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Huge eyes, arched brows, the perfect ’60s crop: Audrey Hepburn is just about the most photogenic woman ever captured on celluloid. If she were around today, she’d probably remain implausibly picture-perfect even if her phone’s camera accidentally flicked to selfie mode at close range. It’s difficult, though, to imagine someone so poised and so elegant existing in this age of oversharing, and that’s probably part of her appeal.
I first encountered Audrey as a costume-obsessed eight year-old armed with a book of paper dolls. Each was meant to resemble a golden-age Hollywood starlet wearing an iconic outfit, but the artist’s dodgy draughtsmanship had managed to transform these screen stars into a rogue’s gallery of terrifying crones. All except the paper Audrey who, decked out in her ‘Funny Face’ Givenchy, quickly became my byword for style and sophistication.
Watching ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ a couple of years later cemented the obsession. Like everyone else, I immediately conflated the actress with her character, Holly Golightly, who I imagined I’d resemble as soon as I became a grown up. I could wear massive hats, host riotous parties and say things like ‘Grand Central Station (or Euston, at the very least) and step on it, darling!’ to taxi drivers. I adored her whole aesthetic – the black dress, the jewellery, the trench coat in the rain. She’s the ultimate clothes horse: the legendary costumier Edith Head described Hepburn as ‘a girl who was born to make designers happy’.
She made the great and the good of fashion photography happy, too. At the National Portrait Gallery’s new Hepburn exhibition, you’ll find shots by Richard Avedon (who also inspired the plot of ‘Funny Face’) and Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn and Norman Parkinson. Most intriguing, though, are the glimpses of her life off-screen, revealed through images lent by Hepburn’s sons: a young Audrey practising ballet, an old Audrey on a Unicef visit, and plenty of candid family photos. Even in these unposed snaps, she still radiates the quiet grace and glamour that made her an icon.