Katharine Hepburn is known for her on-screen personality and her off-screen style. In reality, the two were closely intertwined, since she used style, both on and off-screen, as a powerful reflection of character.
Hepburn entered the theater at a time when it was not uncommon for actors to supply at least some portion of their on-stage wardrobe themselves, especially if the play was contemporary. In 1932, when Hepburn was in a production of The Bride the Sun Shines On, she was told that the wedding dress would be provided, but that she would need to supply an afternoon dress and other items for subsequent scenes. She continued to be involved in choosing her costumes even after she went to Hollywood. She worked closely with costumers, such as William Plunkett, Valentina, Irene, and Adrian, to choose the color, cut, and design of her on-screen wardrobes. She even requested replicas of some costumes for her every-day life, and a dress she wore in Suddenly Last Summer (1959) was copied by fashion designer Norman Hartnell.
Although many of Hepburn’s early films were done in black-and-white, the color of the costumes still played a large role. The hue and saturation of color determined how the costumes would show up on film, and the particular colors of the costume helped to create a sense of character for the actor. Balancing these two needs required skill from the costume designers. A great example of the successful melding of these needs is the “gypsy” costume designed by Plunkett for the 1934 film The Little Minister. Plunkett’s attention to hue, saturation, and grey scale of the fabrics means the details translate beautifully to black-and-white film, while the true colors helped to inspire Hepburn’s interpretation of Babbie, a Scottish aristocrat who disguises herself as a gypsy in order to protect the local villagers from her guardian.
Hepburn was often photographed during rehearsals wearing a white shirt and khaki slacks, rarely following the custom of wearing pieces of her costume to get used to the movements or hindrances. Rather than practice a stunt in a skirt before filming in one, Hepburn first and foremost relied on comfort in her wardrobe at both stage and screen rehearsals.
To see some of the costumes designed for Hepburn during her long career, visit Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, a traveling exhibition that will be on view at the Connecticut Historical Society from April 11 through September 13. Organized by Kent State University, the exhibition features costumes from Hepburn’s most famous roles, such as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, Amanda Bonner in Adam’s Rib, and Christina Drayton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. You can also read more about Hepburn’s Hollywood costumes in the exhibitions accompanying catalogue entitled Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic available at the CHS museum shop.