Jennifer Lee O'Brien
In a scene from the 1956 film adaptation of War and Peace, Audrey Hepburn fans herself by a balcony in a white, puffed-sleeve empire silhouette dress, trying to hide the fact she is falling in love.
The designer of the dress was Fernanda Gattinoni, who gave her surname to the Italian couture house she founded in 1945. Gattinoni made dresses for women like Jackie Kennedy, Eva Peron, Kim Novak, Princess Margaret and Eva Gardner. Fernanda didn’t believe in extravagance or nudity in high fashion; she once said that transparent clothes “tantalise but they don’t seduce”. Among the Oscar nominations for War and Peace in 1956 was a nomination for Best Costume.
Many years after Audrey Hepburn was filmed fanning herself by the balcony trying to hide the fact she is falling in love, the white, puffed-sleeve empire silhouette dress she was wearing was re-beaded by a young British student named James Steward. This came about through what James describes as an accident.
The accident happened years before, back when James was a graphic design student doing a foundation year at art college. He had decided to specialise in graphics, but when he returned from a summer holiday he discovered his tutor had put his name down for fashion instead. He decided to give it a try.
A year later, James began a degree in fashion at the Kent Institute of Arts and Design, and only a few years after that, he was in Rome, beading a dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the Oscar-nominated film War and Peace. This, for the most part, was also unintentional.
What James had intended was to go to Italy through a swap programme offered by his course. He intended to go to a beautiful European country and take a course in a small town at a local college. He did all that, and then his good planning gave way to fate and sent him to Gattinoni. A dream job for a fashion student, bestowed by chance.
James’ knowledge of Italian really was limited, and in the small town at the local college it was impossible to follow what was going on; James went to lectures and could barely understand a word. So with his limited Italian, he began applying for jobs in Rome. And with a bit of luck, or fate if you believe in it, James was offered the opportunity to work at Gattinoni, where he helped embroider and bead wedding dresses and couture gowns for an exhibition of the Fernanda Gattinoni collection.
In the Gattinoni workrooms James was surrounded by historic couture, dresses worn by all Gattinoni’s muses. He could find an old photo of Eva Peron or Sophia Loren in a book, and then find the dress she was wearing on a table nearby, being tenderly restored. He was immersed in a spoken language he didn’t understand, discovering what he would do with his life as he began to understand the language that Fernanda Gattinoni spoke through her clothes.
It was in Rome that he re-beaded a dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace; it was in Rome, with that dress in his hands and a needle and thread at his fingertips, that he decided to become a fashion designer.
“I came back with the intention of making some money to go back to Italy with,” says James. “As it turns out I started making clothes for people.”
Today, women can visit James Steward’s studio and have their bridal gowns made using the same techniques used to re-bead and embroider Audrey Hepburn’s white, puffed-sleeve empire silhouette dress from War and Peace. There are no Audrey Hepburns around these days, but elegant modern stars like Katherine Kelly pose while flashbulbs pop at television awards shows, and they wear James Steward; and that time in Rome is the reason why.
What was Italy like? we ask.
“Incredible,” James says. “It was the best year ever.” ••
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion