Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen is the title of the magnificent traveling exhibition on view at the New York Public Library. The exhibit was organized by Kent State University in collaboration with the Ohio Arts Council.
Katharine Houghton Hepburn (12 May 1907 – 29 June 2003) was born in Hartford, Connecticut, into a progressive family, deeply involved in social causes. This environment strengthened the early personality of the sophisticated actress. But the tragic suicide of her brother Tom in 1921, in many ways, shaped the character of the vulnerable Hepburn. She found his dead body one day when as she returned from school. She became very shy moving forward and even adopted his birthday as her own. It wasn’t until the publication of her autobiography in 1991, that we knew her real date of birth.
Her parents endorsed a curriculum that, from an early age, encouraged the cultivation of both mind and body alike. She grew fond of golf, outdoor sports and everything related to the arts and the theatre. In 1924, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College and starred in some very successful school plays, which cemented her intent in pursuing an acting career. She received a degree in history and philosophy from the institution.
Her illustrious career began in the theatre. She would go on to win four Academy Awards, all for best actress, with films like Morning Glory (1934), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968), The Lion in Winter (1969) and On Golden Pond (1982). At the age of 86, she appeared for the last time on film in Love Affair (1994) with Annette Bening and Warren Beatty.
KATHARINE HEPBURN. → 1. Philadelphia Story. 1939. → 2. Adam’s Rib 1949. / Photo: Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Hepburn was reserved (she seldom gave interviews) and kept away from Hollywood’s social life, which she considered quite shallow. Her only marriage to Philadelphia businessman, Ludlow Ogden Smith, ended in divorce. She reportedly had several romances but never remarried or had children.
She was always ahead of her time when it came to fashion, and her casual, forward looking fashion sense contrasted with the more scandalous Hollywood stars of her time. It was a reflection of growing up amidst a rebellious family. Her daily garb was a pair of beige slacks and an open-neck shirt. Hepburn always looked assertive, willful, and yet vulnerable.
However, the Great Kate could also dress up. She emphasized quality in every piece (gloves, furs and hats), and her radiant elegance fit her spontaneous nature. She was aware of the role fashion played in shaping each particular character, and contrary to popular belief, her wardrobe was meticulously manufactured and carefully studied. It was all made to order, as were her shoes and lingerie, made from the finest French lace. The actress also worked closely with designers like Valentina, Howard Greer and Muriel King to ensure totally perfect gowns for her movies and plays.
KATHARINE HEPBURN as Coco Chanel, 1969.
Dressed for The Stage and Screen brings to life Hepburn’s couture treasures from her homes in Manhattan’s 49 Street East and Fenwick, CT. Most of the pieces come from her personal collection, which included glamorous gowns as well as her iconic tomboyish casual wear. The exhibit will continue to travel the US, showing off Hepburn’s wardrobe from film, television and theatre, as well as her day to day wear, alongside drawings, commentary, photographs and even handwritten notes from the actress herself.
The garments were found in perfect condition. Curiously, Hepburn kept a large number of them in storage, forty of which make up this exhibition. They reveal the slender frame she kept until her death at the age of 96. A monograph by Jean Druesedow, Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic (Rizzoli), published just in time for the exhibition, portraits Katharine as a fashion iconoclast through mostly unpublished photographs of the woman who defined an era. ■
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