Fashion Tips for the Common Princess: Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck smiling on a Vespa in Roman Holiday

Audrey Hepburn’s first Hollywood movie, Roman Holiday, launched her stardom in 1953 with an Oscar-winning role, one that established key elements of her image as it was woven into many of her subsequent films. Roman Holiday is a romantic film with more than a little fairy tale to it, telling a coming-of-age story of a modern-day princess. But the film departs from fairy tale in significant ways; in doing so it offers a unique commentary on social class and consumerism in post-war culture.

Following their relative independence during the war years, many women were expected to adhere to an idealized sense of femininity—a way to create more jobs for men returning from the war. Women’s fashion reverted to more traditional, feminine lines, but also became more accessible beyond the market for haute couture, creating an opening for women of disparate classes. Roman Holiday suggested that shopping, fashion, diplomacy and a little romance could be democratizing forces. By looking at the film and its costuming alongside other cultural material of the era, from news media to Disney’s princesses, I argue that it brought to light (primarily American) women’s desire for fashion within a realistic budget.

Post-War Princesses

The princess trope in popular culture predates the narrative/marketing juggernaut of the 1980s and ‘90s that has come to be known as “princess culture.” In 1947, Britain’s Princess Elizabeth married Philip of Mountbatten amid extensive media coverage. The wedding was followed by the global excitement over Elizabeth’s ascendance to the throne upon the 1952 death of her father, King George VI. This transition climaxed during the 25-year-old’s coronation in June 1953, covered internationally in press, broadcasting, and newsreels. Public fascination with royalty was further enhanced by gossip surrounding Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret and her ill-fated romance with divorced commoner Peter Townsend.

These real princesses shared space with those in film. In 1950, just a few years before Roman Holiday, Disney’s Cinderella was the studio’s biggest hit since 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the princess image made its way to the world of fashion. In particular, Dior’s “New Look” of 1947 brought back a traditional, hourglass silhouette after the severe, masculine styles of the war years. It featured “cinched waists, shawl collars, and (most decadent of all) full, calf-length skirts in shimmering  silks,” according to Chrisman-Campbell. Cinderella went into production in 1948, with costume elements clearly indebted to the “New Look,” as Dior himself noted.

illustration of a white woman in a long blue housecoat
A Handsome Housecoat pattern from McCalls, 1952

The influence of Dior’s princess style was apparent throughout the 1950s in haute couture magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But the look also appeared in publications like McCall’s, which catered to middle-class homemakers with sewing patterns that made fashion accessible. This ethos, which combined a thrifty DIY approach with the latest trends, suggested the “average” woman could afford to dress stylishly for any occasion. Photos and illustrations of fashionable, thrifty, easy-to-make designs shared space with stories about Queen Elizabeth’s young son Prince Charles and of Princess Margaret’s romantic woes. This combination suggested a link between women of power and women’s empowerment through self-designed, self-made fashion.

Against this backdrop, Paramount released Roman Holiday, tapping into the public’s obsession with royalty. As in Disney’s Cinderella, the role of clothing in Roman Holiday is a theme unto itself. Costume designer Edith Head captured Dior’s haute couture status and the “new look’s” traditionally feminine costumes for the down-to-earth Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn). Head took advantage of Hepburn’s appearance to suggest an innocent adolescent who must “rise” to her new role as princess. But unlike Cinderella, rather than achieving her new position through a beautiful dress, she has to learn about life as an average woman. As we shall see, Roman Holiday employs the Cinderella myth, but inversely.

The Dressing of Princess Ann

Audrey Hepburn in a formal gown and tiara in Roman Holiday
Princess Ann endures yet another official event, wearing a gown in the “new look” silhouette. Paramount, 1953, Screenshot

Roman Holiday borrows Citizen Kane’s use of “newsreels” for the opening exposition—in this case, introducing the young Princess Ann as a celebrity royal currently on an international good will tour. Like Citizen Kane, this technique introduces the theme of media coverage for the celebrity, which also explains the assignment journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) receives from his editor in Rome upon the princess’s arrival. Like Elizabeth’s coronation, Princess Ann’s tour is big news.

