True story: I owned a boho skirt as a teenager and I had one solely because of Sienna Miller. It wasn’t that I was a huge fan of her as an actress - indeed, at that point in time, I’m not sure I’d even seen one of her films - or an avid follower of her personal life. I had absorbed so much of her through tabloid piffle and pure cultural osmosis that, for a period in the early to mid-2000s, I seemed to know everything about her. I, like many others of that weird time, had an acute awareness of her style, her presence, her boyfriend, her drama, and how inescapable it had become. She revived a whole brand of fashion, seemingly without even trying, and even I wanted to keep up with it. So I got that skirt, which I loved but didn’t wear very often. Scottish summers are not especially compatible with floaty long garments with hems that drag across the dirt. Miller made it look so cool, though. That seemed to be her primary function at that time, and it took her until relatively recently to escape the inimitably feminine shackles of being deemed too frivolous to take seriously.
The American born Miller had the kind of privileged upbringing and training that seems par for the course with British actors. After moving to London at the age of one, she attended good boarding schools then headed back to New York to study at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Her early film roles were mostly forgettable, but it didn’t take her long to make an impact. The London crime drama Layer Cake saw her team up with another rising star, Daniel Craig, but it was the remake of Alfie that cemented her name as the new It Girl. There, she met the star of the moment, Jude Law, and the pair quickly began dating.
This was the era of Jude Law, one where he was utterly impossible to get away from and had all the hallmarks of tabloid gold. From 2002 to 2004, he was in a grand total of eight movies, ranging from prestigious dramas to fluffy comedies to misguided blockbuster fare. He was nominated for his second Oscar, he played Errol Flynn, he guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, and he was the epitome of pretty boy sexy. His split with wife Sadie Frost had been confirmed the year before Alfie was released, and he seemed ready for his playboy years. Miller was nine years his junior, effortlessly beautiful - a former model who fashion magazines compared to Kate Moss - and equally primed for the big time. There did not seem to be a better representation for mid-2000s Cool Britannia.
Miller never stopped working during the combined five years she was with Law (they broke up in 2006 but got together again in 2009). She did films across the genre spectrum, from The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra to Casanova and Stardust. Yet the star overshadowed the actress, and coverage of her work never carried the same heft of seriousness it did for Law. Her primary role in the tabloids seemed limited to being a potential scandal source and clothes horse. She appeared multiple times on the cover of Vogue - she’s the featured face on the September Issue in the documentary of the same name - and designed some clothes for a capsule collection. Even then, her clout as a fashion icon came with the simultaneous weight of responsibility and frivolity.
The capital of fashion is oft-overlooked or maligned as being ‘not that serious’. Liking clothes is tantamount to admitting your own narcissism in the eyes of too many. It’s something women do with shallowness, while well-dressed men are commended for buttoning up their shirts properly. All of this can make it easy to overlook just how influential Miller was as a style icon during those early days. Boho chic was the craze of the moment, and it was mostly down to her and contemporaries like Kate Moss. Soon every shop sold floppy felt hats - yup, I had one of those too - and well-worn studded leather belts and floaty floral dresses and denim waistcoats and embroidered smocks. Having your half-brushed hair tied up in a last ponytail just so was in the fashion. The goal was to work exceedingly hard to make it look effortless. In that aspect, Miller seemed to be the perfect face for such a mood. She probably tried pretty hard to look good for the cameras, lest she face the scorn of a press that hates women who genuinely don’t make an effort, but you never saw the work. Said work never got the credit either. Actresses are expected to just be pretty 24/7, but not to show off of they’re in danger of becoming ‘unrelatable’.
Miller’s fashion icon status blended heavily with her acting work. This was never more obvious than it was when she landed the role of the original Warhol It Girl Edie Sedgwick in 2006’s Factory Girl. The film is a portentous affair, neither as smart or stylish as it seems, but Miller is pretty good as the breathless Edie, both hungry for fame and smothered by the anxiety it brings. Coverage of the film, both its production and release, could not escape the desperation to compare Miller with her character. It girls stick together, it seems. Dana Stevens’s review for Slate discusses the tabloid rumours surrounding production - with speculation that Miller and co-star Hayden Christensen actually fucked during their sex scene - before Miller’s performance is even mentioned. As she puts it, rather sardonically but not without reason, ‘By now you’re thinking, fine, cut through the hype and tell me about the movie already—but you tell me, where does one end and the other begin?’
