“Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen,” with Chanel Lipstick and a Teeny-Tiny Waist

In 2007, the Kent State University Museum received quite a gift. That year, the Estate of Katharine Hepburn entrusted almost 700 pieces of the actress’s personal collection of her performance clothes to the museum. Since then, students have been working on identifying the costumes, matching Miss Hepburn’s performance to the inventory of garments that arrived in Kent.

Now, the museum is hosting “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen,” an exhibition of almost 70 garments, hats, shoes and even a hairpiece and false eyelashes that belonged to Miss Hepburn. The exhibition continues until September 4, 2011.

For someone who grew up on the Ohio Theatre’s summer movie series (including selling tickets to them perched in the theatre’s outdoor kiosk one summer) – and someone who has been known to spend entire weekends watching Turner Classic Movies –seeing this exhibition was a must. So off we went to Kent yesterday.

Reaching the top of the stairs, we were met with an impressive, beautifully displayed lineup of clothes.  First, I noticed that a button had been replaced on what must have been a favorite blue button-down shirt that Miss Hepburn possibly wore in On Golden Pond. Then, a lineup of khaki wool slacks caught my attention. One pair was cleverly displayed upside down, mimicking a pair seen in a photograph behind it of Miss Hepburn doing a headstand. A trio of other slacks was lounging in various positions on a bench; still more were in different active poses, giving the illusion of movement.

But what I noticed most was how very tiny the waists of these garments were. This was especially pronounced in a gray silk chiffon evening gown from Stage Door, a gypsy-style costume from The Little Minister, and the well-known black silk gown from Adam’s Rib. According to a video clip of museum director Jean Druesedow which provided insight into the exhibition, these clothes were so small that the figures displaying them had to be specially carved to accommodate them.

Other favorite pieces in the exhibition were a little straw hat made by Hattie Carnegie that Miss Hepburn wore in Alice Adams, two trays of make-up (including Chanel lipstick, Max Factor powder and ChapStick), a chiffon nightgown from State of the Union, three outfits from her television performance in The Corn is Green, and a satin bridal gown from her 1933 theatre performance in The Lake, which she kept to remind her of the bad review she received from Dorothy Parker.

Ephemera associated with Miss Hepburn’s performances provide a helpful context for the costumes. Photographs, posters and movie magazines allow you to match outfits with their film and stage settings.  Drawings from The Philadelphia Story and a self-portrait by Miss Hepburn of her playing Coco Chanel are especially evocative of their era.

Besides helping to learn more about each item on display, the exhibition checklist also provides a way to keep track of how to emulate Miss Hepburn’s style in my own dress, abd which movies to watch again. When we’re not watching Elizabeth Taylor’s films, that’s what we’ll be doing in the weeks to come!

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