Earlier this month, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Fashion & Cinema celebrated Audrey Hepburn’s career and on and off screen image during an afternoon seminar. Guest speakers Professor Stella Bruzzi, Dr. Rachel Moseley and Drusilla Beyfus examined Hepburn’s style evolution, its continuing relevance and her professional relationship with Hubert de Givenchy. Most of the talks centred on Hepburn’s earliest films, but it’s interesting to note that her film career was relatively short lived. Almost all of her films were made during a 15-year period (beginning with Roman Holiday in 1953, and ending with Wait Until Dark, released in 1967), a span comparable with Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Vivien Leigh. However, Hepburn’s career was short-lived out of choice and not tragedy although her decision to leave Hollywood and focus on her humanitarian work is inextricably bound up in her legacy. And of course, the public never reached a Hepburn saturation point; she was too classy for that.
Today, the actress remains one of the silver screen’s most enduring fashion icons. Her style was successful because it was so natural, led by Hepburn herself, rather than the studio. She persuaded Sabrina’s producers to employ Givenchy, then a little-known designer, to create her characters’ post-Paris wardrobe. If her role as Sabrina was to be convincing, she needed the appropriate, sophisticated attire and costume designer Edith Head was unwillingly relegated to the sidelines in favour of the (then still relatively unknown) Parisian couturier. Hepburn wasn’t willing to adapt her image to fit the current fashions, refusing to wear padding under her costumes or to pluck her distinctive, full eyebrows. Her beauty was never cultivated, always natural and becoming; Hepburn instinctively knew what was her. Some of her most iconic costumes are also the simplest – the black trousers and turtleneck in Funny Face, the simple skirt and blouse in Roman Holiday.
One of the most interesting points came from Dr. Rachel Moseley, who discussed Hepburn and ‘the Cinderella Story’. According to Moseley, many of Hepburn’s films borrowed from the familiar rags-to-riches tale, with a spectacular ‘transformation’ (generally played out through clothes and costume) taking on a key role. Many of Hepburn’s transformation roles – from chauffeur’s daughter to socialite in Sabrina, librarian to model in Funny Face flower seller to ‘Princess’ in My Fair Lady – combine the physical and psychological. The shift may be signified by a significant change in appearance, but there’s an emotional significance too.
Most of Hepburn’s leading men were significantly older than the actress. In Funny Face and Sabrina, both Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart had more than 30 years on Hepburn. These celluloid Prince Charming’s ensured that, as an actress, Hepburn was never over sexualised, and instead the studio chose to play up her charm and innocence. These factors that enhanced her Cinderella status in the eyes of the public and reinforced their expectation of a transformative role in a Hepburn film.
In some ways, Roman Holiday (there’s an in-depth analysis of the costume in this post) is a Cinderella story in reverse. Princess Ann is desperate to be normal, free from her ‘duty’, and her delight in the everyday – from buying new shoes to cutting her hair – is underscored by her painful return to her royal life. Her clothes in the final scene, however, are significantly less restrictive than those at the start, suggesting she has taken control in her own way.
Sabrina’s return to Long Island is marked with a chic black Givenchy suit and turban. Having already warned her father he will ‘hardly recognise her’, Sabrina parades her new look up and down the station platform, allowing the audience to asses how much this change means to her. The second key look (also created by Givenchy) is a beautiful white dress, complete with a full skirt and bustle, accessorised with drop earrings and gloves. Whilst Sabrina is undeniably lovely in this get up, it fails to mask her uncertainty and acts as armour, protecting her from the upper class society to which she appears to – but does not really – belong.
The reluctant transformation at the heart of Funny Face is ambiguous and uneasy. As in Sabrina, Head designed Hepburn’s ‘before’ costume (a particularly frumpy tweed dress, worn over a black turtle neck), and Givenchy was tasked with the ‘after’; again Head was said to resent her role. When Jo’s transformation is revealed, director Stanley Donen pans the camera away from the scene, the audience sees the other characters congratulating Jo on her ‘improved’ look but are removed from it, an action that mirrors her own feelings. The Funny Face Cinderella is more complex than any of the others as Jo is unhappy with her ‘new and improved’ transformed self; an unhappiness that coincides with her discovery that her idol Professor Flostre is not all that he seems.
In My Fair Lady, the Cinderella motif comes full circle. It is perhaps Hepburn’s most painful transformation role, the audience witnesses Eliza Doolittle’s hard work and Henry Higgins’ harsh tutelage first hand and is fully aware of her anxiety when attending the embassy ball. Her metamorphosis is marked by an incredible floor length, white evening gown, encrusted with diamantes, beads and sequins, and accessorised with a dramatic choker, over-elbow gloves and a polished up do and tiara. Although Doolittle has successfully ‘upped’ a class, her discomfort is apparent and her new role is decidedly ambiguous – just who is she and what role is she to play in Higgins’ life now he has won his bet? This is a fairy tale without a conventionally happy ending.