The young woman staring back at us is good looking enough. Standing in a field in the Netherlands clutching a bouquet of daisies, her face has a sweet fullness, especially at the cheeks, and her hair is loose in curls that hit below her neck.
Her broad smile is warm but absolutely plain.
This teen might be pretty, but she is unremarkable. And therefore, she can’t be Audrey Hepburn, one of the most recognizable and adored icons in movie history.
But she is.
This is the first Audrey we meet at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The exhibition’s title, Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon, proves fitting when one witnesses the sell-out crowd.
Even two decades after her death, Hepburn still draws a crowd: men and women, young and old eager to simply look at her. Hepburn is the embodiment of being an icon.
The exhibition takes us on a journey to show how a failed aspiring ballerina became one of the most famous and revered figures of cinema and fashion.
It begins with photos of Hepburn as an adolescent studying dance in the midst of World War II and immediately following the end.
This was a pivotal point for her and many other children of her generation.
Hepburn was born in Brussels in 1929. Her mother moved her to the Netherlands, thinking it would be safer during World War II.
The adolescent Hepburn suffered through the Dutch famine of 1944 and developed malnutrition disorders, but continued dancing and performing for Dutch resistance fundraisers.
I stared at these early photos and most of the time, I could not find the ingenue who won over the world with her uniquely chic and charming style.
In a shot from a 1942 dance recital the girl in the photo exudes a subtle playfulness as her arms are delicately raised and bended, and in this minute but palpable playfulness one can sense the ‘Audrey Hepburn’ that would emerge in the 1951 stage production of Gigi and hit its apotheosis in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
But in terms of the physical looks, all the signatures of Hepburn—dramatic eyes, chic, cropped hair, the askance look—are absent.
When Hepburn did one of her first major magazine photo spreads in 1950 for Picture Post, she is almost unrecognizable.
At this point in her career, Hepburn had started to make a name for herself in theater with 1948’s Sauce Tartare and 1949’s Sauce Piquant in London, but she hadn’t yet originated the title role of Gigi, which would begin her launch to international fame.
In the spread, Hepburn certainly appears good looking, but her eyes lack the drama and sparkle that are essential to the Hepburn look we know so well.
She’s wearing full skirts and her hair is relatively loose, rather than the closely cropped hair paired with black slacks. She looks like any other wannabe star with a pretty face—which makes it utterly un-Hepburn.
We see the Hepburn we know and love emerge in photos from the following year when Irving Penn photographed her for Vogue.
Here we see the drama of her eye, heightened by her manicured brows and now much subtler, coy glances at the camera. It’s the Hepburn version of sexy and chic.
This look did not arise overnight nor did it emerge from the masses: Hepburn redefined feminine beauty.
Because Hepburn is regarded as one of the ultimate Hollywood stunners, it’s hard to conceive of a time when she would not be considered one of them. But she wasn’t always the standard for beauty.
The exhibition stresses how utterly unique Hepburn’s look was for her era. She “used fashion to define her individuality” in a period in which curvaceous, busty women and especially blond ones, like Marilyn Monroe, ruled Hollywood.
Specifically, against her more curvy and traditionally feminine peers, Hepburn exhibited a “new independent form of femininity.”
Her ballet dancer build and posture gave an almost athletic look to her. She opted out of luscious curls and perms for neat and tightly cropped hair. Instead of broad, sexy smiles right at the camera, she looked askance or smiled slightly.
As the exhibition says, “In Hepburn’s choice of hair cut and clothing, she blurred boundaries between conventional depictions of male and female.”
Mark Shaw, a photographer who regularly worked with Hepburn, explained her sexy dual gender dynamic best: “Audrey is the most intriguingly childish adult, feminine toyboy I’ve ever photographed…she’s many women wrapped up in one.”
The epitome of that Hepburn style is in Philippe Halsman’s shot of her for LIFE magazine in 1954.
In the shot, Hepburn’s boyishly short, closely cropped hair is paired with a bright pink blouse, exuding that “feminine tomboy” fashion aesthetic.
She is looking over her shoulder as she walks away from Halsman. The stare from her dark eyes with her perfectly manicured brows is nothing short of penetrating.
She creates an intense sense of intimacy. Her lips are painted a bright pink, almost magenta. They are pursed so naturally that there is something so sincere about her whole facial expression.
While this is the look that would become and remain Hepburn’s signature, the exhibition illustrates how she evolved in her stylistic and acting choices over time.
Hepburn’s legacy has become so interchangeable with 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly that it can be easy to forget she had been a screen star for a full decade before the role—and that playing a quasi-call girl was a risky move.
But Hepburn embraced the role and made Holly Golightly a character that would go down in Hollywood and fashion history.
The famous little black dress by Givenchy—a favorite designer of Hepburn’s, with whom she worked on several of her movies, including for her not-quite-as-famous red gown in Funny Face—is arguably the most famous ensemble to ever grace cinema.
The exhibition does a commendable job of adding value to the Hepburn canon rather than simply displaying a series of classic publicity stills.
It’s certainly not easy to bring new insight to the life of not only one of the most beloved, but written about (and filmed about) Hollywood icons.
But there is a flaw to the exhibition: It’s too small. It barely fills three or four tiny rooms, but visitors are expected to pay an additional £10 ($15.49) to see it.
As well curated as “Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon” is—and as much as I enjoyed it—I can imagine another viewer being a bit let down after coughing up the extra money and queuing along a wall.
But Hepburn’s dedicated fans, young and old, will revel in viewing snippets of her life when she wasn’t on the screen.
One black-and-white photo from 1958 captures an intimate moment between Hepburn and future husband, actor, and director Mel Ferrer.
While he sits in an elevated director’s chair, Hepburn reaches up and grabs his hand. Though Ferrer and Hepburn would divorce after 14 years of marriage, Hepburn’s tenderness and affection for him is tangible.
The photographic journey through Hepburn’s life continues to the later years when her film career took a back seat to personal obligations. The first was to mothering her sons. The second was taking on the role of UNICEF ambassador and making the fight to end child malnourishment her personal battle.
Hepburn’s own childhood of starvation during World War II made her incredibly sympathetic to the plight of the world’s hungry youth.
She traveled to Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh as a UNICEF ambassador. Images of Hepburn walking in rural villages, surrounded by throngs of children, are some of the final in the exhibition.
A shot of Hepburn in 1992 shows her walking a dirt road in Somalia.
Gone is the Givenchy. She is in khakis and a plain blue Lacoste T-shirt.
Her face is older with some (but remarkably few) wrinkles. A young boy clutches her arm as she leads dozens of other children.
This may not be the image of Audrey Hepburn that most of us think of when we hear her name. But maybe it should be.