In the newsreel montage, the princess appears at various public events with officials and heads of state, wearing formal day dresses and occasional evening wear – all in the “new look” silhouette. In the newsreel, the princess’s hair is always up; for daytime events she wears fashionable wide-brimmed hats. Moving out of the newsreel, we see the princess in an evening gown and tiara, greeting each dignitary in their own language, the very picture of regal poise. (This look was reprised on her 1959 Vogue cover.)

The gown’s silhouette and particularly the design of the bodice, with off-the shoulder shawl collar framing the plunging (but still modest) neckline and choker necklace seem almost a realization of the animated Cinderella’s gown. But immediately Wyler begins to flip the fairy-tale tone. A close-up under the hem of Princess Ann’s gown shows her slipping her foot out of her shoe (another reference to Cinderella), but the shoe tips away from under her skirt, visible on the platform where she sits. The comic moment is resolved when a staff member invites her to waltz, enabling her to successfully hover over the shoe in her wide skirt before sweeping with her partner through the banquet hall as any princess would.

It’s a surprise, then, to find a different Princess Ann in her bed chamber, looking much younger with her long hair down, standing on her bed in an, old-fashioned nightgown, attended by servants including the Countess, a sort of chaperone and secretary, who argues with the princess about what she should wear – to bed. The princess wants pajamas, though with a naughty grin she claims she has heard that some people sleep with “nothing on at all!” The Countess insists on a nightgown, as she has always worn to bed. As they discuss her upcoming schedule, including what she will wear for certain occasions, the tension escalates, encompassing all the choices the young princess is kept from making, and all the fun she’s missing. She collapses into adolescent near-hysteria, and the doctor who is summoned injects her with a mild sedative that does not take effect immediately.

Left in her room to sleep, the princess seizes the opportunity, gets dressed, and sneaks out of the embassy. She pauses to look at herself in the first of several mirror shots, showing a young woman contemplating her image. Dressed in a high-necked, long-sleeved white blouse with a tie, a full skirt, wide belt, low-heeled shoes, and short knit gloves, Princess Ann looks like a schoolgirl. She wanders nighttime Rome as the sedative kicks in.

Reporter Joe Bradley, returning nearly broke from a poker game, comes upon Ann sleeping on a bench and speaks to her out of concern; she sleepily recites poetry. His assessment: “You’re well-read, well-dressed, and snoozing away on the public street.” Failing to get an address from her to give to a cab driver, he reluctantly takes her to his apartment. Here the two of them reprise Ann’s earlier discussion on sleepwear: she asks for the nightgown with pink roses, but Joe fulfills her unspoken wish and gives her a pair of his pajamas. She is delighted, and asks sleepily, “Would you help me get undressed?” but after removing the tie at her neck, he politely leaves the apartment while she changes and promptly falls asleep on his bed.

Fashion on $1.50

Audrey Hepburn looks into a salon window in Roman Holiday
Ann’s transformative haircut. Before…
Audrey Hepburn with short hair in Roman Holiday
…And After

We might pause here at what is arguably the end of the film’s Act I to note how many times clothing has functioned as “costume cues”: the convention of changing costumes to denote changes in scenes. In this case indicating the social, cultural, temporal, or political significance of every event the princess attends, but saying nothing about the young woman who wears them. Writing of Disney’s Cinderella, Emanuele Lugli notes  the ubiquity of clothing in that film: “The movie details the making and unmaking of clothes, the daily routine of dressing, the pleasures of fashion and the physical pains it inflicts. . . . Such emphasis is quite fitting for a story about how one outfit (and especially, one accessory) radically transforms the life of a young woman.”

