a 'synthetic beauty' preferring the natural beauty of trees, Dick uses his charm and talent as an image-maker to transform the dowdy bookworm into a stunning 'bird of paradise'. Again, costuming is key in Funny Face, particularly in the musical number 'How Long Has This Been Going On (George and Ira Gershwin, 1927) when Jo, simply dressed in a plain black shirt, burgundy pencil skirt, shapeless brown tunic and flat burgundy shoes, dances with a large brightly coloured bonnet, highly reminiscent of a little girl who has raided her mother's wardrobe and dreams of becoming a lady (more similarities with My Fair Lady) (see Figure 7). Hepburn's transformation from the intellectual to the beauty in Funny Face was again emphasized through the use of fashion and costuming by the extreme contrast between the tight black outfit worn in the 'Basal Metabolism' (George and Ira Gershwin, 1927) contemporary dance number and the spectacular Givenchy-designed evening gowns that aided her transformation into the haute couture fashion model (see Figure 8). Finally, the knee-length wedding dress that she wears at the end of the film, as she floats down the river with her Dick, signifies a fairy-tale ending for the 'princess' and her 'Prince Charming'.
'I bet that damn gown doesn't fit. I warned you about those French designers!' (Colonel Pickering, My Fair Lady)
Perhaps the most remarkable of Hepburn's forced identity transformations was as the common 'guttersnipe' Eliza Doolittle in George Cukor's musical My Fair Lady, based on the 1938 screen adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play Pygmalion (see Figure 9). Eliza's transformation occurs when the misogynistic Professor of Phonetics Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) makes a bet with his scholarly rival Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can take a simple Cockney flower girl and pass her off as an aristocrat at a social event. Eliza's incentive for participating in this scheme is the promise of fulfilling her ambition of working as a lady in a flower shop. It might be argued that Hepburn's role as the hungry, dirty-faced flower girl is completely out of character for an actress who was known for her natural style and elegance. However, it might also be argued that Eliza is perhaps the closest the audience gets to meeting the young Edda/Audrey who, as a girl living in Amsterdam during World War II, was close to starvation and forced to scrounge on the streets for food. When Eliza sings the line 'lots of choc-o-late for me to eat' in the 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly' (Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, 1956) musical number, the look of joy on Hepburn's face was perhaps reminiscent of the look on the young Edda/Audrey's face when she was given chocolate bars by British airmen after the war. As Hepburn once said, according to Hellstern, being without food and growing up in wartime Europe 'made me resilient and terribly appreciative for everything that came afterward. I felt enormous respect for food, freedom, for good health and family – for human life'. Yet, even as the common flower girl with her 'wretched clothes and dirty face', Hepburn's indisputable grace and good breeding is still evident. Of course, in complete contrast to the flower girl, Hepburn plays the role of the elegant 'lady' to perfection in a series of elaborate costumes designed by the British Vogue photographer and artist Cecil Beaton. As quoted by Hellstern, Hepburn described how she felt when appearing as the 'lady' in the film (see Figure 10):
In that absolutely sublime dress, with my hair dressed to kill, and diamonds everywhere, I felt super! All I had to do was walk down the staircase in Professor Higgins's house, but the dress made me do it. Clothes, like they say, make the man, but in my case, they also gave me the confidence I often needed.
Excerpted from Audrey Hepburn by Jacqui Miller. Copyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Audrey Hepburn: Fashion, Fairy Tales and Transformation
Audrey is a Hep Cat Now
Why is Hepburn So 'Audrey'?
Transformation, Fashion and Funny Face
Audrey Hepburn and the Popularization of the 'Little Black Dress'
'She's Enchanting': How Her Neglected Films Give Fans the Key to Audrey-ness
The Making of an International Star: The Early Film Career and Star Image of Audrey Hepburn, 1948-54
Little Black Dress: Audrey, Fashion, and Fans
The Audrey Hat Trick
Audrey Hepburn Syndrome: It's a Girl (and Sometimes a Boy) Thing