On the day that would have been Audrey Hepburn’s 94th birthday (she was born on May 4, 1929), I have decided to dedicate an article to the woman, actress, style icon and human rights activist who has been one of the most significant influences in my life (I had previously included her in my International Women’s Day article).
I was still a little girl when I first heard of Audrey, who has remained in the collective imagination mainly because of her role as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which is to this day still an influence on pop culture, as with the case of Blair Waldorf’s character in the Gossip Girl TV show, who is very much inspired by the actress and in some episodes even dreams of being one of her characters). I think everyone has happened to see some reference to Breakfast at Tiffany’s in some places, whether it was posters, images on the web, paintings reproduced for home decor, or prints on T-shirts. The earliest images of Audrey Hepburn that I can recall date back to when I was about twelve years old; the hair salon in my neighborhood had a large canvas painting of a Holly Golightly stylized portrait, and a very similar print was also on the sweatshirt of a school friend of mine. My first viewing of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was right around that time because it was a much-quoted movie among my peers; I was so enchanted by this movie that it prompted me to watch her other famous works as well shortly before I started high school. This was also thanks to my cinephile grandfather, whose video library also included a box set of Audrey Hepburn’s major films. I have seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s many times over the years; a few times with my mother, once with my grandmother (I remember she loved it so much), another time with a high school classmate who was a die-hard Audrey Hepburn fan, would buy Audrey-themed books (it is thanks to her that I bought the magnificent volume titled “The Audrey Hepburn Treasures” with the beautiful pink spine that you can see in one of the photos in this article) and was fond of Tiffany & Co. jewelry; in the early 2000s and for much of the 2010s silver bracelets and long heart-shaped Tiffany & Co. necklaces used to be very popular among teenage girls (just a few days ago, the Tiffany & Co. flagship store in New York opened its new landmark building). Once with another friend I dressed up as Holly Golightly; we had a photoshoot after school, recreating the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and it was a lot of fun.
I remember that we would constantly re-watch some of her films, commenting on them together, and a bit of Audrey Hepburn-mania had broken out; by then all my classmates knew me as a cinephile, and I was often given biographies and movie-related books as gifts. A couple of friends bought me Mark Shaw’s mini volume “Charmed by Audrey: Life On The Set of Sabrina,” which contains a series of portraits taken by Shaw for LIFE magazine on the set of the film Sabrina (1954), which I still keep in my old apartment in Lugano.
I have accumulated quite a few books about Audrey Hepburn’s life over the years, including photographic ones (I still have a few on my wish list), and my admiration and respect for her, also thanks to the various characters she played, truly stand the test of time.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUDREY’S LIFE AND CAREER: What is it about Audrey Hepburn that fascinates me so much? Probably her timeless charisma, her inner beauty that also shone through on the outside, and her innate class, in addition to her immense artistic talent and her humanitarian efforts with UNICEF, for which she became an Official Ambassador.
Audrey was someone who managed to overcome the difficulties and obstacles she encountered along the way from an early age; born in Belgium and raised between England and the Netherlands, before beginning her film career she lived under the Nazi regime, due to which she suffered starvation and other hardships during the war. Following the Liberation of Holland from the regime, she studied dance and also took lessons in London, where she began acting in several theatre musicals, which were followed by small appearances in a number of films. Following her incredible success playing the lead role in the Broadway musical Gigi, she was cast in Roman Holiday (1953), for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress. Audrey’s career is marked by a series of films that are to this day considered cult in their own right, despite the fact that over the years she chose to devote more and more time to her family and would lead a private life in Switzerland, where she loved raising her two children, taking care of animals and her vegetable garden. After her last film appearance in 1988, Audrey was appointed Official Ambassador of UNICEF, for which she carried out important missions to help children in Third World countries. Her travels also included destinations that at the time were torn by civil wars, but Audrey never got away from her humanitarian commitments, which earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Jean Horshalt Humanitarian Award. She passed away in 1993 following a long illness, and to this day her sons Sean and Luca carry on her humanitarian efforts and devote themselves to charitable causes in her memory (son Sean Hepburn Ferrer has also published a volume titled “Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit”, which I highly recommend, and son Luca Dotti has also published the volume “Audrey At Home”, which tells personal stories about Audrey’s cooking and which I would be very interested in reading).
