Katharine Hepburn: an original rebel

by Tiffany Tivasuradej

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When talking about 1950s fashion, things which normally come to mind include a combination of pencil, A-line and circle skirts, collared blouses and swing coats. Along with the girdle, an absolute must-have for women back then, the pieces aimed to create the classic hourglass silhouette. This silhouette emphasised the ideal female body figure, elegance and beauty as exemplified Charles Dana Gibson’s Gibson Girl. In absolute contrast with the androgynous look, perhaps best portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. Known for her love of tailoring, wide-leg slacks and trench coats, Hepburn’s look was an antithesis to the ultra-feminine trends and the reason behind her success as one of fashion’s original rebels.

Hepburn once stated, “Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, ‘Try one. Try a skirt.’” She did not confirm to the trends dominant in the 40s, preferring a combination of khakis and open-collar shirts, of which she called her “uniform”, over stockings and girdles. Not only did she go against the society’s norms, but she was also a woman who thought way ahead of her time.

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Perhaps, the most significant role of Hepburn’s style was its influence on everyday fashion in the US. As Jean Druesdow pointed out, “that image [created by Hepburn] said to the American woman, ‘Look, you don’t have to be in your girdle and stockings and tight dress. You can be comfortable.” Her choice in wearing slacks emphasized the importance of comfort. By wearing her “uniform” during public appearances and rehearsals, Hepburn’s androgynous look inspired the fashion world for many decades and even helped women gain confidence in being able to dress comfortably, yet stylishly.

Fashion writer Nancy MacDonell also noted Hepburn’s persistent attitude in maintaining her own style on set and around the production area. When production executives hid Hepburn’s trousers in a collective effort to force her to abandon them, Hepburn threatened to “walk around the lot naked.” Striping as far as her silk underwear before leaving the dressing room, Hepburn’s determined attitude resulted in two benefits. Firstly, it helped her regain her trousers. Secondly, the act confirmed Hepburn’s independence. It reinforced the idea of self-expression, rather than following the apparent conventions of the time.

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However, being comfortable by no means sacrificed Hepburn’s chances of dressing glamorously. The actress would ask for copies to be made of her favourite costumes in the films she acted in and would wear them whenever there was an appropriate occasion for them. Pieces remade include the silk dress and coat designed by Norman Hartnell from Suddenly, Last Summer and a green silk jumpsuit created from The Philadelphia Story. By balancing her boyish way of dressing with glamorous Hollywood spectacles, Hepburn’s style gained applause. She was also known for well-tailored garments. Cohen-Stratyner remarked, “she really appreciated good fabric and good construction… even her trousers are couture.” Couture was highly emphasized by Hepburn, and what was more important was that it was used to create simple, but highly functional and sophisticated, garments for daily life. Clearly, the use of tailoring in ready-to-wear pieces was a quirky way of creating clothing that strengthened Hepburn’s role as an icon of fashion.

The highly rigid and feminine 1950s style of dress ran contrary to Hepburn’s androgynous look. Her choice of slacks, collared blouses and trench coats helped develop the more masculine trends for women. What is more, Hepburn’s persistence in maintaining her style over society’s norms brought about a sense of security and confidence in women. She demonstrated that women could dress comfortably in casual clothing and still look good. At the same time, her love for her costumes and replicating them reflected the glamorous nature of the golden age of Hollywood. Katharine Hepburn can be considered as both fashion’s rebel and an unconventional symbol of feminine beauty, making her a true icon of fashion.

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The Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen exhibition had ended, but take a look at the blurb from the New York Public Library and the brochure for the display.

Photographs: The Fashion Spot, Post Crescent (last one)

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