Hype has power, but it can also be limiting. For Miller, it stopped short of ever truly allowing her to be an actress in the public eye. As the girlfriend of a famous actor, one who had spent a solid decade and more proving his talents, it seemed that the media had little time to allow those scales to be balanced. It’s not that Miller’s work during this time is especially bad - actually, she makes some fascinating movie choices, does some time in theatre and gets nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in the same year as Ellen Page and Angelina Jolie - but breaking out of mass press coverage is hard when you focus, rather nobly, on indie projects.
The tumultuous nature of Miller and Law’s relationship continued to give fuel to the tabloid fire. The pair split for the first time about a year after he had an affair with his children’s nanny. An alleged affair she had with Layer Cake co-star Daniel Craig became a major news story in the UK. Her affair with married father of four, actor Balthazar Getty, added a new sordid angle to her public persona. Now, in their eyes, she was a homewrecker, a mantle she bore with more weight than the man who left his family to be with her (he eventually went back to his wife). The boho chic charms, those of the good time party girl of the London scene, were quickly turned into something far dirtier. The press were particularly unkind here, as they often are with celebrity stories of perceived deviance, and this tale was often accompanied by images of the pair on a yacht together, to add to the spoiled richness of the narrative. In many of the photographs, Miller is topless. She remained inescapable in the press, or rather, it remained impossible for her to escape from them.
Eventually, Miller became one of the star witnesses in the Leveson Inquiry that followed the revelations of extensive phone hacking in the world of the British press. Miller, one of their biggest targets, talked candidly about the intense paranoia that followed having details of her private life be printed in the papers. She accused her family of leaking stories, she dealt with being chased at high speeds by paparazzi, and she described the verbal slurs and spitting they’d direct at her while following her down the street to get the ‘best’ photo. The sustained abuse led her to sue the New of the World, a case she won. Following that case put those years of endless press coverage in a new light. The fascination with her clothes and hair and boyfriend seemed much more sinister with the knowledge that some of those photographs had been acquired through less than pleasant means. This entire method of framing women had been exposed. Miller was good for copy - the beautiful blonde with the handsome playboy boyfriend and their combined inability to stay out of trouble - and they exploited it for all it was worth. If necessary, they’d drum up the trouble too. A Telegraph journalist later claimed that Jude Law’s publicist met with the News of the World to discuss how Miller’s affair with Craig be reported. He allegedly asked that it be back-dated to make it look like she cheated before he did. In the world of celebrity, as it is everywhere else, women are the first to be sacrificed.
Following her final split from Law, Miller dated actor Tom Sturridge and had a daughter with him before they split amicably. She also continued to work steadily, as she had always done. She played Tippi Hedren in a BBC dramatization of the making of The Birds. She played Sally Bowles in the Broadway revival of Cabaret. She found prominent work in films by auteurs like Clint Eastwood, Bennett Miller, Ben Wheatley and James Gray. Indeed, the quality of her films had never been higher, from Foxcatcher to High Rise to The Lost City of Z, the latter of which she is especially wonderful in. Yet, while the films themselves were better, the roles weren’t much of an improvement. She’d firmly moved into ‘helpful spouse’ parts, at the ripe age of 33, and in films like American Sniper, she often had little more to do than look sad. This is not an indictment on Miller but another signal of how stories of ‘prestige’ are limited almost exclusively to the pursuits of men. Tragic male figures, their genius and pain, can be complex and deftly explored. The women involved with them less so. Miller was landing the kind of roles that dozens of actresses would be auditioning for, but she never had much to do. In her more recent films, she’s become a symbol for how little women in Hollywood can win. Even when they have so much to offer, the roles offered to them in these lofty projects seldom amount to more than ‘wife’ or ‘girlfriend’.
There may be fewer roles in celebrity more thankless than that of It Girl. The term itself is near impossible to define and is applied as derogatorily as often as it is positively. It’s an idea that suggests silliness, a distinct lack of thought and a depressingly short shelf life. Once you stop being the It Girl, the world has little else it wants from you (wasn’t that the story of Edie Sedgwick?) That Miller has outlasted that narrative is testament to her willingness to put in the work and fight for the roles as well as her strength in taking on the tabloids who so ceaselessly tormented her. With the right role, she could easily break back into the mainstream based solely on her acting talents, but I’m not sure she has any desire to do so. That would mean returning under the harsh gaze that made her a press prop and denied her full agency over her career (she has an Instagram page that she has used a grand total of twice, and otherwise has no social media presence). Without the pressure to conform to A-List ideals or responsibilities, Sienna Miller gets to be far more interesting, and do so on her own terms. Why be the It Girl when being Sienna gives you so much more range?
It sells less clothes but really, was a boho skirt ever a good idea for the rest of us?
(Header photograph from Getty Images)