When the semi-biographical film of Baroness Karen Blixen came out in late 1985, the world was overwhelmed with sentiment. The tragic love story of the Dutch baroness and Denys Finch Hatton planted a new ideal of romance in the minds of both men and women, who then began dreaming of faraway lands and strange encounters. Out of Africa is, to this day, considered a cinematic masterpiece, having won 7 Oscars in 1986 including one for Best Picture. It is an iconic, if not legendary, personal story bordering on fairy-tale, that paints a picture of the African continent and its plantations unlike any other before seen on the big screen. Africa as the setting of romance and emotional tragedy instead of a violent affair focused on death and discrimination. But the modern idea of “love story” and dreamlike view of Africa weren’t the only innovations brought about by the film; though almost unnoticeable at the time, Out of Africa spawned an entire new era for fashion.
It is needless to say that Donna Karan launched her own brand in 1985, shortly before the release of the film. Since then, not only in 1986 but until now, Donna Karan has been known for the effortless style and practicality of her clothes – much like Meryl Streep’s character in the film. It’s a very subtle, flowing elegance appropriate not for a dinner party but for the lady in charge, a figure of authority who must command but also be compassionate.
More than Donna Karan, however, the designer who has been clearly the most influenced by Out of Africa is, quite obviously, Ralph Lauren – and not just for women. Robert Redford’s mix of hunter and aviator clothing stands behind decades of Ralph Lauren’s menswear aesthetic, though adapted to a more refined environment. For both men and women, Ralph Lauren relies on classic cuts and an elegant but practical fit, as would be required for Karen Blixen and Finch Hatton. In recent collections there seems to have been a deliberate return to the film for inspiration, as rough fabrics in earthy hues dominate the Ralph Lauren runways, along with long skirts paired with crisp white shirts and the feeling of returning from a safari. The hat, a Karen Blixen must, is permanently present.
The shawl, a piece that Streep wears closer to the end of the film, has been one of the brand’s staple pieces since the early days and the same goes for Donna Karan – it’s a clean, almost humble accessory by itself that can add different attributes, like elegance or comfort, depending on the colour and materials. The shawl and white shirt, along with an acute sense of layering and use of the warm colours of the plantation fields and coarse, almost poor fabrics, were not things usually seen on womenswear collections in the 1980s. They were innovations drawn from a film set long before its release, that came to inspire a style that still lasts. A burlap-looking rough cotton blazer from Ralph Lauren is a must-have in any lady’s wardrobe, as is a Donna Karan oversized wool shawl.
Out of Africa not only inspired both these brands to grow into their own but also, in the process, pushed along the evolution of what we all understand today to be the ‘American style’ – casual, country-proper elegance, for adventuring and tragic love stories on the mountains of Kenya.