29 November 2012

What Hepburn Wore

While at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts the other day, on my way to do some research for my biography of Madeline Kahn, I glimpsed from the corner of my eye a familiar dress on display. Then another. Then another. The corner of my eye is crummy — I wear glasses and have no peripheral vision — so I turned to face an extraordinary (and little-heralded) exhibition, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, on view through January 12, 2013.

Small wonder that I recognized the clothes: Hepburn, who died on Pride Weekend, 2003, is by far my favorite movie actress, to whom I once proposed marriage. (She had the good sense — typically — not to respond to my letter.) I’ve seen most of her films multiple times, and there’s only a couple I’ve never seen at all. I’m saving them up, the way one saves a couple of Shakespeare plays, to be sure there’s still some pleasure left before dying.

What even a completist Hepburnite does not expect is to see the woman standing before him, in the old familiar costumes, in the poses she struck in life. Yet that’s precisely the effect that Dressed has.

Calla lilies: Terry Randall’s costume today,
and as Hepburn wore it in Stage Door.

Hepburn’s irrepressible vitality made her seem to pop right off the screen, even in her roughest performances and worst movies. Where can all that energy have gone? It was a force so powerful that even now it seems to inhabit her clothes, and the mannequins are arranged such that you feel Hepburn’s presence, disembodied and yet corporeal, ghostly and yet real, multiplied by dozens around the room.

This is most obvious in the pose of one pair of her trademark trousers — upside-down, as if Hepburn is doing a handstand — but also in the tilt of a hat, just so. You can almost see that strange, beautiful face, the head cocked, the blazing blue eyes probing yours, the mouth set in greetings both welcoming and wary. Playful, then proud, then somehow slightly scornful.

You’d always heard that, when she appeared in a TV adaptation of The Glass Menagerie, Hepburn re-purposed the wedding dress she wore on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, and here’s the proof: the dress itself, with photos from the play. With a few seams let out and a fabric flower added at the throat, what was once up-to-the-minute fashion for Tracy Lord became Amanda Wingfield’s faded finery, an adornment insufficient to win over a Gentleman Caller.

So many of her films were in black-and-white — as are all the photographs from her early stage appearances — that the living colors of some costumes hold a special fascination. Most notable, perhaps, is a pale lavender dress with lace trim, which Hepburn wore in Long Day’s Journey into Night. We see at once that Mary Tyrone is too timid to seize the royal purple she’s entitled to; in the lace we see her Irish heritage. On screen, the dress never impressed me. In the exhibition, I understand how it contributed to Hepburn’s single greatest performance.

Costumes mattered to Hepburn as an expression of character — even the stuff she wore off-camera expressed the person she wanted to present to others — and throughout the exhibition, various documents testify to her collaboration with designers, striving to make the desired effect. We also see hairpieces, makeup kits, publicity photos, and a watercolor self-portrait — but Hepburn isn’t inside them, not the same way, and so we keep going back to the clothes.

Here are the chic, vaguely Chinese jackets she wore in Coco, and the Edwardian folderol in which she swanned in Love Among the Ruins. Here’s the Gypsy drag she donned as Lady Babbie in The Little Minister, the Soviet uniform she wore in The Iron Petticoat and the elaborate Indian wedding gown from Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry. And here’s the evening dress she wore in Adam’s Rib, probably the last time any camera got a good look at her aging neck (of which she was highly self-conscious) until Henry Fonda kissed it, peeling back her collar in On Golden Pond, more than three decades later.

We see her body changing, from willowy to surprisingly stout, from Alice Adams to Miss Moffatt — but this is perhaps the only thing we see that Hepburn might have wanted to hide from us. A true artist, albeit a collaborative one, she was presenting an image to the viewer. The images survive her — eloquently. This is no mere scrapbook of a career; it’s an almost-living monument.

The exhibition is commemorated in a new book, Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic, and the costumes are part of the Kent State University Museum permanent collections, so if you can’t get to the Lincoln Center Library, you may yet have a chance to admire these extraordinary reflections of a woman like no other.

Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen is at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts through January 12, 2013. Admission is free.

“Who the devil cares what a woman wears?”
Hepburn as Coco Chanel, a self-portrait.

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