The Girl in the Little Black Dress

The predominant sentiment of 60s fashion could be described as a return to youth — bold colors, striking cuts, and a lively attitude. Who better to epitomize this sentiment than Miss Audrey Hepburn? 

I know I personally have a lot to thank Audrey for, considering that her greatly admired role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s repopularized the name “Tiffany” for the first time since the Middle Ages. As a result of the same film, most girls have her to thank for promoting the little black dress. However, Hepburn is remembered universally because she had the unique ability to project an air of sophistication whilst simultaneously demonstrating a captivating innocence. Though often imitated, the timeless Audrey Hepburn remains one of the greatest film stars, style icons, and role models of the past century. 

Audrey Hepburn was born in Belgium but schooled in Britain. Her father left her family when she was six years old, an event which she later considered to be the most traumatic of her life. She spoke of the effect of being “dumped” as “children need two parents.” At the onset of WWII, Audrey’s mother moved her to the Netherlands, (mistakenly) thinking that this country formerly neutral country would be safer than Britain. As a result, Audrey grew up witnessing the transportation of Dutch Jews to concentration camps. Audrey herself was instructed by her mother to use the name Edda van Heemstra, because an “English-sounding” name was considered dangerous in the face of German soldiers who did not know the difference. All the while, Audrey continued taking ballet lessons and was considered to be quite talented. However, after she was told her height and weak constitution (the effect of wartime malnutrition) would make the status of prima ballerina unattainable, she decided to concentrate on acting.

Audrey’s first major film role was in Roman Holiday (1953), in which she played a young princess who exchanges the burden of royalty for a day of adventure and romance. Hepburn altogether charmed audiences with her ability to combine a regal bearing with a youthful winsomeness. In his review in The New York Times, A. H. Weiler wrote: “Although she is not precisely a newcomer to films, Audrey Hepburn, the British actress who is being starred for the first time as Princess Anne, is a slender, elfin, and wistful beauty, alternately regal and childlike in her profound appreciation of newly-found, simple pleasures and love.” As a result of her performance, the director felt compelled to have Gregory Peck, an already well-known movie star of the time, share the headline of the film with amateur Audrey.

After her newfound recognition, Audrey did anything but dawdle, starring in film after film as her demand skyrocketed. She continued to enchant audiences in light romantic comedies such as Sabrina (1954). This role provided her first occasion to appear in designs by Hubert de Givenchy, with whose fashions she became identified. In 1957, Audrey showcased her dancing abilities opposite Fred Astaire in Funny Face. Her beatnik bookstore clerk outfit of a black turtleneck, black capri pants, and black flats is still one of her most recognizable looks to date. It was especially rule-breaking at the time considering most women still wore dresses and heels. Finally, in 1961, Breakfast at Tiffany’s revealed Audrey Hepburn in the most famous little black dress of all time, designed by Givenchy and accessorized with glamorous pearls and dark sunglasses. Audrey’s petite figure fascinated both photographers and fashion editorials, making her one of the most photographed stars of her era. Considering the looks of her contemporaries, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as the fact that many women, like Audrey, grew up in a time of war and malnutrition, Audrey’s figure was more attainable to many women.

Despite Audrey’s many performing accolades, she always had a soft spot for children and humanitarian work. She contributed to philanthropic efforts throughout her life, but she dedicated her whole life to the efforts when she was appointed as special goodwill ambassador for UNICEF in 1988. For the years that followed, Audrey visited famine-stricken villages in Latin America, Africa, and Asia and tried to raise awareness about children in need. Audrey herself understood too well what it was like to go hungry from her childhood in the Netherlands during the German Occupation. She herself said, “Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics.”

I was able to speak with John Isaac, the retired head of photography at the United Nations. John worked closely with Miss Hepburn while she was UNICEF Ambassador, traveling with her to many countries. In 1991, Audrey chose one of John’s photographs of herself carrying an Ethiopian child as one of her all time favorites for American Photo magazine. When asked why he thought Audrey chose that photo as one of her favorites, considering all the other glamorous photos she’s had taken over her lifetime, John told me, “Her concerns were about children in less developed countries, like Ethiopia. Ethiopia had a severe drought and people were dying of starvation, particularly children.” John likened Audrey’s ability to charm children to that of the Pied Piper:

Often the kids would have flies all over them, but she would just go hug them. I had never seen that. Other people had a certain amount of hesitation, but she would just grab them. Children would just come up to hold her hand, touch her – she was like the Pied Piper.

Audrey Hepburn is known as a timeless style icon, yet she was not known for being overly concerned with her looks herself. When asked how she cared for her appearance while she was traveling as a UNICEF ambassador, John elaborated:

She was simply dressed and a lot of the time, and she had no elaborate make-up. When she chose the photo as her all time favorite photo of herself, the Editor of the American Photo magazine asked me to find out if they can air brush and re-touch her wrinkles. She said to me, “Johnny, please tell them not to mess with it, I have earned every one of them.” 

Audrey Hepburn’s great legacy can hardly be disputed. Her combination of talent, beauty, and goodwill truly makes her an icon of the century. Though 60s fashion may not still be in vogue, some pieces of Audrey’s essentials are timeless: a little black dress, dark turtleneck, dark sunglasses, and of course, Gregory Peck.

-Tiffany Wong