Happy 20th Birthday, Liz Hurley’s Safety-Pin Dress

In 1994, Elizabeth Hurley sensationally wore a Versace safety-pin dress to her then-partner Hugh Grant’s film premiere. She hasn’t been out of the headlines since.

The strange thing, looking back 20 years, is that Elizabeth Hurley’s “safety pin” dress, designed by Gianni Versace, looks quite modest today. The delighted and lascivious tabloid outcry at the time was based around those safety pins, seemingly holding everything together where slashes in the material showed skin. It was sexy, silly, and—in those relatively modest times—sensational.

Today of course, compared to the barely there skeins of material adorning actresses on the red carpet, Hurley’s safety-pin dress looks like a nun’s habit.

She wore the dress to the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, the British movie about a group of friends and Hugh Grant’s charmingly frustrated efforts to begin a romance with (dreary, dreary, dreary) Andie MacDowell. It was a massive hit, and the safety-pin dress a brilliant cartoonish cherry on top of it.

The dress is bawdy, dramatic, but playful rather than serious couture—Versace at his bombastic cock-a-snook best; and Hurley, head tossed back, her expression defiant and a little bit snarly, sets it off beautifully. The images suggested that if there was audio supplied with the images it would be of Hurley, seen on the arm of then-boyfriend Grant, purring.

The dress doesn’t look shocking now. Back then, when partners of stars melted into the background, it was a barnstorming stealing of the show.

“Liz ‘n’ Hugh”—as she and Grant were known—were showbiz’s Wills and Kate; he, before he became the present-day sanctimonious press campaigner, was the gorgeous, ruffle-haired and bumbling British movie hero.

What makes the dress so memorable? Well, again unlike today’s young actresses, Ms. Hurley in 1994 looks voluptuous, not skeletal. She has curves. A Daily Mail writer, wearing a facsimile of the dress, said it was sculpted to her body, but not restrictively so. It made her feel sexy. The writer did add that, walking from one side of the building to the other where the photoshoot was, two girls giggled and muttered, “Russian prostitute.”

But the dress was its own unapologetic sonic boom—and was immediately much-copied. In wearing it, Hurley helped originate a wider revolution, too. Twenty years ago, the “red carpet” was yet to mutate into the loony-fest it became, and so Hurley’s dress has its own fashion and cultural significance: It’s one of the first showstopper red-carpet looks.

The dress conferred, not just an immediate fame upon Hurley, but also the first glint of her own celebrity identity, separate to being Grant’s partner. The following year their split and reunion, following him getting busted in L.A. with prostitute Divine Brown, was recorded as breathlessly by the tabloids as a romance novel, she retreating to the countryside behind big, dark glasses.

They split a few years later: She went on to have relationships with, among others, businessman Steve Bing, Arun Nayar, and most recently the cricketer Shane Warne, who—again gleefully recorded by the tabloids—immediately lost weight, started wearing bright colors. Warne looked—in the words of the Daily Mail—“like a spooky waxwork.”

All this buzz, the continued tabloid fascination with Hurley, is down—absurdly—to that dress. It immediately made Hurley a mega-star in her own right, and fortunately perhaps overshadowed her variously forgettable and lamentable sorties into acting, most notably as the Devil in Bedazzled.

These terrible roles tended to further underscore that she would always be best-known for wearing a dress.

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Indeed, in as much as clothes define us, Hurley had the strange distinction of having her persona defined by a dress. Hurley became quite literally a “sex symbol,” for all the good and bad of that because of the dress, and she could be pretty good playing up to that caricature in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and later Gossip Girl (her staple role was as a foxy seductress).

The dress bizarrely burdened Hurley with a ready-made character to play up to, which she did without overt complaint. From the dress came a career; overnight, Hurley became a famous name because of a frock, and fashioned—long before the Kardashians—her own empire from it.

Despite being criticized as “wooden” as a British Project Runway host, she returns to TV playing Queen Helena in a totally camp and bonkers-looking drama called The Royals, which E! is premiering next year. Her character—surprise surprise—seems to be a minxy siren.

In recent years, away from the screen, Hurley has reinvented herself as a yummy mummy. She bought an organic farm. Her website features swimwear. The papers are still obsessed by Hurley; at 49 she is still stunning, and the paparazzi regularly surround her, even if she’s wearing jeans and a jacket.

She artfully appears to be having a fabulous life of parties, and was most recently photographed at an event in London, kissing newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev.

But no matter the evening gowns she wears so prettily, and the bikinis and shirt-dresses Hurley is selling, she will always be about a certain safety-pin dress. Others have tried to follow in its slipstream. Lady Gaga was photographed wearing it (not as memorably) a couple of years ago.

The most telling, depressing expression of its significance—and lapsed time—was at New York Fashion Week in September, when Versace reimagined it.

But, of course, the great, now-deceased designer didn’t craft this version, and you can see why in its conservatism—yes, apparently a dress of safety pins can be boring. For all the many more dinky safety pins attached to the 2014 reboot, for all its contoured symmetry, the dress lacks all the drama of its Hurley 1994 incarnation.

Perhaps it’s because it’s on a skinny model, perhaps you can’t reimagine a great. Perhaps some things are best left alone. Anyway, Hurley magically built a career from it, and is still smiling and siren-ing. So, happy 20th birthday to this proudly silly fashion classic.