Haute Hepburn

A publicity self-portrait of Katharine Hepburn as Coco Chanel in “Coco,” with costumes by Cecil Beaton, which ran ten months at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1969 and ’70. | KENT STATE UNIVERSITY MUSEUM/ GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER P. SULLIVAN, M.D.

Along with so much else — that voice, that manner, that talent — Katharine Hepburn, the most enduring screen actress of the last century, was known for her tailored, mannish look. That no-nonsense, scrubbed American demeanor, her hair piled up a la concierge (as she called it), invariably attired in slacks (usually beige twill), a white button-down shirt, the most sensible of shoes, with maybe a red sweater tied about her shoulders as her one adornment.

However, looking over her immense screen and stage career, it becomes apparent that she was sartorially far more varied than this familiar image. Indeed, alongside Dietrich and that other Hepburn, Audrey, she was probably the most elegantly dressed actress of her time. In her youth, with her perfect model’s figure — long neck, broad shoulders, 20-inch waist, hipless, with flawless legs — she could wear anything and often did, from her first, startlingly stark film appearance in “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932), floating down a staircase in an angelic white organza gown by Josette De Lima.

Muriel King’s gown for Katharine Hepburn in “Stage Door” (1937).

She made a lot of memorable descending-stair entrances like that — in an outrageous silver mesh moth costume by Walter Plunkett for “Christopher Strong”; hoopskirted by Plunkett as Jo in her signature “Little Women”; in the demode (but exquisite) organdy frock in “Alice Adams,” which stamped her as a wallflower; in Muriel King’s fabulously smart rich girl wardrobe in “Stage Door,” and, later, coming down in an elevator as the evil Violet Venable, dressed in blinding white by Oliver Messel, in “Suddenly, Last Summer.”

For me, her most beautiful gown was her simplest — an unadorned sheath of black crepe with a slit back, decorated by only a pink chiffon scarf pinned with a brooch and three strands of Paul Flato diamonds around her neck. She wore this in her most endlessly enjoyable film, “Holiday” (1938), coming downstairs to greet her guests in the most memorable New Year’s scene ever shot. It was designed by Robert Kalloch, a great designer who committed suicide and gets scant mention in the otherwise quite marvelous exhibit “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen,” at Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts.

Although Hepburn’s personal effects were successfully auctioned off at Sotheby’s after her death, she wonderfully left her professional costumes, including some 700 pieces, to the Kent State University Museum, which organized this exhibit. I was given a personal tour by curators Jean Druesedow, the museum director, and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner — who both also contributed to the accompanying book. “Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic” (Skira/ Rizzoli) — and we reveled in Kate-chism. The actress had a habit of acquiring certain pieces from her productions, and it was fascinating to see what she kept and did not. They hung in a special closet in her Turtle Bay brownstone for years, pristinely preserved, their condition and colors miraculously fresh.

What clearly emerges is the unmistakable truth that Hepburn possessed flawless taste, with a sure eye for quality fabric, hue, and line that never wavered through some seven decades. For anyone obsessed with costumes, the exhibit is like the Holy Grail itself. Who knew that we’d ever actually see the texture-rich gypsy dress that Plunkett — the acknowledged master of Hollywood period design who did “Gone with the Wind” as well as 12 Hepburn films — made for James M. Barrie‘s “The Little Minister”? And that it would be brown — because that photographed as a rich red?

The great Russian couturiere Valentina had a celebrated stage collaboration with Hepburn, starting with 1939’s “The Philadelphia Story” (which Adrian copied for the movie version), and you see the masterpieces they dreamed up together, especially a dazzlingly constructed, multi-hued, wrapped, and tied “Without Love” evening gown. The delicate mauve chiffon of the famous “Calla Lily” dress from “Stage Door” is remarkably intact, and such was Druesedow’s research that she delved into old movie magazines to discover the exact shade of purple with which to perfectly recreate the suede belt that had somehow gotten lost over the years.

There are some gaps in the show. Full confession: a longtime costume collector myself, I volunteered an original Edith Head sketch I own from Hepburn’s Oscar-nominated “The Rainmaker,” which was politely refused, and I wish more evidence of Hollywood’s most enduring designer’s work with the star were here, rather than a battered “Rooster Cogburn” hat.

Druesedow and Cohen-Stratyner both confessed to never having seen “Break of Hearts” (1935), which may be considered a minor Hepburn dramatically, but style-wise is vital as it is the most high-fashion film she ever made, due to the sleek concoctions Bernard Newman, head designer for Bergdorf Goodman, poured her into.

