NEW YORK -- A new exhibition is hailing the fashion sense of Katharine Hepburn, whose trademark khakis and open-collar shirts were decidedly unconventional in the 1930s and 40s, when girdles and stockings were the order of the day.
The fiercely independent Hepburn famously once said: “Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, ‘Try one. Try a skirt.’ ”
But skirts and dresses abound in Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which opens Thursday.
Hepburn, who died in 2003 at age 96, saved almost all the costumes from her long career that included four Oscars and such memorable films as The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and On Golden Pond. Forty are on view at the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 12.
One of the first things visitors will notice is how slender Hepburn was — she had a 20-inch waist — and a grouping of seven khaki pants artfully arranged on a pair of mannequin legs.
“The fact that she wore slacks and wanted to be comfortable influenced women’s ready-to-wear in the United States,” said Jean Druesedow, director of the Kent State University Museum, which was given 700 items from Hepburn’s estate. Kent State was selected because it’s one of the country’s only museums of performance clothes.
“That image said to the American woman ‘Look you don’t have to be in your girdle and stockings and tight dress. You can be comfortable.’ That was probably the first aspect of becoming a fashion icon,” said Druesedow, a co-curator of the exhibition.
The strong-willed actress known for taking charge of her career worked closely with all her designers to decide her performing wardrobe.
Comfort was paramount to Hepburn – being able to throw her leg over a chair or sit on the floor. She always wore her “uniform” – khakis and a shirt – to rehearsals and pant ensembles to publicity appearances.
A companion book, Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic, describes how RKO executives hid Hepburn’s trousers in an effort to persuade her to abandon them.
“Her response was to threaten to walk around the lot naked. Though she only stripped down as far as her silk underwear before stepping out of her dressing room, she made her point – and she got her trousers back,” fashion writer Nancy MacDonell wrote in an essay for the book.
• Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza (65th Street west of Broadway), www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/katharine-hepburn-dressed-stage-and-screen. Free.