MY FAVORITE AUDREY HEPBURN MOVIES: I have seen most of Audrey Hepburn’s movies except for a couple that I have yet to catch up on, namely Wait Until Dark (1967) and War and Peace (1956), the latter because I want to read Tolstoy’s novel first and see its various film and TV adaptations later.
The Audrey movies I loved the most are among the actress’s best known. Roman Holiday (1953), in which she plays Anna, a European princess who decides to wander around Rome rather than submit to the obligations her role entails, aided by a journalist (Gregory Peck) who stays with her for the duration of her vacation. Sabrina (1954), based on a hit Broadway musical, tells the story of a Long Island chauffeur’s daughter who, after spending two years in France, makes both of her father’s wealthy employer’s sons fall in love with her (this film also marks the beginning of Audrey’s collaboration with French designer Hubert de Givenchy). Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), mentioned earlier as the film for which Audrey Hepburn is best known, is based on the eponymous novel by Truman Capote; in the film Audrey plays the role of Holly Golightly, a beautiful and sophisticated girl who lives by offering her company to wealthy men, and her life after she encounters her neighbor Paul (George Peppard). The movie is a love letter to New York City and is one of the reasons why New York-based jewelry store Tiffany & Co. is so popular today. This brought Audrey to the top of her popularity making her an iconic character, especially for her looks in the film. I really loved Funny Face (1957), based on a Broadway musical, in which Audrey stars alongside Fred Astaire, who in the film plays a New York fashion photographer named Dick Avery (closely reminiscent of real-life photographer Richard Avedon) who is smitten with shy bookstore clerk Jo Stockton (played by Audrey) after photographing her by chance and is convinced he can turn her into a successful model. It is a film that got mixed reviews but is wonderful for both its fashion and Gershwin’s nostalgic music.
Charade (1963) is a Hitchcockian-style thriller film set in contemporary Europe; it is about a woman who, after her husband’s murder, is pursued by three men who want the money her husband stole from them. Audrey’s character is helped by the charming Peter (Cary Grant) but soon discovers that he is not who he says he is. Although it is a very different film from the ones audiences are used to seeing Audrey in, I enjoyed this thriller mixed with the romantic comedy genre and the two leads are incredibly charming. The film also has some genuinely humorous moments, and again its fashion is marked by sophistication and refinement, thanks to another successful collaboration with Givenchy and the popularity of ready-to-wear in the 1960s. Last but not least, My Fair Lady (1964), inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It was a particularly difficult film for Audrey, who was cast in place of Julie Andrews for the lead role (after the latter had played the same role on Broadway) and was later dubbed into the sound parts. Nevertheless, I think Audrey is very good in playing the part of Eliza Doolittle, who is transformed from a simple flower girl by snobbish phonetics professor Henry Higgins into a high society lady. The Edwardian-era costumes of the 1910s were reproduced by Cecil Beaton, and although they did not influence the fashion of the time, they are incredibly feminine and help bring out Audrey’s natural beauty.
AUDREY AND FASHION: Audrey Hepburn used to say, “Don’t neglect your clothes, because they are the first impression you make of yourself.” Today she is remembered not only for the roles she played but also for her style and the impact both she and her characters had on the fashion world. Her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer recalls in “Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit”: “My mother was convinced that every woman should find a look that suited her and then adapt it by following fashion, rather than being a slave to fashion itself, forced to change looks from season to season. […] It was then a matter of creating a personal look that works and continuing to follow it over time.” Her fruitful collaboration with Givenchy led her to favor top-quality clothes and to follow the philosophy of “less is more.” She was also very careful about choosing the right accessories and would pay close attention to the quality of shoes in particular (Sean recalls that she was close friends with shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo). Givenchy is the one who influenced Audrey’s look the most, as Sean said, “Audrey saw the dresses Hubert made for her as a beautiful vase that could enhance a simple meadow flower, while Hubert saw them as a vase that can maintain a certain simplicity so as not to detract from the natural beauty of the flower it holds. As a result of their collaboration, we often refer to my mother as the most elegant woman in the world. But style and elegance were rooted in their spiritual values. They were born within. They were not a way to be noticed, on the contrary a form of modesty.”
