Lauren Bacall was a stunner. She began her career as a model and she had the knife-edge cheekbones and hypnotic eyes for the job. Her hair hung in an impenetrable golden wave along one side of that striking face, giving her a constant air of mystery. But none of that really accounts for the impact she had on the fashion industry.
She was more than just a clothes hanger with a pretty face. In fact, Bacall, who died Tuesday at 89, didn’t really have a signature frock that defined her style. There was no equivalent of a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” little black dress in her repertoire. She wore grown up clothes — nothing prissy or obviously sexy. Bacall wasn’t obvious. She wore tailored blazers and silky blouses that came up high on her neck. For a time, she favored American designer Norman Norell, but over the years, she influenced countless others.
Bacall’s appeal was defined by gestures, nuances and innuendo. In the same way that she captivated film audiences with her sultry confidence and cool demeanor, she made the fashion industry swoon. She was a dame like no other, and she represented a convergence of masculine assurance and goddess-like beauty at a time when those things were assumed to be mutually exclusive.
She exuded femininity without all the frills, and during that transformative period of the 1950s, she had a look that characterized a generation of women whose vulnerabilities and reliance on men were giving way to independence. It’s hard not to look at the groundbreaking work of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Blass or, later, Donna Karan and not have Bacall’s complex, adult sexiness come to mind.
Even in her youth, in the beginning of her career, the label of ingenue did not fit her. She always seemed so much more sophisticated and knowing than that term implies. Today, the fashion industry is obsessed with youth. Bacall’s gift was in showing how great style was not dependent on a line-free face or a teenager’s physique — even when she had both. Style, Bacall said without saying a word, had more to do with the confident swagger of the lady wearing the suit than the suit itself.