Katharine Hepburn – Dressed for Stage and Screen

I sort of hate posting about this exhibition, as it is closing, but despite my best intentions, I was unable to attend it until late last week. It was the Upstate History Museum’s  (in Greenville, SC) very first showing of fashion and costume, and they really did lead off with a winner. The show came from Kent State University Museum, which acquired the personal clothing of Katharine Hepburn around ten years ago. I saw this show in 2010 at Kent State, and had really enjoyed it, and since it was so close, decided to see it again.

When Kent State acquired the clothing, they learned that some of the pieces were identified with the name of the production, but others were not. Since I saw the show seven years ago, it appears that some more pieces have been identified, as there were some additions that I did not see the first time around. Someone has haved the very pleasurable task of watching Hepburn’s films with an eye out for the museum’s costumes!

Included in the show are garments Hepburn wore on stage, on screen, and in her personal life. There were quite a few costumes in her possession because if she really liked a particular garment, she would buy it when filming was completed or when the play’s run was over. In some cases, if she could not get the original, Hepburn would have the designer make copies for her personal use.

This green jumpsuit may be such a copy. It was made for Hepburn in 1939 by the designer, Valentina, and was worn in the stage production of The Philadelphia Story.  You can see Hepburn wearing it, or the original, in the photo behind the mannequin. There is also an very similar natural silk one in the collection.

Also from The Philadelphia Story, this gown was also designed by Valentina. The belt is a reproduction. Hepburn also wore this dress in 1973 (thirty-fours years later) when she portrayed Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.

This dress was worn in another stage production, The Lake of 1934. Remember that famous Dorothy Parker quip about Hepburn’s acting, “She  runs the whole gamut of emotion from A to B”? This is the play being referenced.

Hepburn continued to grace the stage, even after she found fame in Hollywood. These three costumes are from Coco, a 1969 musical in which Hepburn played Coco Chanel. Cecil Beaton designed the costumes, but to add a bit more authenticity to the production, Hepburn went to Paris and purchased some of the real deal. The suit on the left is by Chanel; the pantsuit and gown are by Beaton.


Stage Door, 1937, gown by Muriel King. I don’t tend to think of Hepburn as the frilly type, but this proves she could carry it off when necessary.

Hepburn wore this gown in 1949’s Adam’s Rib, opposite Spencer Tracy. In the movie poster seen behind the dress the dress is tinted red so it would stand out from the others wearing black. This dress was designed by Walter Plunkett in 1949.

This gown was designed by Irene, and was worn in 1948’s State of the Union.

UPDATE: I added this photo from Liza at Better Dresses Vintage to illustrate one of the things we discussed during our visit, the quality of workmanship of Hollywood costume departments. Being able to examine the clothes this closeup really lets you see the great skills of the sewers in those costume shops.

In 1967 Hepburn made her last movie with Spencer Tracy, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. These two ensembles were not actually used in the film, but were the outfits she wore in publicity photos for it. They both show signs of additional wear, and so Hepburn must have worn them in her private life.

Katharine Hepburn also did special productions for television. These two costumes were worn by her in the 1979 production The Corn Is Green. Considering she was seventy-two years of age at the time, she had a pretty impressive figure. She did have a little help from corsetry.

I’m afraid I have to title this photo, “Costuming Gone Bad.” These two are from Love Among the Ruins, which was filmed in 1975, but was set in 1911. The green robe/coat garment was made from a lovely silk, and I really liked it, but that red!  The fabric appeared to be a cheap poly, and the trim was that stuff people used to use to trim lampshades. And so many feathers! I simply do not understand what the designer, Margaret Furse, was thinking. But what do I know? Furse won a costuming Emmy for this made for TV film.

Here’s a selection of Hepbrun’s famous slacks. There are thirty-one pairs in the collection, though not all were on exhibit. Many were custom made to fit Hepburn’s specifications. The jodhpurs were bought at Abercrombie and Fitch. The blue jacket may be the one she wore in On Golden Pond.

Hepburn also had her shoes custom made. There are six of these brown single strap shoes in the collection.

Two trays of Hepburn’s makeup, and you can barely see a hairpiece in the upper right corner.

I had some company on this visit, Liza, the owner of Better Dresses Vintage. Having another fashion history lover with whom to discuss and critique the clothes really does enhance the experience of a visit to an exhibition.

These clothes will be heading back to Kent State where they will be on view from February 2, 2018 to September 2, 2018.


Filed under Museums

18 responses to “Katharine Hepburn – Dressed for Stage and Screen

  1. Thank you for sharing-enjoyable to see the clothes even if it was on a screen and not in true life! I love her style!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very enjoyable. Love the shoes. I did check the KSU website — nothing there when I checked for upcoming traveling shows.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. seweverythingblog

    Very much hoping this exhibit comes to my city. Thank you for sharing!


  4. Reba Worth

    Love your review of this show. The Walter Plunkett gown is my favorite followed by the chiffony Valentina. Thanks for giving us a peek!


  5. jacq staubs

    The Walter Plunket gown is very “classy” and also my favorite. I never think of her in gowns. She practically invented pants-and made them “fashionably acceptable. “icon” is appropriate . Thank you as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ruth Beaty

    Love many of her movies and her fashion sense, classy, understated, but still fashionable. BTW, ran across this on another blog I read and thought you might enjoy it as it speaks to subject you have addressed before–


    Liked by 1 person

  7. Having custom made shoes is the sole reason I dream about winning the lottery (which I do not play). One of these days I have to write a post about Hepburn in Coco. I’ve read somewhere that Chanel was not pleased.


  8. Susanne

    Thank you. Really enjoyed this as a old movie buff who enjoys Hepburn’s sense of style.


  9. The black Walter Plunkett gown, followed by the sheer Irene gown. shows how much the body can be reshaped by fabric! However, I don’t think Hepburn was the Fifties’ siren type, even re-shaped…. Thank you for sharing this exhibition.


  10. Love the photos. Is it true that Hepburn’s waist was just 18 inches?
    Also, how tall did these outfits indicate she was? There are differing answers on the internet, and as I am always amazed at how small so many of the major stars were in the 1930s, I would love to hear your impression of her size.


    • According to one of the docents, it was. The way they had some of the pants displayed allowed for a rough measurement, and even though the waist looked to be tiny, we same up with 26″. Of course the measurement of a garment always has a bit of wiggle room, and these particular pants could have been hers when she was older. Some of the display motes mentioned a 20″ waist.


  11. Aha! Turnabout is fair play, indeed. I see you’ve responded to my post of you titled “Horrified Possum” with one of me titled “Crazy Film Noir Bag Lady.” Well played, Fuzzy. I can’t wait for our next adventure!

    As for the wacky orange and feathered monstrosity winning an award?Perhaps it read (a lot) better on film? Sounds like fun research is in order.


  12. Like you, I hate posting about exhibits close to when they close. But I greatly appreciate you sharing photos from this exhibit! Hepburn was one of my style icons a few years back, and while I don’t dress too similar to her these days, I still greatly admire her style!! So this was a delightful peek into her personal clothing and costumes.

    One thing I really love about exhibits of costumes featuring ones from black and white movies is really getting to see the colors! Because even if someone mentions what color a garment is in a movie or show, you don’t know what shade it really is!


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