The Simple Secrets to Audrey Hepburn's Style
Audrey was known for something which has disappeared, and that is elegance, grace and manners. —Billy Wilder, filmmaker
Audrey Hepburn came of age when film stars wore sultry dresses, were heavily made up, and had a cigarette in every photo. By contrast, Audrey usually sported clothing that was practical for the average woman's lifestyle. Plus, every woman could afford her style, since Audrey had simple taste in clothing, hairstyles, makeup, and jewelry. Much of her life is detailed in the book Audrey Style by Pamela Clarke Keogh. Fashion designer Vera Wang praised Audrey for the courageous move of following her true self while living in the world of Hollywood stardom that promoted different values:
The clothing she wore echoed her spirit and mind. In order for her to do it, she had to go out on a limb. It was pretty gutsy to turn her back on Hollywood.
But more than mere fashion innovations, Audrey’s distinctive style was marked by her gracefulness and compassionate spirit. Her distinctive grace was the result of years of training as a ballet dancer, and her inner grace developed from intelligence combined with empathy.
A Truly Noble Upbringing
Audrey’s mother was a Dutch baroness, and her parents divorced when she was still young. Born in 1929, Audrey was a young girl during World War II and experienced its trials. She wore handmade clothing during the war and some days had nothing to eat. With their money and ancestral home confiscated, she and her mother moved to London, where her mother worked menial jobs to pay for her daughter’s ballet classes. The rigors of ballet taught Audrey the importance of discipline, concentration, posture and movement, and gave her an inner stillness that was a large part of her grace. Producer Stu Crowner compared Audrey’s grace to that of a true noble class:
I remember reading something about people who were raised in Britain’s upper class, where they have been taught to be gracious, rather than in 1970s and ’80s America—whatever’s on your mind, go with it, totally unload everything! Audrey was very generous with her spirit and very generous with how you felt. In other words, she considered how you felt more than how she felt. I’m sure she took care of herself, her psyche, and her soul and all those things, but it wasn’t at the expense of her friends and colleagues.
Although she was a poor chorus girl in 1948, Audrey’s characteristic charm already was beginning to develop. It was said that she owned only one blouse, one skirt, and one pair of shoes, but 14 scarves that she used to fashion a variety of creative looks. Audrey suffered too much malnutrition during the war and was too tall (5'7) to be a professional ballerina. So she worked as a chorus girl and by her early 20s had starred in films and in the Broadway play based on Colette’s Gigi.
Photo: Audrey with Hubert de Givenchy
Audrey’s first starring role, as Princess Ann in 1953’s Roman Holiday, cemented her acting career, her reputation for refinement, and a lifelong friendship with fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy. She first met the French aristocrat when selecting clothes for the film. Givenchy was a little disappointed when he first met the starlet—she was so skinny, and was dressed in an unassuming white T-shirt, capri pants, ballet flats, and a gondolier hat—but he was won over after he saw her in some of his designs. By that evening, the new friends were sharing dinner and wine, with a budding amity based on their love of gardens and clothing, impeccable work ethics, and high standards. According to Keogh:
Audrey and Hubert recognized that they were part of a natural aristocracy, one that had nothing to do with money, power, or family placement and everything to do with talent, hard work, and a faith that somehow they would prevail. There was an ingrained grace about each of them that money could not buy.
The Essentials of Audrey Style
If you have grace and a kind heart, you’re already well on the way to establishing your own version of Audrey’s style.
Photo: Audrey Hepburn with her Yorkie in 1957
But if you want more tips, Audrey Stylehas some practical advice as well. The book suggests makeup ideas for several versions of the “Audrey look” and details some essentials of an Audrey-inspired wardrobe: a little black dress, a white shirt, capri pants, a dark turtleneck, ballerina flats, dark sunglasses, an Hermès (or Hermès-inspired) scarf, and simple jewelry. Some claim it was her Europeanness that made Audrey a hit in America—since she often wore black clothing and had a Yorkshire terrier that she took everywhere. Likewise, Keogh attributes Audrey’s timelessness to her European background:
A French shopgirl will spend an entire week’s wages for an Hermès scarf, or the "perfect" shoes that last for years. Audrey had much of this extravagant European frugality. She was born in a time when women owned fewer clothes, but they were of highest quality. A reasonably fashionable woman might have two dresses, a couple of suits, a handful of blouses, and (after the late 1960s) a few pairs of pants, but each item was meticulously chosen and perfectly tailored. Audrey’s fashion sense was rooted in this long-standing European tradition, where women invested in a wardrobe rather than bought scattered pieces.
Although a fashion icon, Audrey’s fashion advice to women centered on inner beauty. She stressed the importance of wearing your clothes, rather than letting them wear you. By developing an authentic and confident self, a woman can learn to let her clothing be in its rightful place, as an adornment of a more beautiful person.
Devoted to Marriage and Motherhood
In 1967, Audrey was at the peak of her acting career. She had starred in hit films like Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957), The Nun’s Story (1959), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and My Fair Lady (1964). But she left it all behind to devote herself to being a wife and mother.
Photo: Audrey with her pet deer and pet dog
She and her family lived in a large, 1730s farmhouse in Switzerland, and it would be 12 years before she took another role (as Maid Marian in 1976’s Robin and Marian with Sean Connery). Audrey ended up divorced from her first husband (the actor and director Mel Ferrer), and soon after she met her second husband, a psychiatrist named Andrea Dotti. She cut back on her clothing budget to live like a typical doctor’s wife in Italy, but his affairs were publicized in the Italian society pages and they divorced when Audrey felt her children were old enough to live with a single mother. It wasn't until 1980 that Audrey the man she would call her "soul mate," the actor Robert Wolders.
Audrey Style in the Home and Garden
The happy couple settled in the Swiss farmhouse, called La Paisible, where Audrey spent hours in the vegetable gardens, herb gardens, flower gardens, and orchards. She loved to make healthy food (as opposed to “health food”) and had a penchant for homegrown-tomato sauce and fresh basil pesto. According to Audrey Style, the actress favored white in decorating: such as white walls and sofas, with colored accents. All of the decorating emphasis was on comfort and allowing sunlight to stream inside the house. Her clothing emphasized comfort as well—much of Audrey's time was spent in jeans and either ballet flats or gardening clogs. Audrey chose to not wear makeup at home, telling her guests, “this was my time.” And with so many activities like gardening and cooking filling her time, she rarely wore jewelry either.
Photo: Audrey and Robert on a UNICEF mission in 1992
Although she had amassed a large collection of designer clothes, Audrey chose not to hoard her belongings as she got older. Instead, they were donated to friends and private collections. “I cannot look back with nostalgia at a coat I enjoyed wearing years ago,” she said. “I was inside it and it kept me warm, but I am still here and the coat is something of the past.” For the last five years of her life, Audrey was a special ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and she and Rob took 50 trips, causing her to decline most of the fabulous social invitations she received. They never stayed away from home more than two weeks at a time, though, since they couldn't bear to be away from their beloved dogs for too long. Audrey developed a quickly spreading cancer while still relatively young. She refused to take chemotherapy and died in 1993, at age 63. Rob and her two sons have allowed her legacy to continue, through the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund, which continues her humanitarian work. Makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin best summed up all the qualities that defined the life and style of one of the world’s most admired women:
Audrey had an angelic quality about her. She didn’t act like she was better than everyone, she just had a presence, and energy, a sort of light coming from within her that was overwhelming.
Audrey Style comes highly recommended, since it has a bit of everything: biography, fashion, style, and a variety of rare photographs packaged in an attractive layout.
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