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Katharine Hepburn's Stage And Screen Costumes At CHS

Kent State University Owns Gowns, Curated Exhibit

By SUSAN DUNNE, sdunne@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

4:06 PM EDT, April 9, 2014

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Legendary film star Katharine Hepburn continues to fascinate the world, and especially Hartford, the place where she was born and raised. Her independence, her uniqueness in a Hollywood that didn't quite get her, and especially, her forward-looking fashion sense make her an icon to film fans, feminists and fashionistas.

A new exhibit at Connecticut Historical Society that opens on Friday, April 11, "Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen," focuses on the clothes Hepburn wore in her film and stage roles. Frequently, the costumes reflected her own tastes. As costume designer Edith Head once said "One does not design for Miss Hepburn, one designs with her."

The exhibit features 46 outfits ranging from simple pantsuits to gaudy get-ups with boas, sequins, hats and jewelry, which Hepburn wore in films and stage plays from 1933 (the play "The Lake") to 1986 (the TV movie "Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry").

Sometimes she took costume-design decisions into her own hands. There's a scene in the 1973 TV movie "The Glass Menagerie" in which Amanda, played by Katharine Hepburn, puts on a dress to remind her of her glamorous youth. Amanda wears a floaty pink floor-length gown.

That dress must have reminded Hepburn of her glamorous youth, too. It was the same dress she wore in 1939 as Tracy Lord's wedding gown in the stage production of "The Philadelphia Story."

"That shows a lot how she interpreted her characters, how serious she was about that," said Jean Drusedow. "She knew what suited her and would not be swayed."

All of the costumes in the exhibit are owned by Kent State University in Ohio, where Drusedow is director of the campus museum. The university got the exhibit after Hepburn's 2003 death, because Hepburn wanted her collection to stay together and wind up at a museum that collected costumes.

The display is supplemented by a handful of Hepburn family artifacts owned by CHS.

That pink floaty wedding dress, designed by Valentina, is in the show. "People asked her, why is it pink when it's a wedding dress? Of course it was pink because it was a second marriage," Drusedow said. "What I think is interesting is that she had a 22-inch waist in 1939 and they had to let the dress out four inches in 1973. All those years and she only expanded four inches!"

Even when she wasn't wearing her famous pants, Hepburn had little patience for fru-fru and glitz. All of the costumes in the exhibit — except the ones she wore to play eccentric characters — show the elegant simplicity that best complimented her distinctive looks.

"She presented a kind of beauty nobody had seen, a whole new sensibility," Drusedow said. "No one really liked it." In her early film career, the studio tried to mold her as a Garbo-esque unique beauty, but she resisted molding and blazed her own trail.

Most of her costumes don't exist any more, Drusedow said. "They were cannibalized for the next show," she said. Hepburn kept costumes she particularly liked. Drusedow wonders why she liked some of them enough to keep them.

"I don't know why she kept this uniform she wore in 'The Iron Petticoat'," Drusedow said, referring to a 1956 remake of "Ninotchka" in which Hepburn played a stern Soviet defector. "The film was not successful. Bob Hope's gag writers took a lot of attention off of Kate to put it on Bob Hope. Her keeping it was a mystery."

The same goes for a wedding gown she wore on stage in "The Lake," a show she hated so much she bought out her obligation to tour with it. "That's the play where Dorothy Parker said 'Katharine Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B'," Drusedow said. The Howard Greer-designed wedding gown, however, is elegant and flattering, unlike the Soviet military uniform.

Most of the others are obvious choices for Hepburn to have kept. The show-stopper of the exhibit is a slinky black number Hepburn wore in "Adam's Rib," designed by one of Hepburn's favorite designers, Walter Plunkett. Plunkett worked with Hepburn in 12 films, including "The Little Minister" from 1934, in which Hepburn was miscast as a rabble-rousing Scottish Gypsy. "The movie was in black and white, but [Plunkett] wanted her to feel like a Gypsy, so he made the costume in bright colors," Drusedow said.

The slinky "Adam's Rib" dress sits across a gallery from a lightweight nightie Hepburn wore in "State of the Union," a 1948 collaboration with Spencer Tracy. In another gallery are three gowns she wore in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," a medieval-looking cape she wore in "The Lion in Winter" and comfy-looking pantsuits she from "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

The final gallery in the exhibit has the most eccentric display, with a red gown with a white boa from "Love Among the Ruins" (1975), an animal-print caftan Hepburn bought at Bergdorf Goodman to wear in "A Delicate Balance" (1973), a frilly black frock and white blazer adorned with a flashy necklace from the 1969-70 stage musical "Coco" and a magenta sari and sequined party dress Hepburn wore in "Mrs Delafield Wants to Marry."

The exhibit takes time to poke a little lighthearted fun at Hepburn, too. A cardboard standee of Hepburn wearing jeans and a mink stands in the hallway in front of the exhbit, for visitors to take selfies with Kate. That photo has a funny back story.

"The publicity still of Hepburn wearing blue jeans with a mink coat, taken on the RKO lot in 1932, captures the look that irritated the studio executives trying to mold their new, expensive star," the wall text reads. "When they forced the issue by taking away her pants, she simply walked around the lot in her underwear until they were returned."

"KATHARINE HEPBURN: DRESSED FOR STAGE AND SCREEN" will be at Connecticut Historical Society, One Elizabeth St. in Hartford, until Sept. 13. Hours and admission, and schedule of related events: http://www.chs.org.