Audrey’s style also became popular thanks to the multiple magazine covers she appeared on, starting with the promotion of Funny Face and continuing with the various fashion editorials of the 1960s. She had a distinct and refined style, never getting stuck with just one look. However, some key pieces of her outfits became iconic, such as ballet flats, classic black pants, white shirts, and the little black dress (this was especially thanks to Breakfast at Tiffany’s), elevated by Givenchy to the highest levels of rigor and sophistication and made a timeless garment by the Holly Golightly character. She also loved black turtlenecks, capri pants, as well as blue jeans, and she would often wear a silk scarf around her head. Sean Hepburn Ferrer said: “Style is a word that is used a lot, and with a multitude of meanings. In Audrey’s case it can be understood as the extension of an inner beauty, reinforced by a strict discipline in life, respect for others and hope in humanity. If the lines were pure and elegant, it was because she believed in the power of simplicity. If we can speak of a timeless style, it is because she believed in quality, and if she is still considered a style icon today, it is because – once she found her look – she did not abandon it for the rest of her life. She did not follow trends, she did not reinvent herself every season. She loved fashion, but she used it as a tool to complement her own personal style.”
AUDREY BETWEEN WELLNESS AND BEAUTY: Regarding Audrey’s beauty and self-care habits, her son Sean said that his mother, slim by constitution and also because of her wartime sufferings, paid attention to eating healthy but “loved drinking coffee, loved desserts a lot, and said that chocolate drives away melancholy.” Her diet was balanced; Audrey drank a lot of water, ate a lot of fruits and vegetables bought at local markets, and potatoes were a constant part of her diet, probably due in part to her Dutch ancestry. She ate balanced portions of everything and kept fit by taking long walks, especially near her home in Switzerland, where she also loved working on her garden and playing with her dogs. She loved dogs very much and once said, “I think an animal, especially a dog, represents the purest of experiences one can have. […] They are totally dependent on you, and so they are totally vulnerable. And vulnerability is what leads you to open your heart without reservation, which rarely happens with humans.” In her spare time Audrey also loved to decorate her home (with white tulips, scented candles and china), read, cook, listen to music and keep fit. She once admitted, “I’m not sporty at all. […] I consider myself an outdoors person, although I am not athletic at all, I like to walk in the countryside. I grind miles by the sea. In the sun.” Regarding her beauty habits, the topic has been excellently and thoroughly introduced by YouTube channel Laura Jane Atelier, which covers vintage and retro 20th-century pop culture topics; Laura has devoted a few videos to Audrey Hepburn’s favorite products and her beauty rituals, mainly “Audrey Hepburn’s Favorite Things” and “Audrey Hepburn’s Little Beauty Secrets: “Beauty, Life, Diet and More.“
Thanks to these videos, I got to learn that Audrey loved to use the products of Hungarian dermatologist Erno Laszlo, who was very popular among the stars of the time, and it is recalled that she said, “I owe 50% of my beauty to my mother and the other 50% to Erno Laszlo.” Of Erno Laszlo, whose skincare line still exists today, she especially used the Sea Mud Deep Cleansing Bar to purify her skin. In addition, she would always wear sunscreen to maintain a healthy skin. She was a fan of the Philip Kingsley’s Elasticiser repairing hair mask, which was created especially for her in 1974.
Her signature scent was L’Interdit by Givenchy, created in 1957 with notes of jasmine, musk, white poppy, orange blossom and tuberose. She also used Creed Spring Flower perfume a lot, designed especially for her in 1951 with notes of musk, and the fruity-floral scent Krigler English Promenade 19, inspired by the Italian Riviera, with notes of grapefruit, Neroli and Ylang Ylang.
To keep her skin healthy, she loved to spend a lot of time outdoors and also made sure to get enough sleep. She would use Greek yogurt as a facial mask to keep her skin moisturized and took great care to remove her makeup at the end of the day, a habit she got during her years of acting in the theater.
For makeup, she loved Estée Lauder products, especially lipsticks, and worked extensively with her makeup artist Alberto De Rossi on careful application of mascara, as well as grooming thick eyebrows, achieved with a dark eyebrow pencil.
