Style on Display: Katharine Hepburn exhibit in South Carolina

Katharine Hepburn photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt for LIFE magazine in 1938.

When it comes to classic film actresses, Katharine Hepburn placed herself far from the crowd of studio starlets.

Her characters were strong, she didn’t attend Hollywood events, and she didn’t present herself in a soft, feminine manner.

“Kate wasn’t someone you could mold easily, that you could control,” said director Dorothy Arzner, who directed Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933).

And when you think of Katharine Hepburn, you think of her clothing—particularly her pants, something so innocuous now but an article of clothing “polite” women of the 1930s and 1940s weren’t seen wearing in public.

These pants and other items of Katharine Hepburn’s costumes and clothing are on display in the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC, as part of the “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” exhibit, running through January 14. The costumes are on loan to the Upcountry History Museum from the Kent State University Museum. The Hepburn Estate donated Miss Hepburn’s collection to Kent State University Museum.

Costumes from the play version of “The Philadelphia Story” at the Upcountry History Museum.

“It was Miss Hepburn’s wish that her personal collection of her performance clothes be given to an educational institution. Her other personal effects were sold in a Sotheby’s Auction for charity,” said Jean L. Druesedow, director of the Kent State University Museum in an e-mail interview. “Her executors discovered the Kent State University Museum through friends of friends and Gladys Toulis, the first director of the Kent State Fashion School.”

This exhibit has been two years in the making for the Upcountry Museum and is the first costume exhibit in the Upstate of South Carolina, said Dana Thorpe, CEO of the Upcountry History Museum.

“Based on my prior experience of working with the Kent State University Museum, I was well aware of the quality of the exhibition’s content, completeness, and the fact that it had not been exhibited in South Carolina,” Thorpe said. “The projects focus on an American film and stage icon, combined with its ‘Hollywood appeal,’ diverse collection of costume and film memorabilia, and its rich film history and nostalgia made it a perfect project for the Upcountry History Museum. Our mission is to connect people, history and culture through innovative programs and exhibitions and through scholarly research.”

The exhibit features 40 costumes worn in 21 films and six stage productions, spanning from the early 1930s to the 1980s. Film stills, posters, photographs, stage makeup and playbills also accompany the costumes. Stage costumes include the play version of “A Philadelphia Story” (1939) co-starring Van Heflin and Joseph Cotten, and her costumes for her role on Broadway as Coco Chanel. Film costumes include “Stage Door” (1937), “Adam’s Rib” (1949), “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959), “The Lion in Winter” (1968) and the ill-fated “Iron Petticoat” (1956).

Stage Door (1937)

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Iron Petticoat (1956)

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).

Lion in Winter (1968)

Katharine Hepburn’s pants are also on display—in which she owned 31 pairs.

The costumes have only been on display eight times. Other exhibits have been featured at the Kent State University Museum; New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center; the Appleton Museum in Florida; the Trout Museum in Wisconsin; the Connecticut Historical Society in Miss Hepburn’s hometown of Hartford, CT; the Vero Beach Museum of Art in Florida; and the Durham Museum in Nebraska.

When the costumes aren’t on display, they are stored in a temperature and humidity controlled area.

When I visited this exhibit, the thing that struck me (and anytime I see any classic star’s costumes) is how small Katharine Hepburn was—she had an 18-inch waist!

In the studio era, actors weren’t allowed to keep their costumes. If Katharine Hepburn liked a costume, she would have it made for her personal wardrobe, according to the exhibit. One example of this is the dress from “Suddenly, Last Summer” designed by Norman Hartnell.

The exhibit included costumes used for publicity shots for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), which weren’t used in the film. The costumes show signs of wear, suggesting Katharine Hepburn wore them in her personal life, according to the exhibit.

Some of Katharine Hepburn’s signature slacks.

Living in North and South Carolina all my life, there aren’t many classic film exhibits and opportunities that come my way, so the Katharine Hepburn costume exhibit was a rare and exciting experience. If you are able to travel to the area, you can enjoy it until Jan. 14, 2018.

For more information about the Upcountry History Museum’s exhibit, visit www.upcountryhistory.org. Learn more about Kent State University Museum at https://www.kent.edu/museum.

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3 thoughts on “Style on Display: Katharine Hepburn exhibit in South Carolina

  1. Oh wow, how cool! Yeah, Katharine Hepburn was teeny-tiny, but an 18-inch waist?? Man, Scarlett O’Hara would be quite jealous haha!

    Like

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