The Iconic Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn in her most iconic role, Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
Audrey Hepburn in her most iconic role, Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

Early Years: Ballet And The Dutch Resistance

Consult any list of the most famous style icons of all time, and at the very top will be Audrey Hepburn. Known for her elegance and chic simplicity, Hepburn has been revered as one of the most beautiful and fashionable women since her introduction to American film audiences in 1953's Roman Holiday. This is a look into the personal life, film career, and above all the style of the iconic Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey Hepburn was born in Ixelles, Brussels, Belgium on May 4, 1929 to an English banker (father) and a Dutch aristocrat (mother). An only child, her name was Audrey Kathleen Ruston; in later years, her father changed the family name to Hepburn-Ruston, which Audrey would eventually shorten to simply Hepburn. An only child, Audrey Hepburn was raised primarily in the Netherlands. Thanks to her father she was an English citizen, and much of her education took place in Great Britain. The young Miss Hepburn's primary passion as a young woman was ballet, which she studied intensively.

Her parents divorced in 1935 and in the early days of World War II in 1939, Audrey Hepburn's mother took her daughter to live in Arnhem in the Netherlands; she believed it would provide a safe haven from the Nazis. This was not to be, however; the Germans invaded and occupied the region the following year. Growing up under enemy occupation was to have a profound effect on the rest of Hepburn's life. It gave her great sympathy for the innocent victims of wars, and was the spark that began her lifelong devotion to helping children through UNICEF.

The Hepburn family suffered deprivation under Nazi occupation along with millions of others. For a time, Audrey went by the pseudonym Edda van Heemstra, as her family believed her English name could draw dangerous Nazi attention. One can get a glimpse into the special character and spirit of Audrey Hepburn through a brave act she undertook during the occupation. In order to raise money for the Dutch Resistance, she gave secret ballet performances as fundraisers. This act of resistance was risky for both the ballerina and her audience, who had to keep the performances a secret from the invading army. As Audrey Hepburn once said,"The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performances."

Hepburn and co-star Gregory Peck in her first Hollywood film "Roman Holiday"
Hepburn and co-star Gregory Peck in her first Hollywood film "Roman Holiday"

Hepburn Wins Awards For "Roman Holiday"

Several years after the end of WWII, Audrey Hepburn made her way to London in 1948. She continued to pursue a career as a ballerina, but was told that due to her relatively tall frame (5'6") and the fragility caused by the wartime deprivations she endured, that the pinnacle post of prima ballerina would never be hers. Ever practical, Hepburn decided to make the switch to acting, though her early training as a dancer would come in handy later for some of her film roles. Her iconic graceful carriage is another benefit of the years of ballet instruction.

Audrey Hepburn began her acting career with a few small European films, but her first major role came in 1951 when she starred in a Broadway production of Gigi. The rest of America was introduced to the captivating actress when Hepburn starred in her first Hollywood feature Roman Holiday. The film's producers had wanted to cast Elizabeth Taylor as the lead, but when director William Wyler saw Hepburn's screen test, his mind was quickly made up. The movie was released in 1953, and Gregory Peck was her co-star; the two had excellent chemistry. The young British actress was an instant hit, and won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her exemplary performance. The public adored the lithe beauty as much as Hollywood did, and she immediately became a star, even making the cover of Time magazine on September 7, 1953. So graceful was Audrey Hepburn's comportment and so cultured was her manner of speaking, that many people believed that the fresh new actress was in fact a real princess, just like the character that she played in Roman Holiday.

Marriage, "Sabrina", And Givenchy

1954 was another pivotal year for Audrey Hepburn, both in her professional and personal life. It was the year in which she married her first husband, Mel Ferrer (to whom she would remain married until 1968), as well as the year in which the film Sabrina was released. During the making of Sabrina, Hepburn forged another key relationship, that with French haute couturier Hubert de Givenchy. There is a funny story surrounding when the fashion designer and his future muse first met. He was informed that "Miss Hepburn" would be coming to him for a film wardrobe. Givenchy opened his door expecting the much more famous Katharine Hepburn, and was taken aback to find Audrey instead. In his surprise, Givenchy nearly sent her packing, but her charm and natural style quickly won him over, and the two formed a friendship that would last for decades. Going forth, Givenchy designed much of Audrey Hepburn's wardrobe, and she in turn was a source of great inspiration for the designer.

