The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Audrey Hepburn (Photo by Bob Willoughby).

Mention "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and, chances are, an image will appear in one's mind of an elegant Audrey Hepburn dressed in the black, floor-length "little black dress" designed by Hubert de Givenchy. Upon the film's release in 1961, Hepburn's look - a mix of mystery, intellect, style and humour - became synonymous with new luxury and the Italian and international lifestyle. 

Emilio Pucci's arrow hit Hepburn squarely; she fell in love with his slim-cut capri pants and leggings, so much so that she wore them whilst shooting Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957).

To mark the 50th anniversary of Breakfast at Tiffany's, Rome's Ara Pacis Museum is honouring Hepburn through an exhibit entitled, A Tribute to Audrey Hepburn in Support of UNICEF. The exhibit is a collection of 150 unedited pictures of Hepburn, private videos created with Super 8 mm film and, perhaps most thrillingly, clothes and accessories worn by the actress on set and in her private life. I visited the exhibit in hopes of peeping through Hepburn's wardrobe and learning more about her relationship with Italian fashion during the 50's and the golden 60's and 70's. Hepburn was a Hollywood star, but she was also intimately connected to Rome, living in the Eternal City for more than 20 years. It was in Rome that she married her second husband, Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti, in 1969 and shot Roman Holiday in 1953, the film that catapulted her - and her Vespa scooter - to world fame.

Post-World War II, French fashion and the New Look of Christian Dior was on the forefront of fashion. Dior revolutionized the concept of femininity and elegance by proposing a perfectly silhouetted woman in wasp-waist dresses and romantic long skirts. But during the 1950's, Italy was making its own fashionable strides, discovering its creativity and passion for a fresh vision of fashion. The birth of Made in Italy can be traced back to 1951, when emerging Italian stylists presented their original works at the first Italian fashion show in Florence. Far from the Parisian standard, Jole Veneziani, surprised the market with her fur coats; Emilio Pucci shocked with his bright colours and incredible unpleated printed silk dresses, as well as his famous snow suits and uniforms; and, dressmaker and stylist Germana Marucelli created a collection in black wools and black velvet and gold brocade.

Hepburn in Givenchy, 1964
(Photo by Cecil Barton).

It was during Italy's coming of (fashion) age - and upon on the success of Roman Holiday - that Italy chose Hepburn as its new standard of beauty. Her look diverged from the common ideal of large-breasted and voluptuous and she became the muse of tailors and stylists, who created their collections just by looking at her hairstyle, posture and eccentricity. She enchanted Italian consumers with the long sheaths created for her by close friend Givenchy - originally designed to hide Hepburn's prominent collar bone - and thereafter, many Italian designers began to incorporate the sheath into their collections. During the late 50's and early 60's, her thin, feminine arms were the perfect model for the fitted dresses with three-quarter length sleeves that began to emerge in Italy. The Fontana sisters, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna, were famous for the sensational three-quarter length sleeves they created for many stars, including Hepburn and Grace Kelly. The shiny silk Mikado dress that Hepburn wore at the premiere of The Nun’s Story (1959) became so popular in gossip magazines that it was reflected in collections the following spring. Among them, Simonetta Colonna di Cesarò, who usually worked with original fabrics, created buoyant silk shantung cocktail dresses with a cut to emphasize the bust. Emilio Federico Schuberth, the so-called "diva's Neapolitan tailor", thought to improve upon the bust's shape of the Mikado dress by using large skirts and some lace.

By the mid-50's, young creative stylists sought to conquer Hepburn's heart. Emilio Pucci's arrow hit Audrey squarely; she fell in love with his slim-cut capri pants and leggings, so much so that she wore them whilst shooting Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957). Not coincidentally, the 60's and early '70s were Pucci's golden age. Hepburn's choices meant a successful collection for any Italian stylist. Even when it came to her shoes and her headwear… When she started strolling around town in her Gucci driving loafers and Ferragamo flats, loafers became a distinctive symbol of (good) Italian taste. Same for her black and white patent leather spectator pumps. Stylists Roberta di Camerino, Giorgio Armani and Gianfranco Ferrè had the sense to design headscarf collections that became a must for every woman because Hepburn (and Grace Kelly) covered her head with them - and not just for privacy. A little behind-the-scenes secret: per their contracts, screen divas weren't allowed to expose their hair to the sun for too long so not to expose it to heat and humidity. Her signature cashmere and checked headscarves became very popular and many Louis Vuitton and Hermès classic silks were sold in Italy as a result. 

Hepburn in Givenchy, 1964

The 60's were also the age of oversized sunglasses. Women wanted to wear large sunglasses as chic as Audrey's. The more she wore them, the more Bvlgari, Gucci and Pucci prospered. They created classic black sunglasses and also glamorous ones with gold, diamond and sapphire details. Yet, much like Givenchy's LBD was designed, in part, to de-emphasize Hepburn's collar bone and her headscarves were a smart solution to a contractual obligation, she wore oversized sunglasses for a practical purpose - to raise her eyebrows, as she didn't like the look of her small eyes (we all have our insecurities, I guess!). It speaks volumes that the most famous style icon of our time didn't even intend to be trendy.

During the 70's, the gypsy look was very popular and Audrey followed the Italian fashion by cutting her hair short like most Italian women of the time. She was often seen wearing a flower on her neck (but no jewelry) and in hippie dresses, for example, the breathtaking mauve, long silk Valentino dress, with a high collar and puffy sleeves. Valentino created many unforgettable, refined "hippie" clothes, but in this period he also became very famous for designing dresses and coats in a particular distinctive red known as rosso Valentino. His elegant green double-breasted wool coat with the collar lined in red sold out, and amongst the women wanting one in her wardrobe, was Hepburn.

Hepburn also introduced basket mania, and as a result, many Italian and international stylists such as Louis Vuitton, Comolli and Prada included the basket-bag in their collections. During the 50's, 60's and 70's, the basket handbag was a comfortable alternative to the high-fashion handbags and women began to like it. In summer or in winter, Audrey never gave up on her baskets or African handicraft bags bought during her visits in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Vietnam and Latin America, where she cooperated as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

Audrey Hepburn's relationship with Italian fashion was long and beautiful. She enjoyed representing the elegance of Made in Italy, and at the same time the beauty and simplicity of any Italian mother: a refined lady in her double-breasted wool jacket, loafers and fitted dress, even whilst walking the dog or buying pastries in the typical Roman Sunday tradition. Perhaps many Italian stylists have Hepburn's style intuition to thank for their great success, but one could also argue that she could not have been so fashionable and famous without Italian fashion!

Ara Pacis Museum's, A Tribute to Audrey Hepburn in Support of UNICEF, runs from October 26 to December 4, 2011. A portion (25%) of the Ara Pacis Museum entrance fee will be donated to UNICEF Italy's mission in Chad. 



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