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A Day at the Museum…Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen


I had the opportunity today to view the travelling exhibit Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, currently at Omaha’s Durham Western Heritage Museum. The museum is housed in the former Union Station, a monumental building of Art Deco magnificence, and a wonderful former train station from the golden age of rail travel.
The Hepburn exhibit is from the collection of Kent State University, one of the foremost homes of fashion, clothing, decorative arts, and costume history. As such, photography was not allowed (which really nixed a lot of my intentions for this post). I was hoping to zoom in on the fabrics, stitches, and details, but these found publicity images of the exhibit’s various tours will have to do. This also limits presenting some of the notable but less popular costumes, so if you have a chance to view the exhibit, it’s certainly worth seeing! Personal viewing gives one a chance to see the extraordinary details put forth in the costumes, especially areas of hand-stitching and trims, some of which would never be picked up on camera.

Hepburn wore this divine wedding gown in the 1933 stage production of The Lake. The fabric was like liquid in person, flowing around the legs, and magically hovering around the shoulders.

From 1934, Hepburn played a gypsy in The Little Minister. The dress shown was designed by Walter Plunkett, who later went on to costume some lovely little numbers for Gone With the Wind, and won an Academy Award for his work on American In Paris. For this dress, he chose fabrics that would read well on camera, accent Hepburn’s features (like an 18″ waist), and give the actress the feel of being a gypsy. Details such as the red underskirt were never shown on camera, but were added solely for the wearer to enhance performance.


From 1937′s Stage Door. This soft blush cream gown has a long, flowing, layered skirt with a magenta velvet belt. The collar/bodice is trimmed with petal-look ruffles. The coloring was intentional, though it looks muted in person, when shot for black and white film, it would appear as if it were white, but not glaring under the lights.


1940′s Philadelphia Story stage production saw Hepburn in this beautiful Valentina designed flowing pink silk organza, chiffon, and crepe de chine wedding dress.


This green raw silk jumpsuit was designed by Valentina, also for use in Philadelphia Story. Hepburn loved pants, and had copies made of this outfit for her personal wardrobe.

1949′s film, Adam’s Rib, gives us the most divine piece of the entire exhibit. This black silk goddess gown, designed by Walter Plunkett, was made to accent Hepburn’s tiny 20″ waist. At 5’8″ she was the same height as I am, so standing shoulder to shoulder with this gown, it was quite evident how slim she really was. Add to that Plunkett’s masterful draping to draw the eye out at the shoulders, bust, and hips, the form becomes beyond hourglass and yet incredibly strong and bold.
This gown also sticks out from other pieces because it shows the neck and shoulders. Shortly after this film was made, Hepburn decided she would not like to expose her neck, and tasked costumers with designing around what became her signature buttoned up look.


By 1959′s Suddenly Last Summer, Hepburn’s high collar style was set. This brown dress and swing coat set of silk shantung is a line-for-line copy of the light colored outfit she wore in the movie. She had Norman Hartnell recreate his design for her personal collection, but in her preferred muted color palette.


In 1962, Hepburn played a woman of Irish heritage, so the costumers collectively known as Motley (Elizabeth Montgomery, Sophie Devine and Margaret Harris) decided this lavender dress of linen should be accented with Irish lace. In a sea of earth tones from Hepburn’s personal collection, this one really popped out!


For the 1986 TV movie, Mrs. Delafield Wants to Mary, Hepburn was costumed in this divine sari of magenta silk with golden metallic accents.


One of the most enjoyable aspects of the exhibit was the inclusion of Hepburn’s personal wardrobe items, most noticeably her trousers. Pants were once a controversial thing. A woman wearing slacks was unusual, but Hepburn was a strong woman who was not going to be swayed by the crowd.

The pieces in this travelling collection are from the Kent State University Museum. Their museum director, Jean Druesedow, narrates a series of videos on the Hepburn collection, available on their YouTube page. The museum also regularly shows off pieces from their collection on their Facebook page