Givenchy was a perfect choice to outfit Hepburn's character Sabrina Fairchild. Sabrina was a mousy chauffeur's daughter who went to culinary school in Paris and came back a world class beauty. Although Edith Head was in charge of wardrobe for Sabrina; yet who better than one of Paris's top couturiers to design the chic wardrobe that would affect Sabrina Fairchild's transformation from an invisible servant's daughter to the gorgeous young woman pursued by a pair of millionaire brothers? Fashion and style was a recurring theme in the roles played by Hepburn. As Givenchy himself once said, when she put on a dress, it was utterly transformed by her radiance; it is natural then that the clothing itself was one of the most memorable aspects of many of Hepburn's characters. Audrey Hepburn's beloved status was confirmed when she was awarded the honor of the Golden Globe for World Film Favorite – Female in 1955.

Hepburn in a wedding gown in "Funny Face"
Hepburn in a wedding gown in "Funny Face"

Hepburn's famous dance scene in "Funny Face"

The Iconic Style of "Funny Face"

In 1957, Audrey Hepburn was to take on another role in which fashion and style were to be central: the title role of Jo Stockton, an intellectual bookworm who would be transformed into a high fashion model against her will in Funny Face. Hepburn co-starred with Fred Astaire in the lighthearted look into the world of the fashion magazine. Fred Astaire played a photographer modeled on Richard Avedon, while Kay Thompson (author of the Eloise books) played a fashion magazine director based on Diana Vreeland. Thompson's character is best known for her catchphrase, "Think pink!".

Funny Face allowed Hepburn to put her years of dance training to work. She got to dance with the legendary Astaire, as well as doing a solo number in a nightclub scene. That scene has become a part of the pop culture lexicon; it was even used as the basis for a famous Gap ad for skinny black pants. In it, Hepburn wears a black turtleneck, slim black capri pants, and black flats. Though simple, those elements became the height of chic on Audrey's lithe frame. As a matter of fact, the majority of Audrey Hepburn's best known outfits were black or white. Another one was also from Funny Face – the ballerina length white wedding gown that Jo models in a church yard. The bridal gown, with its aptly named "Sabrina" neckline, is one of the most iconic movie wedding dresses of all time, and still serves as an inspiration to brides today.

The fictional rise to fashion model Hepburn's character Jo in Funny Face parallels the way in which Audrey's appeal caught on; Jo was chosen as the magazine's fresh new face specifically because she was the exact opposite of the curvy models of the 1950s. This was true in real life for Audrey Hepburn, whose gamine face and slim figure were as different as could be from the buxom bombshells of the time, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. While Marilyn Monroe showed off her ample curves in low cut halter dresses, Hepburn kept her trim figure under wraps in simple casual clothing. Like Jo, Audrey was a breath of fresh air.

The Givenchy dress from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" which sold for over $900,000 at auction in 2006
The Givenchy dress from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" which sold for over $900,000 at auction in 2006

Audrey Hepburn singing "Moon River" in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

Hepburn's Fashion in "Breakfast At Tiffany's" Is Legendary

The year 1961 brought the most famous Audrey Hepburn film of all: Breakfast at Tiffany's. The movie is loosely based on a Truman Capote novella of the same name, but the film manages to add a zest for life to the story which was lacking in the original (this is one of the rare instances where the movie is considerably better than the book). Audrey Hepburn's fashion and style in Breakfast at Tiffany's are nothing short of legendary. Harper's Bazaar once described the opening sequence of Breakfast at Tiffany's as "one of the most potent fashion moments in movie history". And they are right; who could ever forget Holly Golightly in her long black dress, beehive hairdo with small tiara, and fabulous pearls? Along with the oversized hats and sunglasses, the trench coat, and streaked hair, that dress and the accessories are instantly recognized symbols of the film. While promoting the film, Hepburn became only the second woman in the world to ever wear the irreplaceable 128.54ct fancy yellow Tiffany diamond.

Speaking of the black dress worn by Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, it may well be the most famous "little black dress" ever worn. It was designed by Hepburn's dear friend Givenchy, who was in turn inspired by the little black dresses that were made famous by Coco Chanel. Hepburn was grateful for their collaboration. She once said that, "Givenchy's lovely simple clothes [gave me] the feeling of being whoever I played.", and that his designs were an essential part of the confident attitude she conveyed on screen. Holly Golightly's iconic black dress sold at auction at Christie's for a whopping $923,187 in 2006, believed to be the largest sum ever paid for a dress from a movie. The humanitarian Hepburm (who died 13 years before the auction) would surely have been pleased to learn that the proceeds from the sale went to a children's charity, City of Joy Aid Charity.

Audrey Hepburn referred to the Holly Golightly role as "the jazziest of my career", and there is no doubt that it was her signature character. There are too many memorable moments in Breakfast at Tiffany's to list, but perhaps one of the best beloved is when Audrey Hepburn sings Moon River (for which Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer won a Best Song Oscar). This was a follow up to her singing role in Funny Face, in which she sang S'Wonderful and How Long Has This Been Going On?. Hepburn was to land another singing role several years later, but her songs from that one were cut from the film, as we shall soon see.

