This weekend I just may have to purchase a pantsuit. After visiting the New York Library for the Performing Arts’ exhibit “Katharine Hepburn – Dressed for Stage and Screen” last night, I am motivated to rethink my style.
I may be taking this a bit too literally, but the exhibit, which featured costumes Hepburn kept in her personal collection, was undeniably inspiring. The outfits Hepburn wore for publicity as well as the “rebel chic” of her casual and rehearsal wear, clearly depicted her confidence in herself and her style, even if it wasn’t considered popular at the time.
I am a long-time fan of Hepburn, and I have seen many of her movies and read her biography Me, and I have seen the play Tea at Five , which was written about her. But this exhibit offered new insight into Hepburn’s life, as well as her refusal to conform to generic standards of American beauty.
The first thing I saw on display was a panel filled with pants, arranged in various poses, which was Hepburn’s signature style. One of my favorite sassy quotes by Hepburn – and there are plenty to choose from – comes from a 1981 interview with Barbara Walters, where Walters asked Hepburn if she owned a skirt. Hepburn responded by affirming that she did, and she would wear it to Walters’ funeral. There were also dresses from many of Hepburn’s movies, including Stage Door, Adam’s Rib, The Philadelphia Story, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Photos and trivia from movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Summertime, Mary of Scotland and Suddenly, Last Summer also were on display.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit were the self-portraits Hepburn drew of herself from the Broadway musical Coco and the movie The Madwoman of Chaillot. She clearly had a sense of humor about herself, as her drawings emphasized her dramatic features to the point of humor.
Hepburn is considered one of the great actresses, and once upon a time she was called “box office poison.” But she would not give up, and through her own talent, strategy and determination, she made one of the greatest comebacks in acting history. Some of her “flops”, such as Bringing Up Baby, are now considered classics. But she refused to compromise herself. Hepburn was tall and had sharp cheekbones and an even sharper tongue, and many considered her unattractive and unappealing. But in time, she was accepted and even embraced. Many designers from the exhibit sang her praises and even spoke of her beauty, including Calvin Klein, who said, “she has truly epitomized the ultimate American woman. She’s vibrant, she’s outspoken, she’s hardworking, she’s and she’s independent, and, fortunately for us, she’s never been afraid to be comfortable.”
That’s not too shabby of a legacy to leave behind. And in a world where eating disorders are rampant and standards of beauty are unreasonable, Hepburn’s determination to stick to her guns and remain true to herself resulted in an exhibit in her honor. I hope people will continue to honor her work by embracing themselves the way she did.