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Arts and Entertainment

Couture to khaki, Katharine Hepburn kept it all
Kent State University Museum unveils Hepburn performance clothing exhibit this weekend

Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
Hepburn made detailed notes about what her characters should wear and wanted her outfits made by top designers.
Courtesy of Dawn Einsel
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A new exhibit at Kent State’s fashion museum offers a glimpse of six decades of the simple, sophisticated and individual style that was Katharine Hepburn. WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz has more on the range – from couture dresses to casual slacks.

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The Katharine Hepburn exhibit at Kent State’s fashion museum shows the legendary actress’ versatility. From a long, flowing silk chiffon gown she wore in “Stage Door” to a unique sequenced sari she donned in “Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry.” But the first items on display are simple, wool khaki slacks. Hepburn had hundreds of pairs, and started wearing them when it was considered taboo for a Hollywood bombshell to dress in anything less than feminine fashion. But museum director Jean Druesedow says Hepburn cared little about what others thought – her priority was comfort.
Druesedow: She was intelligent, and feisty and independent and able to make her own decisions. And says, you know, "when people ask me, why pants? I say, try a skirt. Just try one."
Hepburn’s costume wardrobe is unique for other reasons. The museum had to specially carve much smaller mannequins to display her dresses. Gazing at a dress from 1937’s “Stage Door,” Druesedow notes that Hepburn was five foot seven with a strikingly thin physique.
Druesedow: It’s the one she wears when she says that famous line “The calla lilies are in bloom!” and look how tiny it is. I mean, in those early years her waist was about 20 and a half inches…very slender.
The Kent State museum acquired more than one-thousand pieces of the actress’ performance clothes in 2008 from her estate. Druesedow traveled to a warehouse in Hepburn’s Connecticut home town and sifted through the collection. A former Kent State fashion school intern spent all of last summer watching Hepburn films to identify the pieces.
Hepburn wanted her costumes to go to an educational institution, and Druesedow says Kent State was well-positioned to display them.
Druesedow: Because the museum is very involved helping students see different things and learn about the history of those fields, we were able to do it whereas most of the major institutions in the United States don’t collect performance clothes.
One of the first tours through the new exhibit was a group of senior citizens from Columbus. Ann Drake felt a personal connection to the wardrobe – she says her son lived two doors down from Hepburn’s Manhattan townhouse in the 1960’s. She underscores Hepburn’s simplicity and independence. 
Drake: One time we observed her…she had brought wood in from her farm and then she carried in the house. My son offered to help her and she said “no, no, no I can do this myself."
Despite Hepburns’ casual, tomboyish style, the actress had a strong passion for making sure her characters were well-dressed forher parts. She made detailed notes in her scripts about what each character should wear in every scene and she wanted her outfits made by top designers. Druesedow points to a Valentina dress Hepburn wore in the 1945 movie “Without Love.”
Druesedow: There’s a sketch that she made of the dress at Lincoln Center in the Library for Performing Arts and in the sketch she says “it was a heavenly dress! It just floated, pale blue, pale rose, pale grey and ecru.
In addition to Valentina, Hepburn made an impression on – and with -- Coco Chanel. Hepburn starred as the designer in the 1969 musical “Coco.” Unhappy with the costume designers’ renderings, she had the director fly her to Paris to meet Chanel herself. The two got off to a rocky start when Chanel thought she was meeting Audrey Hepburn.
Druesedow: And when she heard that it was Katharine Hepburn, she was absolutely outraged and she said, “she is far too old to play me!” There was some sort of rapprochement because Katharine Hepburn actually bought two complete couture outfits from Chanel to wear on the stage and of the two she actually wore the black one that’s actually in the exhibition.
On a tour of the exhibit with her Columbus senior center group, Ethel Mooney says she has a new appreciation for performance clothing – especially seeing the designs up close andin color.
Mooney: You can see how a costume would help an actor to interpret the part when you see the real costume and when you just see it being performed, you have no idea that that’s putting them in the role.
Still puzzling to museum director Jean Druesedow is why Hepburn kept every piece of clothing, every costume and everyhat she wore – enough to fill a warehouse. She even kept the dresses she wore when the industry called her box office poison in the mid 1930’s.
Druesedow: One of garments is from “The Lake,” which was a great flop. But she kept that dress of Howard Grier. So why did she keep it? Was it to remind herself of one of the greatest lessons or what she considers one of the greatest lessons of her career, that when you are the star, the burden is on your shoulders and you better carry the load.
The Kent State Museum still has hundreds of pieces from Hepburn’s collection that are unidentified. An intern is researching them all. Dresedow says the museum may sell some pieces it doesn’t need – after all it hasmore than 100 pairs of Hepburn’s khaki slacks. The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through September of next year.


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