Katherine Hepburn Exhibit: Dressed for Stage and Screen

Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Most of the time living in New York is delightful, and there are few other cities on this planet (apart from London) that I could see myself living.  However, holiday weekends in New York can be a pain, particularly this past weekend with all the sales going on.  To escape the crowds, I headed up to the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center to see the Katherine Hepburn exhibt entitled 'Dressed for State and Screen.'

While I've been a fan of Katherine Hepburn's since I was a kid, I've never thought of her as a style icon but walking through the exhibit, I had to change my mind.  The exhibit was sponsored by the Kent State University Museum, the recipiant of Hepburn's costumes and other theatrical paraphenalia after her death.  The exhibit wasn't huge but the items they had on display were choice, including the evening gown that she wore in ADAM'S RIB, and the wedding dress that she wore in the Broadway production of The Lake (the famous production of which Dorothy Parker wrote that Hepburn ran 'the gamut of emotion from A to B').

Although I've read several biographies of Hepburn, I learned a few things during this exhibit that I hadn't known before. 

1)  Katherine Hepburn apparently at one time had a 20 inch waist.  Seriously, and I'm not talking with the help of a girdle or a corset.  I don't think my waist has ever been smaller than 24 inches!

2) She made a movie with Bob Hope called THE IRON PETTICOAT which hopefully TCM will show at some point because that is the craziest pairing probably in movie history.  No, I take that back pairing Hepburn with Nick Nolte was probably crazier.  Apparently in THE IRON PETTICOAT, Hepburn plays a Soviet flyer who is introduced to the delights of the west by Bob Hope.  Here's the synopsis from TCM:  'Captain Vinka Kovelenko defects from Russia, but not for political reasons. She defects because she feels discriminated against as a woman. Captain Chuck Lockwood gets the order to show her the bright side of capitalism, while she tries to convince him of the superority of communism. Naturally, they fall in love, but there's still the KGB, which doesn't like the idea of having a defected Russian officer running around in London.'  The exhibit had her costume from the film, a drab olive uniform.  Apparently Hepburn really wanted the uniform to be a drab color and not bright green.

3) Hepburn made quite a few films based on the plays of James M. Barrie including Little Minister and Quality Street.

Walking through the exhibit I was reminded of so many Hepburn films that I've loved over the years including THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (Apparently Hepburn wanted Clark Gable to be her co-star in the movie!).   The exhibit had a dress that she wore in the film that she later recycled when she played Amanda in a TV version of Tennessee William's play THE GLASS MENAGERIE with Sam Waterston.  She made 4 movies with Cary Grant, 3 of which are classics (BRINGING UP BABY, HOLIDAY and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.)  It made me wish that she had done more movies with Grant and fewer with Spencer Tracy frankly.

The coolest part of the exhibit was the display case with various pairs of pants that Hepburn wore.  Along with Marlene Dietrich, she was one of the few starss back in the day who were regularly photographed in pants, which the studios hated but she would not be budged.  If they took away her jeans or her trousers, she would just apparently walk around on set in her underwear until they gave them back.  It's hard to imagine Hepburn wearing dresses, although she wore some stunning ones in her films.

The Hepburn exhibit contains quite a few photos, as well  as posters, scrapbooks, press clippings, and, of course, clothes. Some of the gems include two costumes from LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a movie directed by George Cukor, starring Hepburn and Laurence Olivier; two outfits that Hepburn bought from Chanel when she played the designer in the Broadway musical Coco (she wasn't sure that Cecil Beaton's costumes would be right), her hat from Alice Adams, and the costumes from Mrs. Delafied. There's also a a letter from her favorite wig-making company, in London; her make-up case, several pairs of shoes, and an audio conversation between Hepburn and Louis Botto, a Playbill Magazine's senior editor, who was working on a biography of costume designer Walter Plunkett, with whom she did 11 films.

There's also a book, that's not tied to the exhibition, but is a must-have for all film buffs entitled Katherine Hepburn:  Rebel Chic.

The exhibit runs through January at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.


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