Katharine Hepburn famously once said, "Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, Try one. Try a skirt.” As an actress operating within a controlling Hollywood studio system, Hepburn’s on and off screen looks demonstrate how she remained very much in control of her image throughout her career.

I have long been an admirer of Katharine Hepburn, not least for her long and prolific film career that achieved four Academy Awards and twelve nominations. It was during the process of researching Women Fashion Power that I really came to appreciate her impact on fashion. As I searched for images of powerful women through history to inform a timeline within the exhibition, I came across a striking image of Hepburn, in which she appears informal and relaxed wearing a white shirt and wide-legged trousers. For women in the 1930s, trousers were considered unconventional, even subversive. The image of Hepburn implied a resistance to conform to the highly stylized, heavily made-up glamour girl looks promoted by the major Hollywood studios.

ICON

Katharine Hepburn
by Donna Loveday

Donna Loveday is the co-curator of the brilliant exhibition Women Fashion Power: not a multiple choice currently on show at the Design Museum in London. The exhibition charts a remarkable survey of how women have used fashion to define and enhance their position in the world. The sense of female solidarity within the show is also indicated by the commissioning of the inimitable architect Zaha Hadid to design the museum walkthrough and displays. Women Fashion Powerbrings together exclusive interviews, an immersive multimedia journey, and unique historic pieces of clothing. Alongside looking at the archives of iconic late greats, the curators have also invited contemporary women to contribute one of their outfits to display, as well as sharing their personal style philosophy. For her Riposte Icon, Donna Loveday chose Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn managed to hold onto her inspirational and fiercely independent look, despite working within a formidable and sexist early Hollywood environment.

 

Hepburn could be glamorous in both high fashion gowns and in shirt and trousers. In her acclaimed film, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1939), she moves effortlessly from trouser suit to swimsuit to evening gown to wedding dress. Her lasting influence is the fact that her public image communicated the possibility that women could wear what they wanted when they wanted. When asked why she took to wearing trousers Hepburn said: “I like to move fast, and wearing high heels was tough, and low heels with a skirt is unattractive. So pants [trousers] took over.” She looked powerful in trousers. When asked about her approach to fashion, she said “I wear my sort of clothes to save me the trouble of deciding which clothes to wear.” She wanted to be comfortable and she was being herself.

Hepburn’s look has been described as a “no-nonsense, all-American style” but it is a look that has exerted a huge influence on modern fashion. Katharine Hepburn is my cultural icon - a woman for who style was power.

Donna Loveday

Women Fashion Power: not a multiple choice is on show until 26 April 2015. The BFI are running a Katharine Hepburn season from 1 February – 19 March 2015.