The princess’s escape marks the first time we’ve seen Ann in clothes she has chosen for an unplanned moment in her life; what Princess Ann wears and how she wears it for most of the film hereafter will be her choice, her wish — however, unlike Cinderella, her clothing will never be momentous to characters around her, but will signify her growth to us. Designer Head will defy continuity and subtly manipulate the princess’s wardrobe to mark different activities and emotional tones, but on a narrative level, Princess Ann’s control of her appearance becomes an essential part of the film’s plot.

When Ann awakens in Joe’s apartment, it is after he has discovered the young woman he gave shelter to is Princess Ann. Because of her disappearance, which put a quick stop to her day of interviews, he stands to make $5,000 from his editor if he can deliver an exclusive story about her time in Rome.

When the Princess (who knows nothing of Joe’s discovery or his profession) prepares to hurry back to the embassy, she asks to borrow money, and Joe offers her half of all he has left from the poker game: a thousand lire. She: “so much?”  He assures her it’s worth only about $1.50. She thanks him and rushes off, with Joe shadowing her. Thus begins Ann’s adventure; completely forgetting her determination to return to the embassy, she wanders the street markets of Rome as a consumer — living on a budget, making fashion choices on her own.

“New Italian adaptations,” — skirt, short-sleeved blouse, wide belt. McCall’s, Oct. 1952 (156)

Fashion on a budget is what McCall’s magazine, with its tie-in line of sewing patterns, offered the post-war American female consumer. A two-page ad for Singer Sewing Centers invited readers to “learn to make a $10 dress look like $100 dress!” Two back-to-back features in the March 1952 issue showed fashions made with new synthetic fabrics and their retail prices, followed by another article showing fashions readers can sew at a fraction of the price (Hodgkins). Cinderella — with magical help — saw her rags and shoes transformed into beautiful attire for the ball. It’s up to Princess Ann alone whether she will change her look, too.

Ann, who told “Mr Bradley” she never carried money, now clutches the thousand lire note as she embarks on her first-ever solo shopping experience. She tries on a pair of espadrilles, purchases them — and receives change! From there Joe (along with the audience) follows her to a mirror in the window of a salon, where she demands the barber cut her hair “all off.” Worried she will regret the drastic cut, the barber is nevertheless charmed by her, and as he finishes styling her hair in a new short ’do with bangs, he asks whether she’s a musician, a painter, a model maybe?  She, a princess, is flattered. She turns down his invitation to go dancing that evening, but he accepts her meager payment of…something, and gives her change (!). Back on the streets of Rome she admires her reflection in a shop window.

A small “costume cue” occurs at this point: her long, full blouse sleeves are now rolled neatly up to the elbow as the day heats up, making her look like a pretty girl, but hardly a princess. In the following sequence she continues to stretch the remainder of her $1.50 — she stops for gelato, and receives more change, though not enough to buy flowers. The vendor gives her one anyway and wishes her “Buona fortuna!” Princess Ann has been a savvy shopper indeed.

Cinderella ‘till Midnight

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in a horse drawn carriage in Roman Holiday
Collar open with a jaunty scarf, sleeves rolled up. Publicity still, Paramount, 1953.

So Rome is a magical place for Princess Ann, and it’s about to get even better, because Joe manages to run into her as she suns herself on the famous Spanish Steps, now with her sleeves rolled even higher, her prim tie gone, her collar spread open. She fibs, “I ran away last night – from school.” Joe talks her into taking a holiday to do just what she wants — and he’ll go with her. He asks what she would do, and she answers with what amounts to an agenda for the film’s ensuing action. Joe has secretly enlisted the help of his photographer friend, Irving (Eddie Albert), who begins taking clandestine photos of their various adventures to supplement Joe’s story on the princess.

As the three discuss what to do next, Ann concludes, “And at midnight I’ll turn into a pumpkin and drive away [in] my glass slipper.” To which Joe, still focused on his big scoop, replies, “And that will be the end of the fairy tale.” But the Cinderella plot continues: Joe sends Irving away to develop the photos and hails a horse and buggy — a modest version of Cinderella’s coach — to take them dancing. In these sequences, Head has been modifying Ann’s outfit by changing the sleeves and collar, and adding a rakish kerchief as the action becomes zanier. Arriving at the dance, Ann now has her collar popped up, with the kerchief tied under it. As she and Joe dance, their growing romance is interrupted by a group of thuggish agents sent by Ann’s government to capture the princess and take her back to the embassy. A fight erupts, but Joe and Ann escape by diving into the water. They emerge cold and wet, holding each other for warmth. They kiss.