Ascot Races scene in "My Fair Lady"

"My Fair Lady" Dazzles Audiences

In 1963, Hepburn starred in Charade alongside Cary Grant. The romantic thriller was followed in 1964 with one of Audrey Hepburn's best known roles, that of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. When Hepburn was cast in the female lead to star with Rex Harrison, her popularity did not spare her controversy. Some felt that Eliza Doolittle should be played only by Julie Andrews, who had made the character famous on Broadway playing opposite Rex Harrison (the decision not to offer the role to Andrews was based on her lack of film experience). Others had misgivings about offering the lead in a musical to an actress with limited singing experience. In the end however, Hepburn turned in a masterful performance as the Cockney flower seller that Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison) decided to make over in the image of a British aristocrat as part of a wager with a friend.

The controversy over casting an actress without a strong background in singing did not subside when the decision was made to replace Hepburn's recorded vocals with songs by Marni Nixon. Audrey Hepburn was reportedly very upset at having her songs cut from My Fair Lady, but she nonetheless performed beautifully as Eliza Doolittle. The casting controversy returned when Julie Andrews ended up winning the Academy Award that year for her first film, Mary Poppins. Although the press did its best to make something out of it, both Hepburn and Andrews firmly insisted that there was no issue between them.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in the movie is the one at the Ascot Races. First of all, there is the scene itself, which is surely one of the most splendid ever filmed. Everyone is dresses to the nines in black and white formal wear, which has tremendous visual impact. When Cecil Beaton produced the first stage version of My Fair Lady, he was inspired by the all black attire worn by the racegoers during the 1910 season at Ascot (they were in mourning for King Edward VII). This first stage production was the basis for the famous black and white Ascot Race scene in the 1964 film version. The remarkable black and white dress, complete with the spectacular hat, became yet another iconic outfit for Audrey Hepburn. Equally memorable is the moment when the irrepressible Eliza loses her cool and lets a few choice words slip out that belie her newly polished exterior.

Audrey Hepburn: International Style Icon, Movie Star, UNICEF Ambassador, And Devoted Mother

My Fair Lady was Audrey Hepburn's final iconic role, and it certainly sealed her place as one of the most adored actresses of all time, as well as one of the most admired. She went on to make additional films between 1966 and 1989, most notably the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, for which Hepburn was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Hepburn's personal life was turbulent at that time. She was in the process of splitting with her first husband, Mel Ferrer, from whom she was officially divorced in 1968. The following year, Audrey Hepburn married Italian doctor Andrea Dotti, to whom she remained married from 1969-1982.

It was always evident that Audrey Hepburn loved children, which is one of the reasons why she decided to step back from acting in the late 1960s. When married to Ferrer, she had two miscarriages before the birth of her son Sean in 1960. Her marriage to Dotti in 1969 encouraged her to expand her family, and a second son, Luca, was born in 1970 after several months of bed rest. Audrey Hepburn's final partner was actor Robert Wolders. She lived with him until her death from cancer in 1993.

In the final balance, Audrey Hepburn's legacy is one of unparalleled grace, style, and generosity of spirit. The young woman who often thought herself too tall, too thin, or just not pretty enough became a legendary icon of what it means to have natural elegance and an easy chic style. The child who suffered under the Nazi occupation never forgot what it felt like to be an innocent child caught in the middle of a war, and dedicated her later years to toiling endlessly on behalf of the world's most vulnerable children. Audrey Hepburn's hard work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador earned her a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. Audrey Hepburn is as beloved today as she was when she first lit up the screen in Roman Holiday more than 50 years ago. Hepburn's legend and legions of admirers only grow with each passing year.

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Comments 3 comments

The Bard profile image

The Bard 5 years ago from London, England & San Pablo City, Philippines

A definitive and outstanding account. This hub is remarkable in it's clarity and depth. Concise, yet informative and produced with true appreciation and observation. You have a skill with words, and I commend them.

Surely I am not the first to comment on this hub?

You may be interested in my blog post: http://blogbard.typepad.com/bardiness/2011/02/the-...

It's something you may be interested in. Please don't think I'm hitching a ride - it's not my style.


Ebower profile image

Ebower 5 years ago from Georgia

I knew I loved Audrey, but I didn't know about her background. Thanks for informing me.


ALL4JESUS profile image

ALL4JESUS 2 years ago from USA

What a wonderful and much deserved tribute to a great lady. This is the encyclopedia of her life and her thoughts. Thank you!

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