The Clothes That Helped Make Kate Great: Hepburn Costume Exhibit Is an Eyeful in Ohio

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31 Dec 2010

Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn
Photo by Bryn Mawr College Libraries

A Kent State University Museum exhibition of Katharine Hepburn's film and theatre costumes offers a dazzling display of the legendary actress' elegance and style. We go on a walking tour of it.


In 1985, at its annual awards ceremony saluting the hallmarks of American fashion, the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented Katharine Hepburn with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Katharine Hepburn, you ask? She of the slacks and "so-what" school of fashion? You wouldn't be off base to wonder. And you wouldn't be alone. After all, when she accepted the award, she, too, sounded a humorous, puzzled note. "We're all in a serious spot," she said, "when the original bag lady wins a prize for the way she dresses."

But anoint her they did, with two of the most noted purveyors of American design, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein, leading the applause and pronouncing her the epitome of style. Hepburn's acceptance of an award from the world of fashion (let alone her up-til-then unprecedented acceptance of any award) was a hint that she knew far more about that world than she let on. In her steadfast devotion to casual, comfortable dress — from her earlier well-tailored slacks and female versions of men's suits to the later-in-life scruffier, more lived-in "couture" — Hepburn crafted a style that was both uniquely personal and quintessentially American. She was one classy bag lady.

In life, she liked to look as if she didn't give a rap. "I think you should pretend you don't care," she told Klein in an interview for the CFDA's program. "But it's the most outrageous pretense. I said to Garbo once, 'I bet it takes us longer to look as if we hadn't made any effort than it does someone else to come in beautifully dressed.' . . . I enjoy line. I am very aware . . . although I dress in rags."

Paul Clemens' oil painting of Hepburn wearing one of Walter Plunkett's costumes for "Sea of Grass"
photo courtesy of Kent State University Museum

On screen or on stage, Hepburn's keen awareness not only of what looked good on her but also of how those clothes helped her define the characters she played contributed to dream collaborations with some of the profession's most gifted designers. She had a particular affinity for Adrian, Walter Plunkett and Valentina, artists who understood how to compliment her slender, model-like frame, and sublime examples of the latter two designers' work — as well as designs by Chanel, Irene, Muriel King, Howard Greer, Maggie Furse, Cecil Beaton, Motley, Noel Taylor and Jane Greenwood — are among the costumes featured in "Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen," the sensational exhibition of Hepburn's performance clothes on view through Sept. 4, 2011, at the Kent State University Museum, housed on the KSU campus (in Kent, OH) in the Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman School of Fashion Design and Merchandising. Almost 80 years ago a young Rodgers designed the ornamentation on the armor costume Hepburn wore in The Warrior's Husband, the 1932 Broadway vehicle that sent her off to Hollywood and a star part in her first picture, "A Bill of Divorcement." The thought that this extensive collection has come to rest and will be forever preserved in the institution for which he was a benefactor is a pleasing one.

How this trove landed at the museum, which holds one of the country's most comprehensive teaching collections of fashion design from the 18th century to the present, and which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, is a classic case of timing and serendipity. In 2007, Gladys Toulis, the retired director of the school, took a call from a neighbor of Hepburn's estate lawyer. Charged by Hepburn before her death in 2003 to find an appropriate home for her performance clothes, her representatives were on the hunt for an educational institution that would accept her remarkable collection. The caller assisting with the search presented Toulis with a list of usual suspects, including such illustrious institutions as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and asked for her recommendation. Seizing the day, Toulis chimed in with "why not Kent?" The estate contacted the museum, and the offer was one that its director director Jean L. Druesedow simply could not refuse. As she explains in a promotional video for the exhibit on the Kent State channel on Youtube , "Katharine Hepburn's name is magic."

Motley's costumes for "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
photo courtesy of Kent State University Museum

The magical collection the museum acquired spans over five decades of the star's career in the theatre, movies and on television — from the 1933 play The Lake to the 1986 television movie "Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry." The exhibit is laid out, logically, with sections devoted to each area and era of Hepburn's long career. The clothes are displayed on platforms that undulate snakelike, leading viewers through the gallery, or on raised stages. Throughout there are eye-catching silk-screened banners and original posters and lobby cards that depict Hepburn wearing the costumes on display, as well as glass cases that hold hats (from "Alice Adams" and "Rooster Cogburn"), wigs, tons of well-used tubes of Max Factor makeup, shoes and even, appropriately, that CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award.

There are plans for the exhibition to tour the United States and abroad when it winds down at Kent State, notes James Harris, whose company H/L Communications handles the publicity and special programming concerning the show, which to date has included a gala opening in September attended by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne (who declared the exhibit superior to the recent one for Grace Kelly at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) and screenings of Hepburn movies like "Adam's Rib," "Summertime" and "Holiday." But for fellow fans who can't hold out til then, I recommend they either take a trip to Kent, OH — as I did in early December 2010 — or join me now for a walking tour of "Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen."


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