Lauren Bacall’s legendary look—sultry eyes, wavy hair, and a bold seductive smile—may look effortless. After all, it has inspired fashion designers and their faithful followers for decades.
But, according to Laura Matina, one of the graduate student curators for the Fashion Institute of Technology’s latest exhibition, Lauren Bacall: The Look, it was actually an anxious affectation.
“She was very nervous while filming,” Matina told The Daily Beast. “And in order to steady her trembling, she would hold her chin down and look up from beneath her lower lids. That became known as ‘the look.’”
In the March 1943 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Bacall stands outside of a Red Cross blood drive dressed in a navy blue coat, her shoulder-length hair in perfect curls. Printed in the middle of World War II, the white skullcap ties together the patriotic outfit accessorized with a red handbag.
Following the magazine’s publication, directors such as Howard Hughes, David O. Selznick, and Howard Hawks immediately noticed her look, and fought to cast the 18-year-old model in their upcoming films.
It was Hawks’s To Have or Have Not, starring Bacall’s future husband, Humphrey Bogart, which became her introduction to the film industry and created her iconic style. Images from the film’s early test shoot reveal Bacall with many different hairstyles, but it was her wavy look that the filmmakers settled upon.
Hawks’s wife, Slim, attributed Bacall’s looks to being “scrubbed clean and golden,” Matina said, but also “something that was very panther. So she had this really unique combination of attributes… someone who looked natural but could also be a strong, aggressive woman. In Hollywood at the time, you either fit one category or the other.”
Clips from the film are displayed alongside old Hollywood publicity photos that the studio sent out, each containing a different element of the Bacall “look”—the chin down and eyes raised, bold lips, natural brows, and soft waves. There were even editorials completely devoted to instructing readers how to obtain her effortless appearance.
To show how her style continues to impact the fashion community, the exhibit features contemporary references to the late actress in Dior advertisements staring Karlie Kloss, who bears a striking resemblance to Bacall, and Kate Moss. John Galliano and Naeem Kahn have both cited the actress as inspiration for recent collections.
By the 1950s, Bacall had become a legend—a title she disliked, because she saw legends as being dead. But as a Vogue cover and editorial (aptly titled “Becoming A Legend”) shows, she masterfully managed the transition into a new decade of fashion without sacrificing her personal aesthetic of clean, simple outfits without any major embellishments.
In the Vogue spread, Bacall’s hair is cropped short to keep with contemporary trends while she sports a gown by one of her favorite designers and longtime friends, Norman Norell. She had cherished his designs long before her fame, shopping for samples at Lohmen’s in Brooklyn when she was a teen. A bright pink coat by the designer (worn by Bacall in the 1964 film Sex and the Single Girl) is encased nearby.
Throughout the rest of the exhibition, archival images of Bacall reveal a woman who enjoyed the life she led, no matter how people told her to act—a rarity in Hollywood at the time. She seen at Dior’s fashion shows with Bogart and mingling among fashion’s elite, like Yves Saint Laurent—whose pants she vowed to always wear, no matter the occasion—and Norell.
The exhibition’s big reveal is tucked at the back of the gallery space, where 11 iconic looks are on display, revealing a very small portion of FIT’s massive collection (Bacall donated over 700 garments and accessories to the school). Three of the looks—a black Dior gown with ruffled feather trim, a hot pink Pierre Cardin Dynel dress, and a YSL wrap dress—are all presented by the leading lady as CBS’s 1968 special Bacall and the Boys is projected on the wall nearby.
In the clip, Bacall gives viewers an inside look at atelier fittings and fashion shows packed with spectators. She even takes a leisurely ride with Saint Laurent in his Rolls-Royce convertible.
“This was probably the biggest shock for me,” Matina said of Bacall and the Boys. “I had always associated Bacall with the 1940s, which I think a lot of people do because that look is very influential. But when we came across this film, it gave us this amazing opportunity to show a side of her outside of that [time frame]” and reveal a “look” that lasts an entire lifetime and beyond.
Lauren Bacall: The Look will be on display at the Museum at FIT until April 4, 2015.