Fashion & Beauty

Katharine Hepburn’s Costumes Tell Her Story

October 22, 2019

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WHETHER YOU dress in head-to-toe black, prefer printed dresses, swishy skirts or slouchy suits, the clothing you choose to wear sends a message about you. In some cases it tells stories, as it does in a new exhibit chronicling Oscar-winning actor Katharine Hepburn’s career through her wardrobe.

“Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen,” which runs until January 12, 2020, at The Frick Pittsburgh, comes courtesy of the Kent State University Museum, which received her personal collection of film, stage and TV costumes in 2008. The show looks at the clothes that helped create many memorable characters, along with the role of fashion in crafting the image of one of the greatest female actors of the twentieth century.

Spanning over five decades of Hepburn’s career, starting in the 1930s, the exhibit features 37 costumes from the stage productions of “The Philadelphia Story” (1939) and “Coco” (1969), films “Adam’s Rib” (1949) and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1965) and TV movies, such as “Love Among the Ruins” (1975). Hepburn’s signature tailored beige trousers and linen jackets are also on display, along with personal items like her makeup kit (including Chanel lipsticks and pairs of false eyelashes), photo collages, vintage posters and film stills.

“A star practically always asks for a designer if she has any sense,” said Katharine Hepburn when asked if she had a say in the designers with whom she worked. More than a dozen costume designers are represented in the exhibit, including Edith Head, Walter Plunkett and Valentina Schlee. As Edith Head said, “One does not design for Miss Hepburn, one designs with her. She’s a real professional and she has very definite feelings about what things are right for her, whether it has to do with costumes, scripts or her entire lifestyle.” Plunkett, whose most famous project was “Gone With the Wind,” created an off-the-shoulder black silk evening gown and long train that Hepburn as Amanda Bonner in “Adam’s Rib” wore for a dinner party in the film. Schlee, known just as Valentina, was one of Hepburn’s favorites. The raw silk jumpsuit she designed for the actor’s strong-willed Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story” would fit right in among contemporary fashions. Hepburn’s personal taste is apparent in all the costumes she kept in her personal collection, where the emphasis is on fluidity, beautiful fabric and quality workmanship.

Transcending the actual items in the exhibit is the constant awareness of Hepburn’s independence, energy and wit—at least partly attributable to growing up with progressive parents. Says Sarah Hall, the Frick Pittsburgh’s chief curator and director of collections, “She was marching for women’s rights with her mother (president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association) from the time she was 8 years old.” Her father, a surgeon, was an athlete and advocate of social rights.

Think the practice of mixing high- and low-end clothing is something new? Uh-uh. A publicity still of Hepburn wearing a mink coat and jeans, taken in 1932 on the RKO lot, captures her distinctive look. Wearing trousers at the time, let alone blue jeans, irritated the studio big shots, who preferred their stars to wear skirts and dresses. When they took away her jeans during filming, she walked around the lot in her underpants until she got them back. That casual, relaxed Hepburn style won her a 1985 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Calvin Klein, who presented the award, said, “She has truly epitomized the ultimate American woman. She’s vibrant, she’s outspoken, she’s hardworking and she’s independent and, fortunately for all of us, she’s never been afraid to be comfortable.”

—Janet Kelly


“Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage & Screen” is on display at the Frick Pittsburgh (7227 Reynolds Street, 412-371-0600) through January 12, 2020. 

Museum Hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday and Sunday; 10am-9pm, Friday. Closed Monday.

Admission: Members: Free
Adults: $15
Seniors/Students/Military: $13
Youth 6 to 16: $8
Youth 5 and under: Free

More Information: The Frick Pittsburgh












One thought on “Katharine Hepburn’s Costumes Tell Her Story

  1. Carol says:

    Love this! Will try to get there. Love that she walked around in underwear until they gave back her jeans ❤️ Thanks Janet

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