Guest Post: Style Icon Vivien Leigh

Today I’m thrilled to introduce you all to Kendra of You may already be familiar with her fantastic tribute site to screen and stage legends Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier; if not, you’re about to become acquainted with it. is the singular online destination for the Oliviers complete with comprehensive galleries, intimate insights and a blog which Kendra keeps brimming with fascinating articles on the Oliviers, classic film, her adventures in London and more. Can you believe that someone who once interviewed Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne was interested in writing for my little blog? I can’t either! Besides being a fantastic writer Kendra is entirely devoted to preserving the integrity and memory of Viv and Larry Olivier, something I greatly admire, and I’m so happy that she’s offered a look at Vivien Leigh’s masterful style as a contribution to The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower. Thank you, Kendra!

Style Icon: Vivien Leigh

by Kendra of

“Only England could have produced her. She was the perfect English rose. When the door opened and she was there, she was so terribly good-looking. She had such an exquisite unreality about her.” — Former Vogue editor in chief and style guru Diana Vreeland on Vivien Leigh

When people talk about vintage style icons, a few obvious names come immediately to mind: Louise Brooks with her trademark black helmet of hair, the ultimate 1920s flapper; Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, the epitome of 1950s elegance; Jean Shrimpton and her work with David Bailey, defining mod style in the 60s; Twiggy bringing thin to the forefront in the 60s and 70s. These women defined entire eras in fashion. But while I admire the prevalence of iconography, I’ve always found inspiration in someone else: Vivien Leigh.

Many people may not even be aware that Vivien Leigh was ever considered a “style icon”. She was first and foremost an actress. Her fame was instant and all-encompassing. In 1935, at the mere age of 21, she took London’s West End by storm when she appeared as a 17th century French courtesan in a play called The Mask of Virtue. Four years later she achieved international film icon status for her portrayal as Margaret Mitchell’s unflappable Southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Her status as one of the world’s most beautiful women lasted her entire life.

Although performance was her life’s passion, she also had amazing taste in clothes, art, music and interesting people. And she was stunning.  Many of the world’s most famous fashion photographers shot her for the pages of Vogue and other magazines, including Cecil Beaton, John Rawlings, George Hoyningen-Huene, Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Clifford Coffin to name but a few. The designers she favored read like a laundry list of famous labels: Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Molyneux, Dior, Mainbocher, Balmain. If Vivien were alive and young today, we would never see her on the runway. She was only 5’3″. But “models” as we know them today did not come in to fashion until the mid-1940s. Prior to the arrival of Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh and Lisa Fonssagrives, the women who modeled for Vogue were almost exclusively actresses or socialites.

Vivien’s working relationship with Conde Nast began in 1935 when she was photographed by Cecil Beaton wearing a chartreuse spaghetti strap evening gown designed by famous courtier Victor Stiebel. Always one to go with current trends instead of fighting against them, Vivien’s style in the 1930s was bold. Thin eyebrows, bright colors, short hair. Her rather exotic look (she was born in India to British parents) led Vogue to label her the “little gypsy”.

Vivien Leigh–little gypsy. If you want a label for her type, call it exotic. She is slim and luminous. And she can get away with her type of clothes–which runs to heavy, almost barbaric jewelery, leopard skin, and queer colors. In her chartreuse green Stiebel evening dress with topaz jewelery, she is like a Persian gazelle in the dark studio forest of chains and planks.

“I always like to have my clothes just like me,” she says. “I never buy any model, but I have it sized and discuss it with the designer. I don’t like suits so much as dresses and coats, because I’m little, but I like rather plain quiet tweeds for the country, with very bright blouses and sweaters.”–Vogue, 1935

By the end of the decade her look became more natural, as would be the style in the 1940s. When Charles Kerlee photographed her for Vogue US in 1939, the little gypsy had become a bombshell.

Vivien Leigh, sulky, cool, with a flaunting face, stopped the nervous filming of Gone with the Wind, which has already sent two directors out with a breakdown, to pose for Vogue in the entrancing corset cover of Scarlett O’Hara.

Even in her day to day life, Vivien always looked stylish. From the late 1930s onward her personal style shifted from gaudy to simplicity with a punch. It didn’t matter whether she wore a full-length mink coat or an old jumper, she knew how to work an outfit. When looking at photos of Vivien, I can’t help but notice little things that stand out in her style: accessories like brooches, a pearl necklace, gloves and hats. Many of these show up time and again. For example, a belt she wore in 1939 shows up again in a photoshoot from 1950. Her Oscar dress from 1940, which still gets a lot of mention today for being a trendsetter, was worn again in 1943 when she toured north Africa to entertain troops during the war. Vivien Leigh liked to upcycle. How many famous people did that back then?

In the 1940s, Vivien became one of Vogues “fresh faces.” The war posed a challenge for many British women because rationing limited the amount and the quality of every day goods that people could buy. Clothes, especially new fashions, were extremely hard to get hold of. “Make do and mend” became a famous saying in England. We’ve all heard stories of women drawing seams on the back of their legs with eyeliner because nylons became virtually obsolete. Glamour seemed to go out the window as women’s fashion became much more simplistic and practical. Even famous people had to make do with the shortages. But Vivien, back in England with her husband Laurence Olivier, managed to make simple look fabulous.

She likes a few very good clothes which she says last for ever and ever. Her preference is for simple things and large-brimmed hats which make her fragile, pointed little face appear even smaller.

She finds war-time London absorbingly interesting; new, real and vital, yet truly London. Above all, she is glad to be back among her own people, to be sharing with them the rough and the smooth: not hearing it reported on the radio, as a far-away nightmare, but living it, a part of real life–her life as an Englishwoman.–British Vogue, 1941

Christian Dior launched his 1947 spring haute couture line which was instantly dubbed the “New Look”, and the fashion world changed forever. When asked for her opinion on the new silhouettes, Vivien told the press that she thought it irresponsible of the French courtiers to introduce such extravagance when rationing was still very much alive in England. But now that the New Look was here, she said, “I can’t help but like it.” Vivien became a big fan of Dior and often flew to Paris to have personal fittings at his salon. In 1958, Dior and apprentice Yves Saint-Laurent designed a brilliant red dress that combines the New Look with the 19th century for Vivien to wear in the play Duel of Angels. Today the dress is on display in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (and it’s gorgeous, I’ve seen it!).

Vivien’s style again changed throughout the 1950s and 60s. Some looks suited her better than others, I think, but she always maintained a personal style that was simple yet elegant.  Whether decked out in furs, evening gowns and heels, or lounging in trousers, simple blouses and flats, Vivien always looked beautiful. She was just as fabulous as a grandmother as she had been as a young twenty-something. She seemed to display a natural air of confidence and glamour.

I think Vivien’s beauty still continues to amaze people in the fashion industry today. Back in 2000, she and Kate Moss headlined the Unseen Vogue exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Pretty amazing for someone who has been dead for over 40 years. If you haven’t checked out the book Unseen Vogue by Robin Derrick and Robin Muir, I’d highly recommend it. The photos are outstanding.

I can’t say that my personal every day style reflects Vivien’s. As a Londoner by way of California, I haven’t quite shed my beach bum style, but that’s okay. I’ve always considered myself a modern girl with an old soul. I find Vivien an inspiration in many ways, and as a style icon, I love that she exuded effortlessness and natural beauty. I may not dress like her, but I try and take her wisdom to heart. She said, “I do not worry about my looks because beauty is not a thing of age but of spirit.” I can’t think of anything more true.

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