At a panel the night before, Cohen-Stratyner rather shocked the audience of hard-core Kate-philes when she confessed to never having liked Hepburn as an actress and mistakenly stated that she had broken her RKO contract to appear on Broadway in her famous disaster, “The Lake.” That benighted Jed Harris-directed production is represented by a Howard Greer wedding gown, superbly Deco-architectural in silhouette.

There was some nattering about why Hepburn had kept this dress — a discussion consisting of shaky and presumptuous psychological readings that perhaps it was a reminder or a lesson to herself about professional decision-making. Maybe it was just a gorgeous, very special creation made by a designer, who, although forgotten today, was considered the very top of the heap from the 1920s to the ‘50s. Greer also designed the ultra-chic “Bringing Up Baby” for Hepburn; the soignée lame gown from that 1938 film was featured in a recent Metropolitan Museum film costume display.

Hepburn’s famous cross-dressing film, “Sylvia Scarlett,” stumped the curators when it came to identifying who made her men’s suits for the occasion. It was not, as was guessed, Muriel King, Hepburn’s credited designer on the film, but rather Eddie Schmidt, Hollywood’s foremost tailor, who nattily outfitted everyone from Gable to that other pants-loving diva, Dietrich.

Walter Plunkett’s off-the-shoulder, black jersey evening gown for Katharine Hepburn (seen with David Wayne, Spencer Tracy, and Eve March) in “Adam’s Rib” (1949). | CLARENCE SINCLAIR BULL/ KENT STATE UNIVERSITY MUSEUM/ GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER P. SULLIVAN, M.D.

An audiotape of a 1970s interview between Hepburn and Playbill’s Louis Botto is an enlightening accompaniment to the exhibit in a number of ways — bearing in mind a less than fully knowledgeable interviewer and the memory of someone recalling events from more than three previous decades. She says she bought her clothes from Hattie Carnegie for “Alice Adams” (a sweet straw boater, with some of that story’s famous violets still clinging to it, is on display), and that the eminent Mainbocher was originally considered to do “Adam’s Rib.” But when his salary demands proved too astronomical, she brought in the reliable Plunkett, who, though not noted for modern clothes, did a wonderful job. Indeed, an off-the-shoulder, black jersey evening gown is a masterpiece of draping, as marvelously complex and figure-flattering as any Charles James creation.

Hepburn sadly cannot recall Kalloch’s name (though she loved “Holiday”) and has rather a blind spot regarding the great Irene — another suicide and perhaps the best, most unsung of Hollywood designers — saying that she was “all right“ but lacked the simplicity of Valentina. One has only to look at “Undercurrent,” “Without Love,” and “State of the Union” to see that Irene was a bit more than that, for Hepburn never looked more elegant than in these films, totally high-style and yet totally herself.

“Fashion” seemed to fall away more and more as Hepburn aged and, after her impressive haute couture dalliance with Pierre Balmain for “The Millionairess,” her clothes became ever simpler and cleaner in line. Not for her any of the aging New Look experimentation that made such as Joan Crawford (still clinging to her shoulder pads, with a bouffant skirt), Bette Davis, and Claudette Colbert look so downright dowdy.

Her personal style became even more tailored and burnished as well, for one who had once happily indulged in shopping sprees at Elizabeth Hawes, Schiaparelli, and Valentina. Where once her early advocacy of blue jeans and mannish Lobb shoes seemed bizarre, she herself took note of the fact that the “world caught up to me.” What had been her personal uniform became everybody’s. She took to buying many of the same thing if she liked it well enough — no more dresses, though Druesedow insists that her lingerie is “a knockout” — and Kent State is in happy possession of a plethora of those aforementioned beige slacks. A sturdy, indestructible-looking row of Lobb brown walking shoes simply defines “dyke chic” for all time.

After 1960, Hepburn’s costumes become ever more robe-like, caftan-y things familiar from the likes of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “The Lion in Winter,” and all those dreary movies and TV things she made when she probably should have retired. There are a lot of these age-appropriate, grande dame schmattas on display here. She had a memorable dust-up with Cecil Beaton when they worked together on “Coco” (1969). His account of this time is remarkable in his naked vituperation toward her in his unexpurgated diaries. While it is true that she was BFF with mentor and director George Cukor with whom Beaton had just clashed during “My Fair Lady,” the fact that she rejected his designs and purchased two actual Chanels that she wore onstage says all you need to know about their mutual enmity.

An altogether happier, far more rewarding artistic experience is represented by the remarkable three costumes assembled from Hepburn’s crowning achievement, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Just seeing them, glowing in a corner, cannily trimmed in evocatively Eugene O’Neill-ish thick Irish lace by the brilliant Harris sisters (who called themselves Motley) gives you a chill, as you recall her Mary Tyrone, a performance so toweringly great and definitive that — as with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” — you wonder that anyone still dares to attempt it.