With paparazzi on every corner and Instagram accounts aplenty, there’s no shortage of style inspiration to be found in today’s celebrity world. But in the words of legendary fashion icon Coco Chanel, “elegance is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside.” While elegant style icons can be harder to come by, they leave a lasting impact on their audience for not just their sartorial choices but their lifestyle, poise and presence.
British actress Audrey Hepburn became Hollywood’s darling in the 1950s, following her leading role in Roman Holiday. Her elfin appearance, demure demeanor and elegant style won the hearts of the public, and lead to her becoming one of the most recognizable actresses of her time - and perhaps in history.
Hepburn has become a fashion icon not only as herself but as her characters too. For example, the many outfits of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s have become instantly recognizable around the world. From the little black dress, sunglasses, gloves and pearl choker that she sports in the opening sequence to the over-sized shirt and satin eye mask she wears inside her apartment, Golightly’s outfits are replicated by women around the world who are captured by her vintage glamour.
Hepburn had a reputation for kindness and grace throughout her time as an actress. When she was initially cast as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, there was some controversy about then little-known Broadway star Julie Andrews being passed up for the role. Hepburn asked the director to offer it to Andrews, and only accepted after being told that Andrews wouldn’t be cast either way. She was also rumored to have walked off the set of the same film after being told that her vocals would be dubbed by singer Marni Nixon, only to return and, in characteristic fashion, apologize to the entire cast and crew for her behaviour.
But her true nobility of spirit was displayed after her semi-retirement from acting, when she devoted the remainder of her life to Humanitarian work. Putting to work her impressive lingual skills (she speaks six languages fluently), Hepburn partnered with UNICEF travelled to many developing countries to help and bring awareness to the plight of children living in poverty.
Grace Kelly had a fairly short acting career, appearing in just 11 films, but managed to make her mark on Hollywood in that time. Still one of the world’s leading style icons, Kelly was known for her easy elegant style, exemplified by twin sets, pearls and classic flared skirts. Capri pants were something of a signature, as were simple white shirts and, of course, pearls.
While much care was taken in picking beautiful but fuss-free outfits for her film and red carpet appearances, Kelly was known for her ability to make anything look elegant. In fact, she famously once used a Hermés silk scarf as a sling for her broken arm. She was also known for repeating her favorite outfits - an act almost unheard of both in actresses of the time and the present day, but one of many traits that only further endeared her to her fans.
Regal in every sense of the word, Grace Kelly made the transition from actress to princess when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956. The wedding made headlines around the world, with particular attention paid to the bridal gown. Designed by the MGM costume designer Helen Rose, it took six weeks for more than 30 seamstresses to create. The high collar, triple petticoat and delicate rose-point Brussels lace remain iconic to this day.
Having given up her acting career upon getting married, Kelly occupied many of her later years with philanthropic work. As well as hosting annual Christmas parties for local orphans, she founded The World Association of Children’s Friends - a charity dedicated to protecting children around the world. She was passionate about the arts, and formed the Princess Grace Foundation to support local artists. Kelly was also one of the first celebrities to advocate for La Leche League - a pro-breastfeeding organization.
America’s former First Lady, Michelle Obama is a modern-day elegant style icon as well as a role model for girls around the world. Her penchant for modern classics immediately caught the eye of the public media as she appeared with her husband throughout his election campaign and presidency. As well as being recognized for her then unusual choice of sleeveless dresses, she quickly became known for understated, elegant style.
Repeatedly named on Best Dressed lists, Obama became the second First Lady to appear on the cover of Vogue. She endeared herself to the public by mixing her designer ensembles in with high street brands such as J. Crew - a noted favorite of hers, and by ensuring that she wore a balanced mix of designers rather than just sticking with the tried and tested. As well as allowing a greater showcase of her fashion style, this ensured equal amounts of publicity for designers big and small - a conscious decision and one that didn’t go unrecognised by those in the industry. She was also known for choosing the designers she wore on state visits based on the countries she would be in - for example, Obama wore an outfit by Mr. Khan to dinner in India.
Prior to joining her husband’s campaign for presidency, Obama graduated from Harvard Law School and worked in firms such as Sidley & Austin before becoming the Executive Director of a non-profit that aimed to engage young people in social issues. Her work with charitable organizations continued throughout her time in the White House.
Following in the footsteps of the first ladies before her, Obama devoted much of her time to supporting causes important to her. In 2015, she launched Let Girls Learn in conjunction with activist and Nobel Peace Prize honoree Malala Yousafzai. The charity aims to get 62 million girls around the globe into education. She also spearheaded the Let’s Move! Campaign, which aims to end childhood obesity by providing healthier food options in American schools as well as encouraging children to be more active.
From the 1950s to the present day, it seems that the old adage is true: elegance never goes out of style.