My Fair Lady

Film still of My Fair Lady. Image copyright: 1964 Rex Features

Film still of My Fair Lady. Image copyright: 1964 Rex Features - Credit: SNAP/REX

PROMOTIONAL FEATURE As My Fair Lady celebrates its 50th anniversary, Harriet Worsley discovers Ascot’s special influence on costume designer Cecil Beaton

Ascot 1910. Photo credit: Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy

Ascot 1910. Photo credit: Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy - Credit: Alamy

“Come on Dover, move your bloomin’ arse!” was Audrey Hepburn’s triumphant cry at Ascot in My Fair Lady as the horses thundered past. Duchesses swooned, gentlemen gasped and Eliza Doolittle stood her ground resplendent in a Cecil Beaton black-and-white dress and an explosively large hat.

It is 50 years since the legendary 1964 film My Fair Lady flung itself on to our screens with its snobbery, chauvinism, can’t-get-you-out-of-my-head tunes and Hepburn’s stardust magic.

Based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady was initially a 1956 Lerner and Loewe Broadway hit musical. Director George Cukor took it to the silver screen. The story is simple – elocution professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) takes up Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) for a somewhat cruel social experiment. He teaches her to speak ‘proper’ and tries to pass her off as a Lady in society. (Higgins on Eliza: “She’s so deliciously low! So horribly dirty!”)

The story is engaging, the songs are catchy, but it was the film’s sets and costumes by legendary Vogue photographer Cecil Beaton, coupled with Hepburn’s model looks and languid demeanour, that gave My Fair Lady a unique fashion edge. From capes fringed with feathers to lavish swathes of lamé and daring zebra trims, Beaton’s creations were a blast of excess and creativity. He designed more than 1,000 costumes for the film, and the set design, with its hand-dyed Persian rugs and bespoke stained glass windows, cost $1 million dollars.

The Ascot Gavotte scene in the film is the most memorable. Three hundred racegoers wear Beaton’s lavish black, white and grey costumes on a stylised racecourse set of vast trellised pavilions festooned with flowers. It is a celebration of artifice and posturing. The crowd sing and strike freeze-frame poses. And the lyrics roll: “Every duke and earl and peer is here.

“Everyone who should be here is here. What a smashing, positively dashing spectacle – The Ascot opening day!” The lavish costumes, of which Hepburn’s, naturally, were the most magnificent, still look dynamic today. Beaton had a fastidious eye for detail, style and balance. He was a master of composition, as a photographer, and this scene was an extension of his black-and-white photographic work — only in this one, the people moved. The hats were the highlight – lattice globes constructed from twisted feathers, geometric S-shapes in origami black and four-foot feathered dinner plates of ostrich feathers. After seeing My Fair Lady, author Truman Capote held a black-and-white masked ball in 1966 for his rich and famous friends. And, since then, designers from Vera Wang to Ralph Lauren have continued to borrow ideas from the My Fair Lady style for inspiration for their own collections.

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Beaton’s reward was an Academy Award for Costume Design. My Fair Lady also won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Harrison. However, this was not Beaton’s first adventure into costume and set design. He had already won Academy Awards for his costumes for Vincente Minnelli’s film Gigi in 1958, and designed costumes for Turandot and La Traviata at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Celebrated as much for his society portraits as his fashion work while staff photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair, Beaton was also a writer, stylist and illustrator. He was known for his acerbic wit, royal and rock star connections and prolific creative output. The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan quipped that, on arrival at your party, Beaton would imply that he had just left a better one upstairs. When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor tied the knot, Beaton was their wedding photographer. He went out with men and women, and one of his lovers was Greta Garbo. Beaton inhabited a world that, outwardly, was glittering, witty and social, and he counted Stephen Tennant, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford as close friends.

My Fair Lady was set in 1912, the year the Titanic went down and suffragettes got militant. Beaton would have been an eight-year-old in 1912. In My Fair Lady he brought to life the sweeping skirts, loose empire line dresses and vast ostrich-feathered formal hats that he must have remembered as a boy. Fluid tunic dresses and streamlined skirt suits had replaced the corseted Victorian dresses of 10 years before, and a new ease had crept into fashion. The designs of Paul Poiret and the House of Paquin had introduced a more languid flowing silhouette, which can be seen in Hepburn’s dress for the ball scene in the film. However, fashion worn for Ascot would still have been dressy and formal.

As a child Beaton avidly collected postcards of society beauties and actresses, and would have remembered the pale colours worn by fashionable women at the time (a status symbol as they were harder to keep clean). But he may also have remembered seeing pictures of the ‘Black Ascot’ of 1910, when society ladies ditched their pastels and went to the races in black mourning dress as a mark of respect to the recent death of King Edward VII. The late King loved the sport, so it served as a tribute.

Beaton famously said: “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” He died in 1980, but his fashion legacy, which is anything but ordinary, lives on through Eliza Doolittle and her magnificent clothes.

The feature above can be found in the Royal Ascot 2014 Magazine – to buy your copy please visit Ascot takes place from 17th – 21st June and it’s not too late for you to be there. Visit the website for further information and to book tickets.