A story from Katharine Hepburn’s days as a 25-year-old ingénue speaks to her rebel spirit and her impact on haute couture.
Under contract to RKO in 1932, Hepburn was already showing her independence by wearing slacks instead of dresses. One day the Bryn Mawr College grad wore blue jeans and a fur coat to the studio, horrifying executives.
An assistant director was instructed to steal her jeans while she was in the changing room, hoping that she’d have to don a skirt. Instead, Hepburn paraded around the studio lot in her underwear until her jeans were returned.
No one there questioned Hepburn’s fashion sense again.
That fashion sense, as well as the actress’ independent spirit, are on display in “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen,” a new exhibit at Appleton’s Trout Museum of Art. It’s a fascinating look at the acclaimed performer’s personality through the lens of some of her favorite dresses, pants suits, shoes and hats. The display includes 30 garments, as well as movie stills, lobby posters and playbills from some of the star’s best known performances.
The exhibit, part of a permanent collection housed at Kent State University, represents only a small portion of the more than 1,000 pieces of memorabilia that the Hepburn estate bequeathed the university. Many pieces are still in the process of being catalogued and labeled, including Hepburn’s personal wardrobe, as well as stage and screen costumes familiar to film and theatergoers.
Off-screen, Hepburn created a stir in Hollywood with her penchant for “mannish” clothes, her disdain for makeup and her refusal to wear uncomfortable shoes. She referred to herself as “the original bag lady,” but fashion historians consider her an iconoclast.
On screen, Hepburn projected a sleek elegance that transcended gender stereotypes. She is perhaps best remembered for roles in which she bested her films’ male characters with macho confidence coupled with gazelle-like grace. Her costumes, many created by leading fashion designers of the day, often had to gird Hepburn’s unique blend of those seemingly dissonant characteristics.
While most actresses didn’t own their costumes, Hepburn began acquiring hers almost by happenstance, according to Pamela Williams-Lime, executive director of the 3-year-old Trout Museum.
Hepburn’s thin frame – she had a 20-inch waist – presented a unique challenge to designers. Special dummies were created to display her clothes. Early in her career, designers also had to accommodate the gray tones necessary for black-and-white cinematography, which required a blend of subtlety and nuance in neutral tones. Designers such as Cecil Beaton, Walter Plunkett, Edith Head and Valentina would occasionally toss in a bright color to please Hepburn.
Some pieces in the exhibit stand out for the projects they were part of, their aesthetic appeal – or both.
The earliest example from the theater collection is the wedding gown from the 1934 Broadway production “The Lake.” With its striking off-the-shoulder, tiered configuration designed to help broaden the actress’ slender frame, the Howard Greer-designed costume of duchess lace and satin appeared in what was reported to have been an otherwise lackluster production.
Designer Plunkett knew how to accommodate Hepburn’s athletic build. For her 1949 film “Adam’s Rib,” he designed a black silk evening gown with sweeps of fabric crossing the bodice from shoulder to waist to give Hepburn’s character greater presence. It’s one of the most spectacular pieces on display.
It wouldn’t be an exhibit of Hepburn couture without the requisite slacks, sweaters and vests, which appear in abundance at the Trout Museum. Some are specific to certain films, such as the slacks-and-vest ensemble worn in the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Others are simply examples of the clothes Hepburn wore in everyday life.
In fact, the complete Hepburn collection housed at Kent State includes numerous slacks, mostly in beige and brown, with occasional appearances of red and white. Those on display at the Trout Museum were custom-made.
Hepburn clearly never of abandoned the look that she came to define.
“Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” runs through Dec. 15 at the Trout Museum of Art, 111 W. College Ave., in Appleton. Find details at