Iconic and timeless: Katharine Hepburn fashions at The Frick Pittsburgh
How is Katharine Hepburn — an actress born more than 100 years ago, whose film heyday was in the mid-20th century — still relevant?
“Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen,” opening Oct. 19 at The Frick Pittsburgh, will include 37 designer creations from Hepburn’s iconic career, while also revealing how her style speaks to contemporary issues of identity and expression.
“She was feisty, independent, autonomous, in so many ways the quintessential American woman,” says Sarah Hall, The Frick’s chief curator and director of collections. “She was well-educated, articulate and outspoken. She had such a long career, from the 1930s to the ’90s, which is also quite representative of the 20th century.”
On stage and screen and in her personal life, Hepburn also was very well dressed, as the traveling exhibition from the collection of the Kent State University Museum attests.
Born in 1907 in Connecticut, Hepburn studied at Bryn Mawr College before striking out to Broadway and then Hollywood, where history.com says “her unconventional beauty and upper-crust New England accent (were) a fresh presence on screen.”
Many of the characters she played reflected her personal reputation as free-spirited and unconcerned with convention, an image that Hall says Hepburn cultivated in part by wearing relaxed clothing and trousers.
A cultivated image
“Anyone who knew her and knew her closet knew that she wore dresses, but she cultivated that image because it came to be expected of her,” Hall says. “She wore pants because they were comfortable. When men said they preferred women in skirts, she’d say, ‘Have you ever worn a skirt?’
“She wore jeans around the lot and the studio didn’t like it, so the studio took her jeans away,” Hall adds. “She walked around the lot in her underwear until they gave her jeans back.
“Her story is part of our social history and the trajectory of female empowerment.”
The Frick will display 37 costumes and fashionable looks from characters Hepburn portrayed, along with posters, film stills, playbills and other archival information from her career.
More than a dozen designers are represented, including her favorites, Walter Plunkett and Valentina Schlee, whom The Frick says “were particularly skilled at producing elegant designs for her long-limbed, athletic figure.”
From Hepburn’s casual-but-still- elegant personal style, there will be an ensemble of tailored beige trousers with a linen jacket.
Fresh and modern
Hall says that one of her favorite looks in the exhibition is “a beautiful, black, columnar gown that Plunkett made for (the 1949 film) ‘Adam’s Rib.’ It’s timelessly beautiful — you could step out in that tonight and look absolutely fresh and modern.”
There’s also a Valentina look from a 1948 theatrical performance of “The Philadelphia Story.”
“Valentina was more a couture dress designer than a costumer. Her looks were minimalist and contemporary, with fresh, modern shapes and bright colors,” Hall says. “She had an air of exoticism and sophistication, by covering the body more than revealing the body.”
In preparation for the exhibition, Hall says she watched a rare 1973 interview that Hepburn, who died at 96 in 2003, granted to television talk show host Dick Cavett.
“She was a really enjoyable person,” Hall says. “She was progressive and opinionated, but kind and good in the best kind of way.”
“Dressed for Stage and Screen” will be “a fun show for families and different generations to see over the holidays,” Hall says. “Young people who don’t know Katherine Hepburn will have a lot of fun discovering her.”
The Frick has scheduled the following special programs in conjunction with “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.” Registration is required and fees apply.
• Sounds of the Stage and Screen, 7 p.m. Oct. 24. Jazz pianist Craig Davis will play Golden Age classics from Hepburn’s stage and screen performances.
• Film Series: “Adam’s Rib,” noon and 7 p.m. Nov. 22. A prosecutor (Spencer Tracy) squares off against his attorney wife (Hepburn), as she defends a woman who shot her cheating husband (1949, drama/romance).
• Stage, Screen and Salutations, 10 a.m. Dec. 1. The Yoga Factory will lead an all-levels yoga flow class, paired with a tour of the exhibition.
• Identity, Expression & Fashion, 7 p.m. Dec. 4. A panel discussion on personal style, public image and individual identity through fashion, referencing Hepburn, who rebelled against the mainstream and embraced her own style while also being dressed by exclusive designers and fashion houses.
• Film Series: “The Philadelphia Story,” noon and 7 p.m. Dec. 6. Hepburn plays a Philadelphia socialite conflicted by romantic feelings for three men (1940, comedy/romance).
• Film Series: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” noon and 7 p.m. Jan. 10. Hepburn and Tracy play wealthy liberals who must confront their latent racism when their daughter brings her black doctor fiance home (1967, comedy/drama).
Love and marriage
Hepburn once said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun,” a quote that could have applied to her own romantic life, which was unconventional for the times in which she lived.
During a brief marriage to Philadelphia businessman and socialite Ludlow Ogden Smith, she started a relationship with her agent, Leyland Howard, and later was involved with eccentric entrepreneur and tycoon Howard Hughes.
After her marriage dissolved, she vowed never to remarry or have children.
Her longest relationship was with fellow actor Spencer Tracy, who remained married — though estranged from his wife — for its duration. The relationship was tumultuous, owing in part to Tracy’s alcoholism and his wandering eye.
Some have said the relationship was actually a ruse to cover for both Hepburn’s and Tracy’s same-sex attractions, although Hepburn told biographer A. Scott Berg that she loved Tracy and would have been miserable away from him.
Among her musings on love and marriage:
• “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.”
• “Marriage is a series of desperate arguments people feel passionately about.”
• “If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married.”
• “Plain women know more about men than beautiful women do.”
• “If you’re given a choice between money and sex appeal, take the money. As you get older, the money will become your sex appeal.”
Hepburn’s film career began with “A Bill of Divorcement” in 1932 and ended in 1994 with “Love Affair.” Out of 12 nominations, she won four Best Actress Academy Awards.
From reelrundown.com, here are her top 10 movies, based on their importance to her career, the size/importance of her roles and their continuing popularity based on ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix and Rotten Tomatoes.
1. “The Philadelphia Story” (1940)
2. “The Lion in Winter” (1968)
3. “Bringing Up Baby” (1938)
4. “The African Queen” (1951)
5. “Holiday” (1938)
6. “Stage Door” (1937)
7. “Summertime” (1955)
8. “On Golden Pond” (1981)
9. “Little Women” (1933)
10. “State of the Union” (1948)
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .