Katharine Hepburn, that icon with iconoclastic style, is celebrated in a free exhibit of more than 40 costumes and personal clothing at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center through January 12.
“I find myself fascinating,” Hepburn once opined. You’ll be fascinated by the exhibit “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen”, and its companion book “Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic” (Skira Rizzoli, 2012), written by exhibit curator Jean Druesedow and four other top fashion historians.
Hepburn’s own sketches and detailed instructions about her costumes demonstrate her famous independence and iron-clad control of her image.
“One does not design for Miss Hepburn. One designs with her,” said Edith Head, one of Hollywood’s most renowned costume designers. “She’s a real professional, and she has very definite feelings about what things are right for her, whether…costumes, scripts, or her entire lifestyle.”
Head’s designs for Hepburn include that tatty hat for “Rooster Cogburn” (1975). The actress said of her Rooster co-star John Wayne, “When I leaned against him (which I did as often as possible, I must confess, I’m reduced to such innocent pleasures), it was thrilling. It was like leaning against a great tree.”
Such quotes by and about Hepburn, who won four Oscars and an Emmy during her more than 60-year career, are perfect accessories for this unique show.
The exhibit’s first display case has many of Hepburn’s trademark trousers, arranged in her signature poses including sitting cross-legged on the floor, and upside down. The slacks highlight her 20-inch waist and elongated legs. She owned more than 30 pairs of beige slacks at the time of her death at age 96 in 2003.
“Any time I hear a man say he prefers women in a skirt, I say ‘Try one. Try a skirt.'”
When RKO Studio execs hid the jeans she wore around the set of her first film, “A Bill of Divorcement” in 1932, the 25-year-old newcomer threatened to walk around naked. When she appeared almost nude in her silk underwear, her dungarees were swiftly returned.
And when Barbara Walters asked the 78-year-old Hepburn whether she even owned a skirt, the actress quickly retorted, “One — I’ll wear it to your funeral.”
Hepburn actually cross-dressed famously and fabulously as Sylvester Scarlett in “Sylvia Scarlett” (1935). “It was meant to be funny, but nobody laughed,” Hepburn noted — even with Cary Grant as co-star and George Cukor as director.
But the exhibit is resplendent with elegance, of course, including her false eyelashes. She often wore three sets.
Here are just a few of the most delicious costumes:
- An exquisite satin and duchess lace wedding gown designed by Howard Greer for “The Lake” (1933). Alas, it could not compensate for Hepburn’s acting, according to Dorothy Parker, who famously wrote that her performance “ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.” Hepburn has said it was the most important lesson of her life about “what it takes to be an actor, what it takes to be a star. You and the person responsible for what happens to you and to the play.”
- She was responsible for using one costume twice — almost 35 years apart. Hepburn first wore the Valentina-designed pale pink organza and silk crepe wedding gown for “The Philadelphia Story” on Broadway in 1939. In 1973, she wore it as Amanda in the “gentleman caller” scene of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” TV version. The gown needed to be let out only two inches. Hepburn wore Valentina couture in her private life, including two identically styled raw silk pants suits.
- One costume that she disliked was an undergarment that combined a corset cover with split drawers for “The African Queen” (1951). Of the Doris Langley Moore design, Hepburn wrote, “I wandered around in the combination feeling a perfect ass and showing mine.”
- The Walter Plunkett-designed black silk draped gown is as elegant today as it was when Spencer Tracy fastens it on her in “Adam’s Rib” (1949).
- One huge disappointment — her “Moth” costume in “Christopher Strong” (1933) is not in the exhibit. The Plunkett-designed shimmering antennae-to-toe body suit that takes-your-breath-away in the weak film is shown only in a photo. The costume for the adulterous aviatrix was made of aluminum mesh, so scratchy that it had to be lined with velvet, and “weighed a ton”, she said.
Many of the costumes and photos are from her portrayal of Chanel in the 1969-1970 Broadway musical “Coco”. Hepburn went to Paris to confer with the great Chanel, and was “scared to death to meet her. I’d worn the same clothes for 40 years, literally, even the shoes.” (Three pairs of extremely well-worn, hand-made mannish shoes with side buckles are displayed.)
Chanel, then in her eighties, “felt that Hepburn was far too old to play the part” and “mistakenly thought she would be meeting with Audrey Hepburn,” writes Jean Druesedow in “Rebel Chic”.
(Katharine) Hepburn paid $10,000 for two Chanel ensembles, one black and one white. The actress thought that the show’s designer, Cecil Beaton, would never capture the elegant simplicity of a genuine Chanel creation, so Hepburn wore the originals onstage. Beaton was “more than a little annoyed.”
Hepburn was a pioneer in career paths as well as style, alternating between starring on stage as well as in films.
“She took charge of her career and her public image early in her career and maintained a consistent style,” said exhibition curator Jean Druesedow, director of the Kent State University Museum in Ohio. “What women wear today has been immeasurably influenced by Katharine Hepburn’s strength of personality and insistence on wearing what she wanted.”
As Hepburn put it, “My style of personality became the style.”
For more info: “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen”, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY, 917-275-6975. Now through January 12. Free admission. “Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic©” (Skira Rizzoli, 2012), by exhibit curator Jean Druesedow and four other major fashion historians, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Nancy McDonell, Judy Samelson, Kohle Yohannan. Kent State University Museum in 2008 received Katharine Hepburn’s personal collection of film, stage and television costumes. The Katharine Hepburn Papers are housed in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.