The Importance of Being Audrey

David Wills, author of 'Audrey: The 50s,' remembers the dazzling star and why she continues to be an inspiration today.
Audrey Hepburn

Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn established a new standard of beauty that continues to influence film and fashion today.

Cinema history is filled with stars created by the studio system. Carefully controlled, modified, costumed, and trained, these performers often became much more than originally met the eye. Many had natural talent, some only charisma, and others great beauty. Occasionally, however, a performer emerged who, against all preconceived odds of what a star should be or look like, knocked down the walls of convention by becoming nothing other than what they already were. Audrey Hepburn was the embodiment of this fundamental truth. 

In an era dominated by the atomic prurience of the bombshells and on the heels of the Forties glamazons, Audrey revolutionized movie glamour with an understated allure that had never been seen on-screen before. Not an actress of the chameleon variety, she relied on innate gifts, undiluted by specific training. She maneuvered sleekly within a narrow range, her fashion-model perfection never completely submerged. Audrey's unique appearance—the short hair, the slender frame and petite bosom, the long neck, the prominent brow, the strong jawline, and the irregular smile—set her apart; the cadence of her voice, with its velvet tones and tip-of-the-tongue enunciation, made for an unmistakable accompaniment that continues to melt hearts.

From the release of Roman Holiday in 1953, Audrey became the epicenter of a shift in perception, an optical and figurative adjustment. Her refreshing image was the antithesis of the bosomy, curvy, blatantly sexy presence of a certain newly minted star (and her copyists). Silver Screen proposed that Audrey was “changing Hollywood’s taste in girls,” while Photoplay described her as “altogether un–Marilyn Monroe-ish. And yet. . .Audrey Hepburn is the most phenomenal thing that’s happened to the film capital since Marilyn Monroe.” Hollywood suddenly had two starry options, with diverging essences: the breathless sensuality of the powdery, pillowy Monroe, or the sleek, stylish, sexy angularity of Hepburn. Marilyn led with her lips; Audrey captivated with her eyes—and both remain to this day the cinema’s most popular and beloved female icons.

In 1954, Vogue posited her as “today’s wonder-girl... She has so captured the public imagination and the mood of the time that she has established a new standard of beauty, and every other face now approximates the ‘Hepburn look.' Photographer Bob Willoughby had this recollection from his initial encounter with Audrey Hepburn: “I could never have guessed this when I first photographed her at Paramount Studios in 1953. Audrey certainly was not the typical image of a young starlet, for that was what I had been sent to photograph. I watched her across the room as she was being photographed by Bud Fraker, and she did have something... but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was finally introduced to her. Then that radiant smile hit me right between the eyes, warming me inside like a shot of whiskey. The amazing instant contact she made, a remarkable gift that everyone who met her felt. She exuded some magic warmth that was hers alone.” Audrey once confided, “I never thought I was pretty.” And yet, looking back, as Roman Holiday was in preproduction, when Paramount offered to pay for the capping of some crooked teeth, she refused. A wise decision, as there was such perfection in the imperfection of her smile. She also wouldn’t allow the makeup assistant to tame her heavy brows. Audrey was a lovely contradiction, one on her own terms.

Audrey Hepburn Photo

Audrey Hepburn was not the typical image of a young starlet but exuded a magic charm and style that she defined on her own terms. 

Hepburn's signature style has become the most important look of the 20th Century and beyond. Ralph Lauren has stated that Audrey “did more for the designer than the designer did for her.” Indeed, her designers were thrilled; a true movie star could wear their clothes right off the catwalk, in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, on the city streets, shopping, dining, dancing, receiving an award, as no other screen actress had been able to do before. Also, few actresses continue to provide fashion inspiration that is attainable and can be adapted to the girl on the street and in the workplace—certainly not Monroe, with her shellacked visage and fantasy costuming, a look that doesn’t translate outside of the 1950s without extensive reinterpretation. Her friend and colleague Stanley Donen noted, “Audrey was always more about fashion than movies or acting.” She would have felt shortchanged by such a summing-up but would have graciously understood the observation. 

