By CYNTHIA SCHUSTER EAKIN
“The Hepburn Style: Katharine and Her Designers,” the current exhibit at the Kent State University Museum, is a window into the glamour that was Hollywood in its heyday.
The museum’s collection includes the estate of Katharine Hepburn and her theatrical costumes throughout her career, as well as some personal items.
Academy Award-winning actress Katharine Hepburn left the New York stage for Hollywood in 1930. The rise of movies offered audiences an affordable form of escapism from the Great Depression, while costume designers delighted movie-goers by creating glamorous costumes worn by stars like Katharine Hepburn. The costumes were fashionable, contemporary garments that blurred the line between costume and fashion. Women in audiences wanted to emulate the styles they saw.
Hepburn’s style was often perceived as a combination of her on-screen costumes and her personal fashion taste and has been described as, “all-time movie chic,” as well as, “easy, un-self-conscious and American.”
As an actress, Hepburn worked with costume designers, always pushing for comfort, movement and proportions that complemented her. Costume designers incorporated these elements into their designs, which blended Hepburn’s personal style preferences with their costume designs. The Kent State exhibition showcases Katharine Hepburn’s style with examples from her personal wardrobe, costumes, and the contemporary designers that she wore.
“This exhibition is a great opportunity for us to display some of the most popular pieces in our collection,” Sara Hume, professor and curator for the Kent State University Museum said. “We have had tremendous response with past exhibitions of Hepburn’s costumes and ‘The Hepburn Style’ allows us to showcase pieces that haven’t been displayed as well as to contextualize her wardrobe with garments from our collection by designers that Hepburn admired.”
According to Joanne Fenn, Kent State University Museum collections manager and curator of “The Hepburn Style,” the university acquired Hepburn’s stage and screen costumes, as well as pieces from her personal wardrobe, from the estate of Katharine Hepburn. “The former KSU museum director, Jean L. Druesedow, had been acquainted with the estate’s executor through a mutual contact. Jean worked with the executor and the bequest was finalized in 2012,” she explained. Hepburn died in 2003.
“There was one exhibition curated by Jean L. Druesedow, ‘Katharine Hapburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.’ The exhibition was shown on two separate occasions at the Kent State University Museum. The exhibition also traveled to 10 venues across the country,” Fenn said.
Katharine Hepburn was born in Hartford, CT in 1907. In 1913, her family acquired a summer home in the sparsely populated borough of Fenwick, in Old Saybrook, CT. The property was a family retreat for years and became her East Coast residence where she enjoyed relaxing with family and friends.
Katharine Hepburn dressed more casually in private than for public occasions. However, she maintained similar standards for her casual wardrobe. She invested in quality, basic pieces, seeking fine fabrics, a tailored fit, and proportions that were complementary, Fenn said. Her uniform consisted of pants and a blouse or turtleneck, sometimes topped with a vest, jacket or another sweater around her shoulders. Fenn noted that many of the pieces in the gallery are well-worn with visible hand repairs indicating repeated use over the years, as well as a sustainable approach to dressing.
“This exhibition focuses on the public-facing Hepburn by looking at the designers she worked with on stage and at MGM studios, including Valentina, Adrian and Irene. In addition to featuring garments from Katharine Hepburn’s personal collection, this section of the exhibition showcases several Kent State University Museum collection items by these designers,” she said. “The second part of the exhibition focuses on Katharine Hepburn at home and features garments she wore privately.”
“There is a beautiful red pinafore overdress that is being exhibited for the first time, and it is a striking ensemble designed by Valentina. While Katharine Hepburn preferred muted tones, like tan pants with a black blouse, she consistently chose red when she did wear color. This pinafore dress is a gorgeous example of that,” Fenn said. “Likewise in her personal life, she consistently chose to wear a red turtleneck tied around her shoulders. For me, I enjoy seeing how she incorporates red in her wardrobe, and that is reflected in the exhibition. A surprising element is that she wore many of her favorite items until they were frayed and she repaired them. There is a blue and white striped, cotton men’s shirt that is well-worn and repaired. The shirt must have been very special to her to have saved it despite its poor condition.”
Katharine Hepburn understood how to maintain the public’s interests for decades, not just through her career choices, but by providing access to her seemingly private world. Through biographical books and various magazine spreads, she crafted what the public saw, Fenn noted. Finally, she saved costumes and garments that were worn throughout her lifetime and career, only permitting the collection to be bequeathed to an educational institution. This collection provides for continued dialogue and interpretation of Katharine Hepburn, including her style and impact on fashion and society, Fenn said.
The Kent State University Museum is at 515 Hilltop Drive, at the corner of E. Main St. and S. Lincoln St. in Kent, OH. It features more than 29,000 pieces in its collection, amassed from many donors. The museum is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Tickets can be purchased in person at the museum or in advance through the museum’s online ticketing service. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for children five to 18 years of age. The museum is free for children under five and for those with a Kent State ID. Sunday admission is free for all ages. Parking is free for all museum attendees. Call 330-672-3450 or visit www.kent.edu/museum for more information.