Wide Trousers and Eye Rolls: Saluting Katharine Hepburn

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Katharine Hepburn
via Wiki Commons

“I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to”: 14 years after her death, we celebrate the outspoken actress' unapologetic sense of style

Stockings are the devil’s work. According to Katharine Hepburn, they are simply too much of a faff to bother with. The American actress preferred comfort, opting instead for easy tailored trousers which became as well-remembered as her roles in Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story and The African Queen. For a woman to be wearing trousers in the 1930s was a sure sign of rebellion. Speaking of her lifelong love of the trouser suit in 1986, she told The New York Times: “In England I’m sure they didn’t think anything at all… In California I think they just thought I was queer.”

Hepburn was discerning as hell. In fact, she was a snob. Miraculously, it’s what caused audiences to fall in love with her stubborn characters, and their funny clipped New England lilts. This discernment also meant she refined her wardrobe with hawk-eyed precision, into a collection of wearable and classically handsome clothes, to match the life she led. A keen tennis player with athletic arms, she bought only from designers who favoured large armholes. She liked to wear a thick white American sports sock, on and off-court. With a sweater flung over her shoulders, she was the pioneer of the American sportswear look – Calvin Klein adored her. She was, and continues to be, a muse to many.

Defining Features

Hepburn had her suits made by Eddie Schmidt, the Beverly Hills tailor who also stitched for Clark Gable and Spencer Tracey, Hepburn’s long-term partner. She was impartial to a neat dolman shoulder, and when in London, she stopped by H. Huntsman and Sons on Saville Row, where one tailor joked that she liked trousers three sizes too big, so they “billowed like ship’s sails as she walked”.

In older age, Hepburn wore men’s turtlenecks, starched white shirts, suede clogs and occasionally, Nike trainers – always achieving that enviable feat of comfort and poise combined. That’s not forgetting her love of slacks – a collection of her clothes, donated to Kent State University, Ohio after her death in 2003 contains 30 pairs of custom-made pairs in various shades of tan.

Seminal Moments

Born in 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, to eccentric and political parents, Hepburn was encouraged to be confident and outspoken from a young age. She was taken on Votes For Women marches by her Suffragette mother, and as a tomboyish child, she cut her hair short and liked to be called Jimmy. In her early days on set, one studio, so outraged by her blue jeans, confiscated them while she was filming, and she insisted on roaming in knickers until they were returned. She challenged ridiculousness where she saw it, even if her attitude was ahead of its time.

One constant throughout Hepburn’s lifetime was a skill in projecting utter confidence. Regardless of what was going on inside, on the outside she didn’t give a damn. Despite winning four Oscars throughout her 60-year career, she attended the ceremony only once, aged 67 in 1974, to present an award to a friend. Dressed in black slacks, a matching nehru jacket with its mandarin collar folded once, she was the coolest person in the room. And that’s saying something – this was the same year in which a streaker leapt across the stage. With her grey hair piled atop her head and flat black sandals, Hepburn showed that your clothes should always elevate, rather than overshadow your ability to get the job done.

She’s AnOther Woman Because... 

Katharine Hepburn was a rarity in the golden age of Hollywood, when the industry’s most bankable actresses were expected to be feminine, submissive and soft. Instead she was strong-willed, unusual, eccentric and outspoken – exactly the sort of person to take cold showers well into her 80s because it was “character building”. Describing her own life, she said: “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to and made enough money to support myself, and I ain’t afraid of being alone.” Most importantly, Hepburn bestowed us with the confidence of wearing whatever the hell we like, even if it freaks people out. And she taught us that it’s okay to eyeroll at idiocy when you see it.