Audrey: The 50s by David Wills

"Audrey: The 50s" by David Wills is a photographic compilation showcasing Audrey Hepburn’s iconic career in the 1950s—the decade that solidified her place as one of the world’s greatest stars in film and fashion.

By the mid to late Sixties, Audrey's style was a contemporary reimagining of her Fifties look (nicely divided by her chignoned role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961). Everything about her appearance at this time said one thing: affluence. Her crisply tailored pant suits, Louis Vuitton shoulder bags, oversized sunglasses, and a softened modification of Sassoon’s five-point bob became a jet-set staple: a look suitable for descending gang planks in Saint-Tropez or lunching at La Côte Basque. “Simplicity was her trademark,” Audrey’s friend Leslie Caron remembers. “She had the originality never to wear any jewelry, and this at the time of double rows of pearls, little earrings, lots of little everything . . . And then suddenly she would appear at a premiere wearing earrings that reached down to her shoulders. Really daring!” Known for adorning herself in marvelous clothes, Audrey claimed, “The beautiful dresses always seemed like costumes to me. I knew I could carry them off, but they weren’t my attire of choice. That would be old jeans or pants that I could garden in.” There is a modernity about Audrey Hepburn that reaches beyond the time in which her films were made. Her performances, as fresh and delightful as they were when originally released, resonate with contemporary audiences. In the 1950s Audrey filled a place on the popular screen that no one knew was vacant, and when she retired she proved to be irreplaceable. 

Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

Audrey Hepburn charmed audiences as Holly Golightly in 'Breakfast at Tiffany’s' in 1961.

There is no actress alive who can turn a minute on-screen into a tutorial on poise, spontaneity, comic timing, professionalism, chemistry, and, of course, casual elegance. Similar to most of the great stars, she was equally popular with both male and female audiences. For men there was a vulnerability that brought out a need to protect and for women there was the dream of reinvention, the Cinderella makeover, that we saw again and again in her films—from Sabrina's chauffeur's daughter to debutante, Funny Face's librarian to fashion model, Breakfast at Tiffany's farm girl to sophisticate, and My Fair Lady's Cockney flower girl to nobility.

Today we see Audrey's influence everywhere—on the street, on the red carpet, and in the photo shoots of young Hollywood. As her films are universally available, she becomes more ubiquitous with each successive year—and devoted fans, both the loyal and an ever-increasing legion of the new, find themselves seeking out Audrey in the many celluloid treasures she gave as gifts to the world.

UNICEF ambassador Audrey Hepburn

Soon after becoming a UNICEF ambassador, Audrey Hepburn went on a mission to Ethiopia, where years of drought and civil strife had caused terrible famine.

Audrey Hepburn’s Cinderella tale tells a personal version of happily ever after—the charming girl transformed into the elegant woman who became a legend of grace and compassion. The person behind the icon was the mother of two sons, lived what she believed, and found a sense of serenity, traveling and serving tirelessly as Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF in support of child health, welfare, and education. Later in life Audrey spoke of her Hollywood years: “I am proud to have been in a business that gives pleasure, creates beauty and awakens our conscience, arouses compassion, and perhaps most importantly, gives millions a respite from our so violent world.” We would have expected no less.

Australian-born David Wills is an author, independent curator, photographic preservationist, and editor who has accrued one of the world’s largest independent archives of original photos, negatives, and transparencies. He has contributed material to many publications and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Wills books include Seventies Glamour, Hollywood in Kodachrome, Audrey: The 50s, Marilyn Monroe: Metamorphosis, as well as Bernard of Hollywood’s Ultimate Pin-Up Book, and Ara Gallant. He is the coauthor of Veruschka. His books and exhibitions have received major profiles in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, American Photo, and Vogue. He lives in Palm Springs, CA.