Following the news of Lauren Bacall’s death at age 89, some of the most poignant, simple tweets on my feed were the ones pointing out that she was a fashion icon in the truest sense of the word. With her signature husky voice and a presence in the fashion world that’s extended through generations, she had a signature style before the term was bandied about like we do today.
From the start of her career in the ’40s onward, she showed decade after decade how to dress. First there were the screen-goddess gowns, shimmery liquid with strong shoulders and wide sleeves tightening at the wrist. Later came shirtdresses, lightweight blazers and jackets, and thin sweaters. Even today, some of the retro snaps of her cutout dresses, with peeks of midriff, would have us all running to the store.
Before she became Hollywood royalty, though, it all started in the fashion world with a chance introduction to a legendary fashion editor. In Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland, author Amanda Mackenzie Stuart detailed the initial meeting between a 16-year-old Bacall and Vreeland in 1942.
“‘I was scared to death. The efficiency and matter-of-factness of the whole magazine operation and particularly of Mrs. Vreeland were intimidating,’ said Bacall.” At their first photo shoot slightly later, Vreeland “put a suit on me, told me which makeup to use—but very little. ‘Betty, I don’t want to change your look.’ When all was done she put a scarf round my neck—knew just how to tie it, a little off-center—and I was ready for my first sitting with Harper’s Bazaar.” Her March 1943 cover for the magazine was what grabbed Hollywood’s attention, prompting a screen test and a name change.
Later, per Stuart, Vreeland remembered the young girl she’d met that had grown into a big-time star. “‘Betty’s always been what used to be called a ‘good kid.’ She’s always kept her own thoughts and her own dreams. She literally had nothing to offer but her existence. But I was so interested in her.”
The Bacall era I mine the most for current style inspiration was the ’70s, where sexy low-cut blouses were tucked into high-waisted pants and finished off with long strands of necklaces. The fashion world, then and now, loved her, with Bacall maintaing relationships with designers like Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jean Paul Gaultier.