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Katharine Hepburn Style

By , 22 January, 2009, 6 Comments

Tuesday’s prime-time viewing on TCM featured Katharine Hepburn films. If I had to pick one film which exemplifies The Great Kate to me, it would be The Philadelphia Story (1940).

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story

The film is as complicated, quirky, and human as my vision of the great actress. I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot, because seeing it for the first time is something so special (though additional viewings do allow you to see additional sublime facets you may have missed before), so instead I will cheat and let Lisa Kudrow (via an article by Johanna Schneller, published on the passing of Hepburn) tell you about The Philadelphia Story:

To her, the ultimate Katharine movie is The Philadelphia Story, “because it’s so confusing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think or who I’m supposed to root for,” Kudrow told me. “The father is away with his mistress, his wife doesn’t discuss it. It falls to the daughter [Hepburn] to address it – and somehow she’s the spoiled, selfish one! Her father’s complaint is, ‘As a man gets older, he likes to look into a young woman’s eyes, to remember that youth is still his. Usually a man gets that kind of solace from his daughter.’ But his daughter is difficult, so he gets to have a mistress? What the hell kind of argument is that?”

As for Cary Grant’s character, Kudrow continues, “he was a drunk! He had a drinking problem! But she’s a bitch because she wouldn’t stand by him?” And yet, she is the hero of the film. Only Kate could pull that off.

If Kate’s character in the film is complicated, it likely has nothing on the actress herself off-screen.

For someone so direct and forthcoming, Kate was rather protective of her private life — yet her independence and practicality are well documented. Her progressive upbringing included lessons from her family in activism, education in human sexuality & birth control, belief in women’s rights, a formal education resulting in a Bachelor of the Arts degree in History and Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College, but a deep confidence. Unapologetically, the young woman not only divorced, and admitted to lovers, but she had things to say about marriage — things which many deem unkind, but which I see as blunt, yet honest (and oft witty) observations:

“It’s bloody impractical. ‘To love, honor, and obey.’ If it weren’t, you wouldn’t have to sign a contract.”

“If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married.”

“Only when a woman decides not to have children, can a woman live like a man. That’s what I’ve done.”

“Being a housewife and a mother is the biggest job in the world, but if it doesn’t interest you, don’t do it – I would have made a terrible mother.”

“To be loved is very demoralizing. Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only with what you are expecting to give – which is everything.”

“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.”

You might not agree with Hepburn, but you certainly can’t doubt her sincerity or call her a hypocrite; especially with regard to the last two quotes. For 25 years she and Spencer Tracy carried on a deep love affair, despite his marriage. Although the whole world knew of their relationship, the couple never appeared in public out of deference to Mrs. Tracy.

Of their relationship, Hepburn had this to say:

In her book “Me,” she revealed how, at the age of 33, she discovered what “I love you” “really means.” She called her life with Tracy “absolute bliss.” “I loved Spencer Tracy,” she wrote. “He and his interests and his demands came first….I really liked him – deep down – and I wanted him to be happy.” The night he died, in 1967, she called his family, and his wife, Louise, came over. “She was in a peculiar spot,” Miss Hepburn wrote. “She could never bear to admit failure. Now he was dead. And he would never come back. She had dreamed – hoped – imagined that he would….She just could not settle for the fact that her marriage had been a failure.” Miss Hepburn also addressed Tracy in the book: “You were still married to Louise….You couldn’t leave her if she didn’t want to be left.”

Whenever people speak of Katharine Hepburn, they invariably mention her style of dress. “She wore pants all the time!” they cry. Some, including the detractors, credit her with bringing pants into vogue for women:

During her college years at Bryn Mawr, Hepburn lived a wild party life. Her penchant to break conventions was already apparent in her unorthodox dress: baggy men’s trousers, oversized sweaters and men’s shirts, shocking even for the extravagant tastes of the “roaring ‘20s.”

