About Katharine Hepburn and classic style

About Katharine Hepburn and classic style

Hollywood’s Golden Age continues to inspire style enthusiasts with iconic figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Mae West, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Harlow, who still serve as timeless glamour idols with inimitable styles, inspiring creators, whether in Hollywood, the fashion industry or television production. Examples abound : Audrey Hepburn remains Givenchy’s most famous muse, every decade sees a new musical version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (from Madonna to Ana de Armas) and Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra keeps embodying the perennial Egyptian queen.

Aside from these widely recognized superstars, one exceptional figure often overlooked in style discussions (and exfiltrated from 'vintage' or 'haute-couture' fashion blogs) is Katharine Hepburn, who carved her own path in the world of fashion and cinema, and who remains a reference in sartorial design.

Born in 1907 and leaving us in 2003, Katharine left her mark on decades of cinema history, showcasing a style that stood apart from typical trends and magazine covers. Katharine defied sex symbol paradigms as she embraced her individuality both on and off screen.

Katharine on vacation at the Australia Hotel, Sydney (1955, Australian Photographic Agency, collection of the State Library of New South Wales)

As a suffragette’s daughter, the young Hepburn gets acquainted with American feminism and its principles such as women’s right to vote and the desire for social and economic independence. While art remains her priority, she stays grounded in the teachings of her youth and seems to  infuse her beliefs in the roles she plays. In addition to her intellectual and political aspirations, she creates a unique silhouette through choosing styles inspired by sophisticated masculine outfits.

She often wore wide-legged trousers, with a pronounced crease paired with modest heels; her bold and androgynous look, highlighted by daring shirt collars and polos, eventually became known as “the Hepburn style”.

Picture from Woman Of The Year’s film set (1942, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Katharine adopts a silhouette that stands out without apology, she takes inspiration from classic men’s style in a way that is both feminine and practical. "Every time a man tells me he prefers a woman dressed with a skirt, I tell him to try it on. Try wearing one", she reportedly told fashion designer Calvin Klein. To journalist Barbara Walters, who asked her in 1981 if she owned at least one dress at home, she replied succinctly: "Yes, Mrs. Walters. I have one, which I'll wear to your funeral".

Film set of Bringing Up Baby (1938) : Howard Hawks, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn on the film set of Undercurrent (1946)

In The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn’s character can be described as a mix of uncertainty and confidence, as she plays a young heiress trapped between her desire for freedom and her penchant for romantic idealism. She portrays a vulnerable, feminine girl with the determined allure of a woman finding her own place and role alongside her male counterparts, Cary Grant and James Stewart.

Marking her return to the spotlight after a hiatus, the audacious Hepburn believed in the production so much that she took a risk and bought the purchasing rights to the play. "I gave my life to Tracy's character," Hepburn declares. "And she gave me my career back”.

Katharine as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940), alongside James Stewart, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio
Cover of Stage magazine, during the promotion of The Philadelphia Story (1939), Stage Publishing Company, Inc., photograph by Vandamm

If there's one influence you can distinguish in Hepburn’s style, it's the unsettling androgyny of Marlene Dietrich, seen here in Josef Von Sternberg's Morocco (1930).

Katharine adopts the feminine tuxedo, characteristic of the world of nightlife as well as of feminist sartorialism, and delivers a particularly elegant and sophisticated version of it in her film Woman of the Year.

Satine shirt with a collar up and semi-gurkha waistband trousers : another idea of evening outfit 

The recurrence of horseback riding in Hepburn's films is an opportunity for the actress to wear pieces inspired by an equestrian wardrobe. These outfits also influenced her sartorial choices.

Katharine Hepburn in Undercurrent (1946)... You’ll notice the sophisticated cut of the trousers

Other costumes showcase the sartorial originality of an actress who actively shapes her characters’ appearance. Her style may defy perceptions of traditional femininity but offers a sober, piquant and daring reinterpretation of classic attire.

Undercurrent (1946)

Katharine Hepburn’s very personal sense of fashion introduces men's outfits to the women's wardrobe of the 1940s and 1950s, making her, both on and off the screen, a figure as inspiring as she is fascinating.

Cover picture : film set photo, Woman of the Year, 1942, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

We have indicated the sources when it was possible. We ask any potential owner of these pictures to contact us if any alteration needs to be made.

Translation by Agathe Vieillard-Baron and Sonya Glyn