Audrey Hepburn’s TIME-TESTED BEAUTY TIPS are also iconic and often quoted in the form of a poem:
“For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge you’ll never walk alone.
We leave you a tradition with a future.
The tender, loving care of human beings will never become obsolete.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived,
Reclaimed, and redeemed; Never throw out anybody.
Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.
Your “good old days” are still ahead of you, may you have many of them.
AUDREY AND CHARITY WORK: Humanitarian efforts were a key part of Audrey Hepburn’s life, especially in her later years. As recounted in the volume “The Audrey Hepburn Treasures”, notoriety had provided her with a voice, and she was determined to use it. “The testimonials are never enough. If I can be one of them, and speak up for even one child, then it will be worth it.” She prepared herself for her role as a UNICEF Official Ambassador by studying the political, economic and social situation in each country she would visit, drafting written and elaborate notes for each speech she would deliver, and raising the funds needed for UNICEF programs through accounts of personal experiences in the field. The experience in Ethiopia, which at the time was the poorest country in the world, shook Audrey deeply, and it was also thanks to her that UNICEF intensified its presence on the territory. In fact, Audrey received much attention from the media when she reported the actual problems in the country and the courage with which the people were facing them, so much so that Congress allocated $600,000 to Ethiopia.
Following this, Audrey spent the next five years flying around the world as a UNICEF ambassador with her partner at the time, Robert Walders, visiting over twenty countries (including particularly hostile and dangerous lands such as Somalia and Bangladesh) and affirming the importance of UNICEF in working to address the different issues and poor living conditions of various populations.
MY AUDREY HEPBURN BOOKS AND OTHER INTERESTING TITLES: Over the years, a number of books have been published focusing on the figure of Audrey, including many volumes of stills from her films. The books I currently own are all great educational titles and were a key inspiration in the writing of this article: “Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit“, written by her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer, in which Audrey’s story and life anecdotes are told in a very personal way; the scrapbook-style volume “The Audrey Hepburn Treasures“, which contains numerous copies of memorabilia from the Audrey Hepburn estate (such as birth certificates, school diplomas and letters written by her) and “Audrey Hepburn – International Cover Girl“, which summarizes Audrey’s film career by narrating different aspects related to her movies and includes all the magazine covers on which she appeared.
I also found it very enjoyable to read Pamela Keogh’s book “What Would Audrey Do?”, which is a guide to the secrets of femininity inspired by the figure of Audrey Hepburn, and Melissa Hellstern’s “How To Be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way Of Life“, which inspires the reader to “live genuinely with glamour and grace.”
I have been recommended other Audrey volumes that I plan to purchase in the near future, including “Audrey At Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen With Recipes, Photographs, and Personal Stories” written by her son Luca Dotti and focusing on Audrey’s cooking, with her love for spaghetti al pomodoro and Italian cuisine in general.
The coffee table book “Audrey Hepburn Photographs 1953-1966” by photographer Bob Willoughby contains all the photographs taken by Willoughby and has excellent reviews.
“Audrey: The 60s” is a visual chronicle of the actress’s career in that decade and is sure to be of interest to ‘60s fashion lovers (I have just found out that there is also a ‘50s version, another HarperCollins publication full of beautiful photographs).
It’s great to see how Audrey Hepburn’s character and the roles she played still influence the popular culture of the era we are living in; I think it all sums up in the words of her son Sean, who wrote, “Her inner life was basically very simple, and she traced everything back to the usual basic themes: affection, kindness, love. But it was also the delicate way in which her gentle soul whispered those emotions that made it all so special.”
ADDITIONAL NOTES AND SOURCES:
This article on Audrey Hepburn was inspired by the various books about the actress that I have read and loved, such as The Audrey Hepburn Treasures, Audrey Hepburn – International Cover Girl, Audrey Hepburn: An Elegant Spirit by Sean Hepburn Ferrer, and Pamela Keogh’s What Would Audrey Do? which were very helpful during my formative years in learning about Audrey Hepburn’s life and career.
I also highly recommend Laura Jane Atelier’s YouTube channel, whose enlightening videos allowed me to delve into Audrey Hepburn’s beauty secrets and learn more about her style.
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