…“With stout resolve,” reports a fashion book, “she almost single-handedly broke down the dress code for women” by insisting on wearing men’s trousers on set and off, everywhere and all the time. Her style was so informal and untraditional that she never, even after becoming a star, owned a dress or skirt of her own. One of her many awards came from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in1986 – in recognition of her role as non-conformist in modern fashion.

I cannot find the “fashion book” apparently quoted from (nor is it properly credited in the article), but if such a quote exists I would think that both the author and Hepburn herself would agree that Dietrich and Garbo had a great deal to do with the females adopting the fashion of men’s trousers. Certainly Garbo & Dietrich paved the way for pants and so much more. As Hepburn said in an interview with NBC, “I just had good timing. The times fit me: Pants came in, low heels came in, the terrible woman came in, who spoke her mind.”

Casual Hepburn

Casual Hepburn

But perhaps what makes Hepburn’s wearing of pants so shocking to so many is that Dietrich and Garbo were known (at least throughout Hollywood, where such secrets were guarded in order to prevent box office issues) to be bisexual (if not lesbian), while Hepburn was a known, practicing (perhaps too much!) heterosexual; her sexual femininity was not in question.

But Hepburn’s love of pants was very much a part of her adventurous and practical nature, as this story from Sarah Standing’s childhood illustrates:

Like a child, she had an instant disrespect for formality. I don’t think that, in the 30-plus years I knew her, I ever saw her wear a dress off-screen. “Shoot! How can you possibly explore in a dress?” she would ask. At eight, I was a tomboy, not caring what I wore so long as I could get it dirty, and I was amazed I had met a grown-up who thought exactly like me.

Of her preference for wearing pants, Hepburn had this to say, “I wear my sort of clothes to save me the trouble of deciding which clothes to wear.” With a life as complicated as Hepburn’s, it’s no small wonder she’d prefer such a fashion look. It’s simple, classic, functional — and as uncompromising as the icon herself.

The Practical & Adventurous Style of Kate

The Practical and Functional Style of Kate

Busy women today would be wise to build a wardrobe like Katharine Hepburn.

Hepburn’s style was defined by tailored and crisp pieces: high-waisted and wide-legged trousers and loose fitting button-down shirt-styled blouses. Sometimes she wore a simple knit top or sweater. If you get solid pieces in one color palette or coordinating shades, you’ll never have to worry about finding something that matches.

1940s High-Waist Pants Pattern

1940s High-Waist Pants Pattern

When the occasion or weather warranted it, Hepburn added a classic blazer, or put on a menswear coat or jacket.

1940s Pants and Jacket Pattern

1940s Pants and Jacket Pattern

Hepburn would keep accessories to a minimum: simple jewelry pieces, bold but clean belts, & comfortable yet stylish loafers.

Katherine Hepburn Style

Katherine Hepburn Style

And always — but always — keep the hair shining and the skin glowing. Her makeup and hair was always just a few steps above natural, at once emphasizing the beautiful contours of her face and making her seem real and solid. But above all, it was the textures of her hair and face which seemed to beckon to be touched.

The Textures of Katharine Hepburn

The Textures of Katherine Hepburn

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6 Responses {+}
  • Raquelle

    What a superb post! I love what Lisa Kudrow said about Philadelphia Story. It’s true, that film is so wonderfully confusing.

    And while most people think of Audrey Hepburn as a style icon, I think that Katharine Hepburn made that sort of adrogynous style actually feminine, elegant and beautiful! No small task.

  • Ann

    For all Hepburn lovers…the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center and Theater will be opening this summer (2009) in Hepburn’s beloved seaside town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
    We’d love it if you’d link to us on your site.
    Come see what we’re all about:
    http://www.katharinehepburntheater.org

  • C.K. Dexter Haven

    Informative and well-written post! I’m glad I found your blog.

  • Janet

    I find it strangr that in her later films whatever the occasion she still did not expose her neck and her wardrobe was centred around this.Was there an underlying teason perhaps medical for this..

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