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Roman Holiday: The Debut of a Film and Fashion Icon
Exploring how an unknown Audrey Hepburn inspired “a new feminine ideal” with her first American motion picture
Roman Holiday, released on September 3, 1953, is a classic romantic comedy that starred handsome leading man Gregory Peck with a relatively unknown Audrey Hepburn. Rumor has it that Peck was to get solo billing for the picture, but half way through filming he told the director to bill him and Hepburn as equals.
He knew a rising star when he saw one.
Of course, he was right – Hepburn’s depiction of a princess who runs away to spend a day exploring Rome earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
But who could have predicted how her American movie debut would, according to Vogue magazine, be the “embodiment of our new feminine ideal?”
Who could have predicted how she would endure as a film and fashion icon; that more than 60 years later, she would remain the standard of charm and elegance?
We explore resources to gain a glimpse at how Audrey Hepburn inspired post-war ideas of beauty, and why we’re still so smitten with her.
A countermodel to mammary madness
In her book, Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema, Gaylar Studlar notes that when Hepburn made her American cinematic debut, she “did not represent the dominant ideal of female physicality in U.S. culture or films of the 1950s.” Rather, Hepburn was a “countermodel” to the “hypersexualized” “mammary madness” of such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Russell that dominated the era. Hepburn, flat-chested and slim-hipped in contrast, exuded a more modest, waif-like femininity in her role as the sheltered young princess of Roman Holiday.
"Audrey Hepburn was not a teenager when she became a star in the wake of her appearance in Roman Holiday,” Studlar points out, “…but [she] still played a sexually inexperienced adolescent.”
With the film’s release, the press and audiences alike were enchanted this quality. The New York Times wrote that Hepburn “is a slender, elfin and wistful beauty, alternatively regal and childlike” as Princess Anne, echoing language that was – and is – frequently used to describe the star. And this fascination was ushering in a new era of Hollywood beauty, according to the November 1954 issue of Vogue:
It is always a dramatic moment when the phoenix arises anew from its ashes. For if “queene died young and faire,” they are also reborn, appearing in new guises which often create their own terms of appreciation. Even while the pessimists were predicting no new feminine ideal could emerge in the aftermath of war, an authentic, existential Galatea was being forged in the person of Miss Audrey Hepburn.
“Nobody can doubt that Hepburn’s appearance succeeds because it embodies the spirit of today,” the magazine declared, then goes on to describe her “child-like head (as compact as a coconut with its cropped hair and monkey-fur fringe” sitting atop “a long, incredibly slender and straight neck.”
This is a funny image but it captures an adorable whimsy that seemed to be in short supply after the gritty, darkly grown-up experience of war. Nobody else looked like her. Hepburn was carefree and liberated; modern, but still ladylike. The silly description of her “child-like head” is redeemed with reference to her elegant, swanlike neck, one of her most distinguishable and famous features. Hepburn, after all, was trained in ballet, and carried herself in way that could make her “appear exaggeratedly tall, if not for her natural grace.”
With her American film debut, Hepburn brought something war-weary American audiences were longing for – a fresh face and a new beginning.
"A designer’s dream"
Hepburn’s rise as a star of the silver screen coincided with her rise as a star in fashion. After a long period of austerity, Studlar points out, haute couture was making a post-war comeback in the 1950s. Pretty details, flowing fabric and young, romantic styles replaced the practical functionality of wartime women’s wear. Hollywood costume designers relished the high-fashion looks coming out of Paris.
For Edith Head, the renowned fashion designer for Paramount Pictures, Hepburn was “a designer’s dream,” as she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Head’s first impression of the actress was of a “person clean and shining – a little girl with the poise of the Duchess of Windsor” whose “figure and flair told me at once, here was girl who’d been born to make designers happy.”
Head worked with Hepburn, who contributed some of her own notes to costume sketches for Roman Holiday, creating a wardrobe that “translated [the actress] perfectly from a prim little princess to an eager young girl on the streets of Rome.” Just as Hepburn was the countermodel to the typical star of the day, Roman Holiday was the countermodel of the traditional fairy tale. It gave us a fiercely independent princess who longed for freedom to be ordinary.
It’s an image etched in our collective minds: the incognito royal in a plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a scarf tied breezily around her neck as she zips cheerfully around the city on a Vespa.
For women in the audience, it offered an uncomplicated look they could attain. Whereas it just wouldn’t be appropriate – or possible, in most cases – to traipse around dressed like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Hepburn’s wide belt and flat sandals in Roman Holiday could be easily replicated in real life.
The designs worn in Roman Holiday also dazzled the high fashion world, which adored the youthful simplicity and delighted in the girly excesses. The high-waisted circle skirts, nipped-in waistlines, thoughtful adornments were celebrated after nearly a decade of plain, boxy, utilitarian garments. Women’s Wear Daily hailed the “full sleeves and long torso worn by Hepburn” and lovingly described the hat she wears as “a close-fitting swirl of antique silk, showing off an Italian haircut early in the film.”
These styles earned Head an Oscar for Best Costume Design and established Hepburn’s enduring legacy as a fashion maven.
Suggested resources for further research on Audrey Hepburn and Hollywood fashion:
- - Jorgensen, J. (2010). Edith head: the fifty-year career of hollywood's greatest costume designer.
- - Knight, T. (2013). Audrey hepburn: in the movies.
- - Leese, E. (1991). Costume design in the movies: an illustrated guide to the work of 157 great designers.
Some of the most compelling examples of women’s history in the United States aren’t found in textbooks or encyclopedias – they’re spotlighted in the glossy pages of the popular consumer magazines of their time. ProQuest brings to digital life decades of women’s-interest magazines – cover to cover, including ads, editorials and images – to support scholarly research and general interest.
- - Hannon, L. B. (2012). The “Stylish battle” world war II and clothing design restrictions in los angeles (Order No. 3550615). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1286752522).
- - HIRSCH, V. A. (1973). Edith Head, Film Costume Designer (Order No. 7506194). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (302669927).
- - Moseley, R. (2000). Trousers and tiaras: Growing up with audrey hepburn (BL) (Order No. U128647). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (301582624).
- - Taylor, D. A. (1997). Fair lady, huckleberry friend: Femininity and freedom in the image of audrey hepburn, 1953-1967 (Order No. 9736644). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304386165).
Beaton, C. (1954, Nov 01). Features/Articles/People: Audrey hepburn. Vogue, 124, 128-128, 129.
Head, E., & ARDMORE, J. (1959, Apr 29). 'THE DRESS DOCTOR'. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File).
Full sleeves, long-torso worn by audrey hepburn in 'roman holiday'. (1953, Aug 20). Women’s Wear Daily, 87, 3.
Studlar, G. (2013). Precocious charms : stars performing girlhood in classical hollywood cinema.
W. A. (1953, Aug 28). 'Roman holiday' at music hall is modern fairy tale starring peck and audrey hepburn.’ New York Times (1923-Current File)
Image: By Trailer screenshot Licencing information :http://www.sabucat.com/?pg=copyright and http://www.creativeclearance.com/guidelines.html#D2 (Roman Holiday trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons