Katharine Houghton Hepburn, the film actress, was born in 1907 and became famous for her menswear fashion. In many ways, in most ways, she was her mother’s daughter.
Katharine Hepburn’s mother, Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, known as “Kit”, was a diehard, hard-nosed suffragist. By the time Kit was 16, her father had committed suicide and her mother had died of cancer, leaving Kit and her two sisters to fend for themselves. They were in the enviable position of having money, and their mother had not named a guardian, thinking that the children would be better off determining their own futures. After push and pulls with an uncle (a bigwig at Corning Glass; yes, Those Houghtons) who felt a girl should go to a finishing school, not university, Kit enrolled at Bryn Mawr College. By the time Kit was in her early thirties, she’d married, had two of her six children, and co-founded the Connecticut Suffrage Association (later part of the NAWSA). After the 19th Amendment was passed, Kit turned her attention to family planning (meantime, Kit continued to have children every two years, stopping with number 6), and helped found, with Margaret Sanger, what ended up as today’s Planned Parenthood. The blogger Margaret Perry has more information about Kit’s activism if you are interested.
Here, Kit is in a 1890s version of male drag. While the outfit looks subversive to 21st-century eyes, the women’s jacket with puffed shoulders and narrowed waist, the men’s celluloid collar, and the skirt were quite popular among young women in 1899. This style emerged with the popularity of the two-wheeler safety bicycle — a bicycle with functional steering, brakes, and two similar-sized wheels. Women took to the bicycle and upended societal norms about women’s activities. The bicycle let women exercise in public, it allowed them to travel distances and most especially, it gave women the ability to move out of the purview of adults intent on governing their actions.Kit’s lucky: she looks like an advertisement drawing rather than a real teenage girl. Dashing and brave, she was.
By the time Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born, her mother Kit was fully engaged in the fight for the woman’s vote, and later, for safe birth control. When Hepburn first appeared in film in 1933, she was lucky. The rise of the strong female lead was just starting, and Hepburn’s quirky voice, that angular body inherited from her mother, her sharp features, and her very edgy personality found a home in the movies until 1938, when she fell out of favor partly due to her liberal political views. Hepburn bought her way back into film, using her own money to star in the fabulous hit, Philadelphia Story, in 1940. She was so unbelievably smart: she bought the film rights to the hit Broadway play. The Broadway play was written for her, and she backed the production with her own money Hit! Then she turned around, sold the film rights to MGM, controlled the production to the nth degree, and again, Hit! After that, often paired with the perennially popular Spencer Tracey, she stayed in film until her late 80s.
Along with her unusual looks, Hepburn bucked the rule that women had to wear skirts. She was tall (5’8″) and thin, athletic and bony. She wore pants, and especially, she wore menswear. In many ways Hepburn was antagonistic to the gendered standards of the 1930s to 1950s, both in her personal relationships and in her career choices. The pants and blazers, the top coats and loafer shoes, resisted the ways women were supposed to be. And it helped that she looked elegant and chic in each and every outfit.
Let’s analyze these outfits carefully, because what she pulls off is rather extraordinary. First, in the vertical image she wear flowing light-colored pants and a cream-colored mock turtleneck, loafer shoes, a broad-shouldered topcoat and a man’s briefcase on a long strap. The black gloves match the shoes and bag. The collar is carefully turned up — Hepburn was self-conscious about her neck, believing it to be too long, and almost always turned her collars up and avoided jewel neck collars. In the second image, top right, her loafer shoes have a slight heel, her jacket and pants match and are slightly oversized, she again wears a ivory top, and dark-colored socks. In the bottom right image, a studio photograph, we see a men’s tailored shirt with military-inspired pocket detailing, tweed oversized pants, and once again, an ivory collar layered over the darker toned men’s shirt. The white or metal buttons of the shirt pick up the highlighted color of her collar.
Two more images. Again, loafer shoes (here, a young Hepburn wears, perhaps, Bass penny loafers, and the bottom of those shoes attest most gratifyingly to the fact these were her everyday shoe choice), white socks, very loose and oversized pants, a slightly cropped sweater and the ivory-toned collar peaking out from the light colored sweater. In the second image to the right you can see the building blocks of her style clearly: black or dark brown loafer shoes, white socks, loose flowing pants, an oversized blazer with extended shoulders, and next to the face, always white or ivory. You can easily imagine Hepburn in 1934 or so, being told by a lighting man that she looked best with something up her neck and light-colored, and so, sensibly, she followed that rule the rest of her life.
Vanity Fair published an online essay that claimed the ‘most daring thing’ about Hepburn was her pants. This isn’t true, of course, but the trousers are an easy shorthand to what did make Hepburn’s career so interesting and so revolutionary. She did not remake Hollywood in her own image, but in a period in film history when studios remade actresses into the image the studio wanted, Hepburn was able to convey — often through style, and more potently through her own words — a sense of personhood that stood apart from the industry. At the height of the hyper-feminine late 1950s, the film Desk Set of 1957 saw Hepburn in wonderful masculine uniforms of, in this scene, a black very tightly tailored button vest and full skirt, and, why yes, of course, an upturned collar on a white shirt, rolled up to the elbows and ready for work. She was, in fact, her mother’s daughter.