Fashion rebel Katharine Hepburn’s signature costumes come to Upcountry History Museum

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Katharine Hepburn. ca. 1930s

It’s no secret that Katharine Hepburn didn’t like skirts.

“Anytime I hear a man says he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, ‘Try one. Try a skirt,’” Hepburn said in the 1993 television documentary about her life, “All About Me.” Those comments weren’t surprising given that Hepburn’s signature look – a pair of khakis and an open-collar shirt – were anything but the norm for women in the 1930s and 1940s.

Fortunately, though, skirts (and dresses) will play a starring role in the “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” exhibition at the Upcountry History Museum beginning Oct. 14 and running through Jan. 14, 2018.


The exhibit features more than 35 free-standing costumes worn by Hepburn in 21 films and six stage productions, including “The Philadelphia Story,” “Stage Door,” “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” and “On Golden Pond.”

It is the Upcountry History Museum’s first major costume exhibit. “It’s momentous for us,” said Elizabeth Gunter, the museum’s director of education and programs. “It’s a huge exhibition for us, both in allowing the museum to have costume and textile exhibits, as well as size. It won’t fit in our main gallery. We’re having to use a smaller upstairs gallery, too.”

The museum, which is one of the country’s only museums of performance clothes, received 700 items from Hepburn’s estate. “It’s a beautiful look at Hollywood glamour,” said Elizabeth Gunter, Upcountry History Museum director of Education.

Hepburn, who died in 2003 at the age of 96, saved almost all of the costumes from her long career, which included four Oscars for Best Actress and eight other Academy Award nominations. The costume collection is on loan from the Kent State University Museum. The museum, which is one of the country’s only museums of performance clothes, received 700 items from Hepburn’s estate.

“It’s a beautiful look at Hollywood glamour,” Gunter said.

In addition to providing a visual history of her career, the exhibit showcases some of the best costume designers of the time — Valentina, Howard Greer, Cecil Beaton, and Jane Greenwood, who designed stage costumes for her, and Walter Plunkett, Irene Muriel King, Edith Head, and Margaret Furse, who designed her film costumes.

Among the dresses included in the exhibit is the pink silk organza, chiffon, and crepe de chine dress Hepburn wore in “The Philadelphia Story.” The original wedding dress from the stage production of “Philadelphia” was later re-used in the film version of “The Glass Menagerie,” as Amanda’s dress for the dinner party entertaining the “gentleman caller.”

When Hepburn really liked a costume, she had copies made for herself, sometimes in a different color or fabric, including a green raw silk jumpsuit by Valentina from “The Philadelphia Story” that will be on display at the history museum.

And, of course, pants.

RKO executives hid her pants in an effort to get her to stop wearing them. She, instead, threatened to walk around the lot naked and stripped down to her silk underwear before stepping out of her dressing room. She got her pants back.

Hepburn wore her “uniform” — khakis and a shirt — to rehearsals and pant ensembles to publicity appearances. At one time, RKO executives hid her pants in an effort to get her to stop wearing them. She, instead, threatened to walk around the lot naked and stripped down to her silk underwear before stepping out of her dressing room. She got her pants back.

The exhibition includes seven pairs of pants. In addition, it includes movie posters, archival photographs, film clips, and Hepburn’s makeup trays.

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