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Jacqueline Kennedy wore this ivory double-faced silk satin twill gown designed by Oleg Cassini to the presidential inauguration parties in 1961. Behind her is President Kennedy.
AP file photo
Jacqueline Kennedy wore this ivory double-faced silk satin twill gown designed by Oleg Cassini to the presidential inauguration parties in 1961. Behind her is President Kennedy.

Audrey, Grace
& Jackie

Tastemakers find inspiration
in fashion's legendary trio

By Samantha Critchell
AP Fashion Writer

NEW YORK — In an age when the word is grossly overused, they remain, incontrovertibly, icons: elegance embodied, high fashion at the dawn of the television era, with charmed lives and striking beauty.

Celebrities fuel fashion — that comes as no surprise. But the women with the most influence over today's tastemakers aren't the ones on the covers of all those celebrity magazines.

Actress Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.'
AP file photo
Actress Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
Instead, it's Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who continue to set the standard. Their names are shorthand for the looks that are at the root of modern style many years after their respective deaths.

The patrician style of Main Line Philadelphia is defined by Grace. One of the world's most coveted handbags — the Hermes Kelly bag — is named after her, and that two-handles satchel has become a symbol of understated, ladylike luxury.

When Jackie was a Kennedy, she popularized the pillbox hat and skirt suits. When she was an Onassis, it was the glamorous oversized dark sunglasses worn with yacht-appropriate attire.

The pearls and black dress that so many women use as their cocktail party uniform, that's all Audrey. The Givenchy black dress that she wore in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a simple-yet-elegant sleeveless sheath, was sold Tuesday to a telephone bidder at Christie's in London, fetching a shocking $807,000 — almost six times the highest pre-sale estimate. Proceeds will go to the Indian relief charity City of Joy Aid.

Actress Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier of Monaco.
AP file photo
Actress Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier of Monaco.
The film series Grand Classics, in conjunction with American Express RED, polled fashion designers earlier this year about the most influential fashion movies, and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was the No. 1 choice. "My Fair Lady," also starring Audrey, was in the top 10.

(It was in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" that Hepburn also wore the black plastic Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, ushering in a new look of eyewear that had largely relied on thin metallic frames until then.)

"Audrey had a timeless quality," said Avril Graham, executive fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, which re-created Audrey's look — pearls and all — on young actress Natalie Portman for a recent cover. "Anyone could wear that black dress now. It doesn't seem to be dated in any way."

"Timeless" is the word that comes up again and again with designers, editors and fashion watchers when they talk about these women. And they do talk about them a lot.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her trademark oversized dark sunglasses.
AP file photo
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in her trademark oversized dark sunglasses.
"They are the triumvirate," designer Michael Kors declared. "All three of these women were about clean, sharp lines so you notice the woman first. And they're very archetypal types: If you're fine-boned, you see Audrey Hepburn and say, 'That works for me.' If you're sporty and angular, you see yourself in Jackie Kennedy, and for patrician and classic, you automatically think of Grace Kelly."

Fame, especially with the growth of television in the 1950s and '60s, allowed Grace, Jackie and Audrey to have a worldwide audience, and they all made fashion approachable, so it didn't seem like an only-for-insiders pursuit, Kors added.

It's also worth noting, according to Tommy Hilfiger, that even though European designers get credit for setting fashion trends, Jackie and Grace were American. And Audrey, with roots in Belgium, Holland and England, moved to the U.S. to advance her career.

Of course, the three were the closest thing to American royalty. Grace, already the toast of Hollywood, became a real-life princess when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco; Jackie was the face of the country's most famous family; and Audrey modernized the Cinderella story as both Eliza Doolittle and Sabrina on the silver screen.

Hilfiger wrote the foreward to the new book "Grace Kelly: A Life in Pictures" (Pavilion) and helped choose the cover photo — a 1954 portrait for Life magazine showing her blond hair, porcelain skin, and slightly red lips. She wears a simple satin spaghetti-strap gown.

Since the troika's heyday, women have adopted a more casual approach to fashion. But the trio's sophistication, style, and influence have endured.

"People think highly of them," Hilfiger said. "People look up to them and people think of them as glamorous. The glam factor is important in this world of entertainment, fashion and style — it still makes them exciting after all those years."

In contrast, the Gwen Stefanis and Sheryl Crows, or even Lindsay Lohans and Paris Hiltons of today, may not have that same staying power. Refinement, elegance and a serious approach to style endure, Hilfiger said; trendiness does not.

"All fashion designers need inspiration and someone to look up to, and many times Grace, Audrey and Jackie have been the ones," he said. "They're the most important women in fashion in the last 50 years."

So where are the contemporary fashion icons? Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, points to Kate Moss, known for her bohemian chic look.

"Everyone wants to look like Kate Moss. It's the way women felt about Jackie Kennedy in the early '60s," Steele said.

What makes someone a fashion icon, as opposed to a mere trendsetter? A signature look, whether it's the color red, A-line skirts or oversized sunglasses; and inspiring a desire in others to mimic that look.

But it's not easy to find someone who fits both those descriptions.

"People who are celebrities now aren't people we want to emulate. There's a big difference between Kate Moss and Paris Hilton," Steele said.

Even so, Kate has more influence over designers than shoppers. She's more of a muse than a legend in the making.

Steele doesn't think there will ever be a celebrity who will be as universally admired as Audrey, Jackie and Grace were.

"It's a different world now. There's no fashion word coming down from on high and we all say we want to look like it. There are too many mixed messages."

Princess Diana was on her way, but didn't yet have a look that defined her, said James Mischka, half of the design duo Badgley Mischka, although there were plenty of people who adored her clothes and were eager to adopt her style.

"Princess Diana's wedding dress — her dress was the most knocked-off dress probably since Grace Kelly," said Holly Alford, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's fashion design and merchandising department.

She appreciated couture and she worked with designers to create clothes that fit her personality, Alford observed.

But it was the fusion of personality and impeccably designed garments that made Grace, Jackie and Audrey stars in the first place, she added.

They also represented much more socially acceptable "ideal women" than blond bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, who were at their peak just a few years earlier.

"In the '50s, the blond bombshell was a look that women either couldn't relate to or could only dream about," Alford said. "Jackie, Audrey and Grace — they were the women you were supposed to want to be like."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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