Monday, August 31, 2015

Get the Look: Katharine Hepburn

Do you ever wear a skirt, by the way? the intrepid young reporter Barbara Walters asked Katharine Hepburn in a 1981 interview. I have one. I’ll wear it to your funeral, came the quip back.

Yes, Hepburn wore trousers, and not just because they looked great on her and she felt comfortable in them.

Photo from “Kit Houghton Hepburn, Her Daughter’s Mother”

Katharine Hepburn was born into a family of progressives. Her mother, Kit Houghton Hepburn, worked tirelessly for women’s rights. The family was devoted and loving, and both parents saw to it that their three sons and three daughters were given equal opportunity, education and independence.

The eldest daughter Katharine was strong in mind and body, a tomboy and excellent athlete. She attended Bryn Mawr, graduating with a degree in history and philosophy. While in school she decided to become an actress, and her talent, intelligence, focus and energy created for her a remarkable 60-year long career. Hepburn “wore the pants” in her life not only in reality but metaphorically, in every matter that required her authority. Like her mother, she was a pioneering modern woman of the 20th century.

In private life Katharine Hepburn chose comfort and quality for her wardrobe. Her signature outfit was a pair of tailored beige trousers and a linen jacket, often paired with a white shirt. She needed to be able to sit on the floor or drape her legs over the arms of a chair. In this outfit she portrayed an effortless elegance as well as a down-to-business attitude.

In the 1930s and 40s, seeing a beautiful A-list Hollywood star frequently wearing trousers was quite unusual. In her early career many considered Katharine Hepburn an anti-style icon. Her studio once tried to hide her slacks from her and she threatened to walk around the studio lot naked. ...She got the slacks back!

She is definitely a style icon. After all, what makes a such an icon besides fame along with an original sense of style? Hepburn certainly had both in spades. As her fame increased and her persona became better appreciated, Hepburn influenced American sportswear design and attitudes about dress.

For her movies, Katharine Hepburn engaged with costume designers to get the right feel for the women she would portray. You can see the influence of her personality and attitudes on the costumes that she wore: Effortlessly glamorous as Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story,” costumed by Adrian; ready to forsake the constraints of high society as Linda Seton in “Holiday,” costumed by Kalloch; sporting as Pat Pemberton in “Pat & Mike,” costumed by Orry-Kelly; chicly eggheaded as Bunny Watson in “The Desk Set,” costumed by Charles Le Maire—and so many more.

She had copies made for herself when she particularly liked a costume. A Norman Hartnell silk dress and coat from “Suddenly, Last Summer” were among the pieces that she had copied.

Upon her death in 2003, 700 pieces of Hepburn’s clothing, including iconic stage and screen costumes, were given to the Kent State University Museum. In 2012, a collection of this clothing was displayed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts...and a unique style icon finally got her due.

What might be considered the essential Katharine Hepburn wardrobe?

1. Trousers most of all, of course. Not just any will do, but well-tailored wide-legged trousers in good quality fabrics. Some of Hepburn’s slacks were inventively displayed at the 2012 exhibit, paying tribute to her ease of motion.

2. Button-downs, also impeccably constructed.

3. Tailored suits.
4. Jackets, from simple linen to dressier tuxedo in style.
5. A classic briefcase.
6. A comfortable full-length coat with room to move and no worry about rain.
7. When considering prints, make them clean and graphic, like stripes...
...and polka dots.

8. Actual sportswear—and you should actually play sports in them.

9. Some gender-bending pieces, the more iconic the better.

10. By all means, have a drop-dead stunning evening gown, preferably in black—feminine but not frou frou. 

And when the evening is over, make sure you are the one wearing the trousers!


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Lynn Mally said...

in her autobiography she says that's hen she first came to Hollywood, people often assumed she was a lesbian because of her love of interesting insight into the meaning of clothes

denisebrain said...

Yes, I read that at first Spencer Tracy thought she was a lesbian because of her clothing choices and dirt under her fingernails! Clothes carry such incredible weight in our assumptions about people.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, one of the main things that helped Katharine pull off the "pant" look was the impeccable tailoring. Things fit well, the fabrics hung beautifully and of course, she had the right figure. One of my other favorite fashion icons of that period was Marlene Dietrich who learned from Travis Banton how to pull it all together. Gotta love the strong ladies!

denisebrain said...

Excellent point Denise. Casual and comfortable did not mean fact it meant impeccable in Hepburn's case.