Audrey's Blockbuster Auction

Audrey Hepburn’s most iconic gowns went on the block in London this week, tripling the pre-sale estimate. Olivia Cole on the little black dresses with Tiffany prices. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

12.09.09 10:17 PM ET

As much for fashion as for film, Audrey Hepburn inspires a kind of religious devotion. With Moon River playing above the excited chatter, it was an almost cultish gathering in London's Pall Mall for fashion auction house Kerry Taylor’s sale of dozens of pieces from Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe, which sold for £286,000 (about $465,000), three times their pre-sale estimate.

"Audrey… Givenchy and Audrey" quipped auctioneer Taylor, hardly having to coax bidders. From the opening items—a modest selection of hats—it was clear that the leaner times that have affected the art market don’t apply to Audrey worship.

The clothes—gifts to her lifelong friend Tanja Star-Busmann—represent a fraction of Hepburn’s vast wardrobe, most of which is still owned by her foundation, and the Givenchy archive. Beginning in 1951, when Hepburn left London to make her Broadway debut in Gigi, she gave her best girlfriend everything she no longer needed and made a habit of doing the same throughout her life. Star-Busmann, now 75, must have had an enviable figure. At 5 foot 7, Hepburn, who trained as a ballerina before growing too tall, had a 22-inch waist.

As the Hepburn lots continued, British actor David Thewlis snuck into the packed room. His partner is the actress Anna Friel, star of Pushing Daisies, who is currently starring as Holly Golightly in the stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the West End. Friel has to be one of the few women who could actually fit into any of Hepburn’s clothes. Similarly, three years ago, when Christie’s sold Hepburn’s Holly Golightly LBD, Victoria Beckham was rumored to be the woman who paid £410,000 for the iconic Givenchy dress.

Hepburn's pared-down style remains timeless: Her signature men’s white shirts, slim cut trousers, stripy sailor-girl sweaters and, of course, little black dresses, shades, and pearls are the very definition of a “capsule” wardrobe. A bidder next to me paid £3,000 for a black hat, determined to come away with “something.” And while much of the bidding was on the phones—there were previews in Paris and New York—bidders in the room tended to be for businesses or institutions, not women determined to have a genuine Hepburn garment in their wardrobe.

Miles Lambert, a curator at Manchester Art Gallery, had a budget of £4,000 and had to be “tactical” once he saw the way prices were rocketing. “I don’t think a lot of museums got a look in,” he said. Manchester now has a piece of Audrey in the form of a Givenchy hot pink floor-length gown from 1967: Fucshia being one of the few colors Hepburn splashed into her palette of black and cream. A French fashion exhibition company (also big collectors of Grace Kelly dresses) bought several lots and plans to show their dresses in Monaco. Bidding for her bridal wear company, Heirloom Couture, Rachel Spencer paid £6,500 for the white ball gown worn in Love in the Afternoon. (Hepburn had given Tanja the dress as a gift when she had her first baby, sent in a box with a note joking that the dress might remind her what it was like to have a waist again.)

Click Image to View Our Gallery of the Audrey Hepburn Auction

Beyond fashion though, the dresses tell stories. Another star lot was the wedding gown made by the Fontana Sisters in Rome in 1951, while Hepburn filmed Roman Holiday, a dress that Hepburn had planned to wear to marry young businessman James (later Lord) Hanson in September 1952. Included was a telegram sent from Ciampino Airport on August 3, 1952, breathlessly relaying the news to Tanja that they’d set a date: WILL YOU BE MY BRIDESMAID THIRTIETH SEPTEMBER WOULD LOVE IMMEDIATE REPLY LOVE AUDREY. Hepburn’s mother, wrote to Tanja too, effectively still chaperoning her 23-year-old daughter. ''We see a lot of Gregory Peck, outside the filming during which he and Audrey hobnob constantly along the streets of Rome... he is very gay and laughs at every quip one makes,” she wrote.

Alas, the filming of Roman Holiday went on too long and scuppered the wedding plans entirely. Gifts had already begun arriving at the Hanson family home in Huddersfield when they had to cancel and weeks later, when the couple got to New York, they announced that the postponed marriage would not take place. Her newfound success, Hepburn said, “was not the proper climate for normal life.”

Two years later, Hepburn married, but to someone living in the same strange climate, the actor Mel Ferrer. Hanson married his wife Geraldine and their son, Robert (who bid on Hepburn’s letters) remembers both of his parents speaking fondly of the actress, who remained a friend. Of the thwarted old-fashioned romance, he says, "I think it was obvious, then, that she was going to be a huge star. My father’s life and work, at the time, were in Huddersfield and I think they both realized that, clearly, it just wasn’t going to work. He always said that she was a girl with enormous star quality, and that’s the other thing, she really was a girl. They were both very young but I think they were very perceptive.’

A couple of weeks after calling off the wedding, James Hanson wrote to Tanja suggesting that she keep her bridesmaid’s dress: "I understand quite definitely that Audrey wants you to have the dress… You will doubtless have heard from Audrey’s mother that the marriage will not now take place, so I must thank you again for your kindness in the past and for being our bridesmaid albeit a short-lived one." Hepburn herself, always one for fairy stories, despite the fact that her own first love affair was over, instructed her friends the Fontanas to find “the most beautiful, poor Italian girl you can find" and give her the wedding dress, instead. For a 23 year old on the brink of superstardom, the question of a little white dress was far more complex than all of those little black dresses that she so effortlessly made her own.

Plus: Check out Art Beast for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was recently published by Salt Publishing.