THE BLOG
20/01/2015 10:38 GMT | Updated 21/03/2015 05:59 GMT

Audrey Hepburn's Transitions and Transformations as an Icon

The little black dress. The simple turtleneck. The elegant ballet flats... Audrey Hepburn's iconic image has long been associated with timeless grace, simplicity and style. At the start of Hepburn's career, however, she was regarded a counter-model to the popular voluptuous, hyper-sexualized femininity. Yet, with her unique physical attributes and an almost angelic personality, Hepburn gained broad appeal amongst filmmakers and audience alike, leaving her own indelible influence in our society as a style icon and celebrity diplomat. Audrey Hepburn not only evolved personally and professionally to gain more confidence as an actress, but also transformed Hollywood and society's view of femininity and fashion, and provided a template for celebrity diplomacy.

As a young ballerina with no prior experience in acting, Audrey Hepburn won the hearts of American producers with her wide eyes, which hinted at a perpetual curiosity eagerly sought after for the protagonist of the stage production Gigi. Its positive reception confirmed the producers' optimistic expectation of Hepburn's abilities to perform on stage, and signaled her official transition from a dancer to an actress.

Cinderella stories, which paralleled Hepburn's personal growth, penetrated Hepburn's acting career. In Sabrina, one of Hepburn's early films which won her acclaim, Hepburn portrayed a chauffeur's daughter who has grown up in the wealthy Larrabee family estate in Long Island. The character transforms from a desperate girl, unrequitedly in love with the patriarch's younger son David, to a mature woman who wins David's heart not only with her Parisian fashion as she returns from France, but also with her confidence. In this Cinderella story, the protagonist is no longer "reaching for the moon", but becomes convinced that the "moon" would come reaching for her instead. Similarly, in the 1964 comedy My Fair Lady, Hepburn appeared as Eliza Dolittle, an "annoying cockney flower girl" who would evolve into a "duchess"-like woman under the rigorous tutelage of Professor Higgins.

Despite the time that had elapsed during her acting career, the innocent-looking and introverted Audrey Hepburn still frequented youthful, adolescent roles, and continued to evoke a sense of fragility. The 1961 romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany's, however, marked Hepburn's transition into a more confident actress who had begun to take control of the filming process. Up until this point, Hepburn's fragility had been a cherished asset that enabled filmmakers to create a nostalgic, wistful blend of emotions in their movies. Often considered Hepburn's most challenging role, Holly Golightly is an extroverted, spontaneous and eccentric New York playgirl whose personality significantly contrasted that of Hepburn. Unlike typical "Audrey-type characters", the free-willed Holly refuses to conform to social norms or compromise her values. To transition into this challenging new role that differed greatly from her Cinderella's, Hepburn could no longer charm the audience with her fragile innocence alone.

However distinct or similar the plots are for each film, fashion helped Hepburn transition into her roles smoothly. Clothes play an integral role as Sabrina (ostensibly) transcends the boundaries of social class. Sabrina's famous "little black dress", for instance, features the color "black", which had been rarely used in the film industry at the time partly due to its association with widows, a vivid sign of the female dependency on their husbands. Hepburn's character, however, evolves into an independent woman who challenges society's established views on class.

The ways which the movies were filmed tend not to center Hepburn's acting skills, but had a focus on feminine fashion, as exemplified by the close-up shots of Sabrina's waist and long, skinny legs. Not only did Hepburn's style generate commercial success for designers including Givenchy, it played a transformative role in creating a social thirst for the "Hepburn look" at the dawn of the post-war period, prior to which women took on masculine roles as men left the households for wars. At a time when women desired to look like women again, Hepburn inspired American society to consider skinniness and youthfulness as beautiful and feminine, reconcile the apparent conflict between youthfulness and sophistication, and embrace haute couture as a youthful concept. The growing influence of the media further magnified Hepburn's style to the public, enabling a mass transformation in society's way of thinking about fashion and femininity.

Later in Hepburn's career, she embraced a new role as Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations. This shift would enable Hepburn to become an early epitome of a "celebrity diplomat" as described in scholar Andrew Cooper's book Celebrity Diplomacy, who used her "star power" and "genuine emotional appeal" in raising awareness. Although Cooper considers her acts of kindness "acts hard to follow", he labels Hepburn a naive social advocate who lacked outspokenness on controversial issues: "a glamorous enthusiast" who was "celebrated but conformist". Arguably, however, since celebrity diplomacy fundamentally differs from regular (political) diplomacy in its freedom from conforming to individual government's interests and potential to exploit iconicity as a potential asset to attract more audience to the social cause, one might wonder if film stars like Hepburn should even be expected to "not be naive" in the first place. The question is open to contention.

To this day, society still honors, celebrates and imitates Hepburn's simplicity in taste, the effortless beauty enabled by her genuineness, as well as the good that Hepburn brought to humanity and its long lasting impacts as a model for future celebrity diplomats to come. Hepburn provided an epitome of how one could strive to maintain a coherently positive image despite having her life scrutinized by the public, and how a positive image could be long-lasting and even enhanced throughout the years.