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Style icons - Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn's dancer's style is a look with a lasting influence

Audrey Hepburn three agesShe was certainly one of my icons.

Audrey Hepburn was born Audrey van Heemstra Ruston in Belgium in 1929 to an English father and a Dutch mother who was a former Baroness. Her father later appended the family name Hepburn to his name Ruston and the family became known as the Hepburn-Rustons.

Hepburn went to school in Belgium, Holland and England, and, after her father walked out on the family, from 1939 attended the Arnhem conservatory in Holland, where she studied ballet until the outbreak of war. Like most European families, the Hepburns suffered a great deal during the conflict, and Hepburn herself had malnutrition, respiratory problems and oedema during these years.

Audrey Hepburn After the war, she resumed her dance training but her height of 5ft 7 told against her and her constitution remained weak from the malnutrition. So she turned instead to acting, which paid better money than ballet - important when she was the family's chief breadwinner - and started small in educational films and bit parts. She was lucky enough to be spotted fairly early on, scoring a hit on stage in Gigi, and made her major motion picture debut in Roman Holiday in 1952, which made her a star.

Her debut as a style icon began shortly afterwards, when she made the film Sabrina with Humphrey Bogart and the film studio sent her to fashion designer Hubert Givenchy to create a wardrobe.

Givenchy would later recall that Hepburn "knew exactly what she wanted. She knew perfectly her visage and her body, their fine points and their faults". This is typical of dancers, who are trained to regard their bodies with a critical and objective eye.

Until the end of her life, Givenchy's clothes would be part of Hepburn's signature look. She wore them both onscreen and off, and the two of them became firm friends in private life. He once said that he had never had to alter her 110-pound mannequin in all the years he designed for her - her stick-thin figure never changed one iota, although she bore two children.

Hepburn was a style groundbreaker principally because she looked like herself and that made her a new type of beauty. She kept her hair short and dark in an age where blonde was more fashionable. She was flat-chested when the current trend was voluptuous (Monroe and Mansfield were the celebrated stars of the era, along with Loren and Lollabrigida). She celebrated her dancer's frame with black capri pants and turtleneck sweaters that showed every inch of her svelte figure. She outlined her dark eyes with even darker eyeliner to create an innocent, doe-eyed look that was totally new.

Audrey Hepburn in Always Hepburn changed her fashion sense very little during her lifetime. Her astounding youthful beauty morphed into a mature elegance and at the age of 59, when she appeared in the film Always, she was still sporting her signature clean, neat style (but in white rather than black, as she was playing an angel). She still looked very much the dancer - hair scraped back, a small head on a trim body. The style influences she has left are manifold. Capri pants, ballet flats, full skirts, the little black dress, short strings of pearls, button-down mens' shirts, big hats and even bigger sunglasses are all Hepburn trademarks that remain in fashion today. So are cinched waists, trenchcoats and short scarves worn at the neck. Her classic elegance can be copied whatever your age and whatever your budget - all you need is class (though a rail-thin figure doesn't hurt). Keep it neat and clean and simple and you can't go far wrong. 

Hepburn withdrew from films in 1967 in order to raise her family and thereafter worked only sporadically in cinema, preferring to follow more substantial pursuits. She became a Unicef goodwill ambassador and was tireless in helping refugee children as she herself had been helped at the end of the Second World War. But perhaps, in the end, it was the war that finally conquered her, and in 1993 she died of bowel cancer aged only 63.

Cyd Charisse RIP

Another great Hollywood star bites the dust

blog imageThe dancer and actress Cyd Charisse has died at the age of 86 at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles. She was one of the last of her generation of Hollywood stars. Dancing partners Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire both predeceased her by many years, but she leaves behind her husband of 60 years, singer Tony Martin.

Charisse was a ballet dancer from a young age and performed with the Ballets Russes from the age of 13. Born Tula Ellice Finklea, she picked up the name Charisse when she married her dance instructor Nico, and kept it even after divorce and remarriage to Martin, with whom she had two children.

In her first film role, in Something to Shout About (1943), she was billed as Lily Norwood, but continued to dance in films as Cyd Charisse until the decline of Hollywood in the late 1950s. She never tap danced, but took roles where her balletic skills were to the fore - always elegant, usually a lady. Her major films included Brigadoon, It's Always Fair Weather, and Silk Stockings - a musical remake of Ninotchka, which she always claimed was her favourite role. In later life she appeared both in non-musical films and on stage, as well as on television.

blog imageCharisse was not a great actress, singer (she was usually dubbed) nor even a great beauty, but in the Hollywood of the time, she was able to use her one magnificent talent - dancing - as a springboard to become a major star. The MGM machine was right behind her and her costumiers, make-up artists, hairstylists and cameramen worked with her splendid physique to create for her an enduring image of grace and beauty. Her stunning legs were often on show, especially in publicity shots, and were widely (though falsely) rumoured to be insured for a million dollars.

Along with her green costume in Singin in the Rain (above, a performance she undertook when she had just had a baby), her glittering black dress in Bandwagon has always remained in my mind as the epitome of the womanly fashions of that era, along with her white, pleated, supposedly 'unsmart' skirt worn later in the same movie (see image below). The strapless, full-skirted gowns of the day suited her down to the ground, while hairstylists such as Sydney Guilaroff changed her natural soft auburn hair to black for a decidedly more striking appearance.

blog imageI grew up watching every film of Cyd Charisse's, along with Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers and all of those great dancing stars, and it saddens me that she's gone. The DH and I still watch her a few times a year, most notably in Bandwagon, where her 'dancing in the dark' sequence in the park with Astaire has to rank among the sexiest, subtlest dance routines ever filmed. For a more overtly sexy routine, her Louise Brooks-inspired appearance in the dream sequence of Singin' in the Rain takes some beating. It makes perfect sense that a man attracted by the pert Debbie Rogers in 'real life' would focus on someone who looks more like Cyd in his dreams.

So come to think of it, maybe that's what we'll do tonight - turn out the lights, pop in a DVD and once more watch Cyd pick up Gene Kelly's hat with her green shoes...


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