The next shot is of Ann wrapped in a full-length paisley robe in Joe’s apartment, smoothing her hair as she gazes at herself in the bathroom mirror with a new womanly awareness. Joe arrives and comments on the robe: “It suits you…You should always wear my clothes.” And she replies, “Seems I do.” The conversation takes a domestic turn, and Ann reveals she can sew, iron, and clean, but “just haven’t had the chance to do it.” That’s his cue to say, “Looks like I’ll have to get a place with a kitchen.” This is the climax of the 1950s fairy tale — the beautiful couple planning to set up house — she even has the castle, unbeknownst (she thinks) to Mr. Bradley.

And that’s the problem. It’s after midnight, and a radio announcement about an ailing Princess Ann breaks the mood; both lovers know the truth about her identity without saying it. She returns to the embassy dressed as she was when she left, with her sleeves down, her collar and tie in place, carrying her gloves. Only her hair reveals she has had a life-changing experience. Later, having changed into a regal peignoir rather than her old-fashioned nightgown, it is she who tells her staff to go to bed.

“Friendship among nations”

In the film’s final scene, Princess Ann appears at a press conference, elegant in a brocade afternoon dress with pearls, gloves, and a marvelous, open-sculptural hat that cups around the new haircut. No longer a schoolgirl or the celebrity debutante from the opening newsreel, the princess answers questions about the prospects of a European federation and the likelihood of “friendship among nations.” Joe Bradley  is among the reporters, and we see Ann realize her brief romance was with a journalist. As she locks eyes with him she tells the press her favorite stop on her tour was Rome: “I will cherish my visit here in my memory for as long as I live.”

Dior’s popularized “new look” and Disney’s Cinderella were based on the ideology of elevating the “commoner” to royal status, while the role of a publication like McCall’s was to promote the democratizing postwar shift in fashion. In the same vein, Roman Holiday flips the traditional fairy tale to tell of a princess with privilege and means gaining a better understanding of the life and limits of an average, common woman. Through her experience she grows as a woman and as a monarch of her country. Returning to her royal position is not a wish, but an act of duty and responsibility.

Roman Holiday, a coming of age story, was also an initiation for Audrey Hepburn, establishing what Richard Dyer would call her “star image.” Gaylyn Studlar argues Hepburn’s representation in film texts thereafter “demonstrates the appeal of juvenated femininity as a hybrid blending innocence and sophistication” (224).  In Sabrina, Funny Face, and My Fair Lady, the woman who had been a war refugee would play girls of plain, modest beginnings who are transformed — largely by fashion — into beautiful, accomplished, mesmerizing women: characters with agency and multi-faceted personalities. In Roman Holiday, however, Hepburn’s Princess Ann finds charm in the life and accoutrements of the everyday world. By the end of the film, we feel sorry for a princess who cannot live like a commoner, following her own tastes and desires. Audrey Hepburn made princesses more flesh-and-blood than a fairytale and style attainable for every woman.

Sources:

Ad for Singer Sewing Centers. McCall’s, Feb. 1952, np.

Flores, Maria. “The Most Powerful Woman in the World.”  McCall’s, Feb. 1952, 30-31.

Lane, Estelle.  “you’ll be wearing fabulous fabrics.” McCall’s, March 1952, 46 – 47.

Hodgkins, Barbara Olson. “you’ll be sewing fabulous fashions.” McCall’s, March.1952, 50-51.

“New Italian adaptations.” McCall’s, Oct. 1952, 156.

“Prince Charles of England.” McCall’s, April 1952, 32-25.

Studlar, Gaylyn. Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema. Univ. of California Press, 2013.

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