Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen
October 18, 2012 — January 12, 2013
NYPL for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center
exhibit coverage abounds, e.g. here
She tempts. She smiles. She is just herself purely, simply, delightfully. Katharine Hepburn. I have admired her for decades from afar in movies and very rarely from theatre seats (a Cukor tribute at Lincoln Center I trained to from Harvard as a poor student, and A Matter of Gravity on a theatre trip to the City, both in the late 1970s). As a teen I devoured biographies and her image and style. I aspired to her, well, self-ness. And for a time here in New York City, where she maintained a residence for 70-odd years, we ordinary folks can tour some of Hepburn’s stage, screen, and everyday costumes (now part of the Kent State University Museum’s permanent collection) curated as “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” and augmented with items from the Katharine Hepburn papers that are archived at the Billy Rose Theatre Division.
There is something very special about viewing a costume that was worn on stage or screen, especially if it is from a beloved performance and performer. And everyday clothing that was well-worn and perhaps well-loved by a beloved personality is equally enchanting. A healthy dose of all of this and more (memorabilia, drawings, scripts, photographs) is on display for the next few months in the large Plaza-level exhibition area. Hepburn on stage, on screen, and at play.
There are film hats from characters of many different flavors — from small town girl in Alice Adams (1935) to western iconoclast in Rooster Cogburn (1975) to fancy frilly Jessica Medlicott in Love Among the Ruins (1975). There are slacks from her personal wardrobe arrayed delightfully to mimic photos taken of the woman herself in them (or pairs like them, she owns scores of pairs of tan slacks), on display as if worn by ghosts, uninhabited yet following Kate’s slender line.
There are costumes from the pivotal, essential, career rebuilding role of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story — the original 1939 stage version written for Hepburn by her pal Philip Barry, and costumes by Valentina. Here lounging pajamas/slack outfit and a robe over a flow-y dress (the movie version of same appeared over a swim suit) and a lovely bridal gown. Most of the world got to know versions of these ensembles in the 1940 film version of this play, but here we can appreciate the items as originally designed for the stage, in their original stunning color. Through the glass cases one can get close enough to examine stitching and fabric textures, and sigh aloud. Well, at least I do.
Other costume charms on display include mandarin collared vests over turtle necked shirts paired with slacks in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). The entire look here, stem to stern, was one favored by my beloved mother who, it so happened, introduced me to the wonders of Kate at about the time of this film’s release. And so it goes, the circle of life and the constancy of fashion, of finding a style, of finding an image, of finding a voice.
I’m not a dress gal, or one who goes all agog and goofy over flowing gowns. And yet, there is one featured in this exhibit fashioned for Kate in a role written for her to play opposite her off-screen partner Spencer Tracy. Their on-screen chemistry was smart and loving and enchanting, and for me never more so than in the story of two married attorneys Adam and Amanda Bonner, on the opposite sites of the same case in Adam’s Rib (1949). With Adam for the prosecution and Amanda for the defense there are tensions a-plenty at home and in the courtroom. Yet in a moment of calm before the courtroom storm and the film’s well-orchestrated 1949 battle of the sexes moments, Amanda dons a gasp-inducing black gown on screen for a fancy at-home dinner party.
Goofy, charming, elegant, opinionated, angular, striking, her own person. Hepburn. A book inspired by the exhibit with original essays by writers in various fields — curators, fashion journalism, theatre, and an art historian — is available for lengthy contemplation of the wonders of the Hepburn style, her “rebel chic.” Focus on her early and rebellious adoption of dungarees. Focus on the consistency of her personal style. Focus on her angular wonders. Hepburn.
© Martha Wade Steketee (October 31, 2012)