‘I’m not two hundred years old. Why can’t I sleep in pajamas? ‘
Roman Holiday’s billing as ‘great classic’ is by no means overstated. Directed by William Wyler it was Audrey Hepburn’s first starring role (for which she won an Oscar), and she plays the role of Princess Ann with joyful charm. Co-star Gregory Peck was so convinced of her potential that he asked for his contract language to be waived in order for Hepburn to share equal billing in the above-the-title credits. One of their most delightful scenes was at filmed at the “Mouth of Truth” in Rome – where legend decrees that your hand will be bitten off if you lie when you put it in the mouth of the sculpture. Peck, writhing with pain, fools Hepburn into thinking that this has actually happened; her spontaneous and genuine reaction creates one of the most endearing scenes in cinema history.
Hepburn’s costumes, designed by Edith Head (who won the black and white costume Oscar for her efforts) are as wholesome as the milk and crackers forced upon her. Rose-tinted nostalgia lends a romantic charm to the designs, which come with a distinctive 50’s flavour (Roman Holiday was released in 1953). Hepburn was a contemporary princess, whose wardrobe was more in touch with the ‘real world’ than her character. According to Head, the costumes for Roman Holiday presented an initial challenge, as the designs were started before Paramount had cast the female lead, and when Hepburn was chosen, she was completing a run on Gigi on Broadway – forcing Head to work from measurements and a taped personality test. Hepburn’s gamine look was the antithesis of the current Hollywood ideal where curves and ample assets were revered, but the actress had a quiet confidence and knew what suited her and how she should be dressed.
As Princess Ann, Hepburn is always appropriate attired and exudes poise and ‘duty’, although the feminine influence of 50’s styling ensures that staid stuffiness is avoided. The opening and closing scenes are vintage Head – in the first Hepburn wears a formal floor-length, off-the-shoulder evening gown (one of two head designed for the scene), bedecked with bows, a sash and royal orders and accessorized with a diamond-encrusted tiara, a drop necklace, discreet earrings, over-the-elbow gloves and satin court shoes. In the closing scene, Head opted for a white, fit-and-flare lace dress with a shawl collar, wrapover bodice and fitted waist, styled with a pearl choker and earrings and short white gloves. The tiara is replaced by an unusual hat, which frames Hepburn’s face, emphasizing her girlish femininity, and highlighting her ‘royal’ status.
In Roman Holiday, the success of Head’s costume design lies in its simplicity. As Head herself observed, Hepburn is ‘a Princess disguised as an ordinary girl’, and it was necessary for her attire to reflect that. In the ‘escape’ scene Hepburn wears a simple white shirt with a detachable jabot, elegant pin-tuck pleats and gently voluminous sleeves with wide cuffs. It’s paired with a full skirt (worn with a petticoat for fullness) and a waist-cinching belt, enhancing the actresses’ famously petite frame.
Audrey spends most of the film in this outfit, but some subtle but important styling changes disguise the ‘Princess’ as an ordinary girl. Her heeled pumps are replaced with relaxed leather sandals (procured from an obliging street vendor), the shirt sleeves are rolled up, the collar is opened and the jabot removed. An impulsive haircut completes the natural transformation. A striped silk neckerchief appears (from somewhere), styled around the neck at a jaunty angle. Perhaps the scarf was added to draw attention away from Hepburn’s prominent collar-bone – something the costume designer perceived as a ‘fault’.
Although the ending to Roman Holiday may be bittersweet, there’s a fairy-tale lining. At the end of production, Paramount gave Audrey the entire wardrobe from the film, including her hats, shoes, handbags and jewellery. The understated designs have ensured Head’s costumes have never dated, and Hepburn’s character – who explores notions of self-expression, individuality and independence – remains fresh and relevant to the modern audience. Reportedly Head and Hepburn didn’t hit it off, with the latter graciously rebuking the designers attempts to hide her skinny arms and over-long neck. Whilst filming went smoothly, this was to have longer-lasting implications for their working relationship, as Hepburn famously embraced the creations of one Hubert de Givenchy.