The fashion rebel

Times Staff Writer

To modern eyes, Katharine Hepburn’s trademark wide-leg slacks, man-tailored shirts with upturned collars, high-neck sweaters and trench coats are simply classic, comfortable clothes. For her time, they were revolutionary.

Although the actress, who died Sunday, began wearing variations of the look in the early 1940s, it wasn’t until fashion shifted to the ultra-feminine styles of the 1950s that she was routinely cast as a fashion rebel. Hepburn, the daughter of a suffragette, roamed comfortably around the set, or her Connecticut home, while other women squeezed themselves into girdles and teetered on high heels. She rarely hid her freckles behind makeup, while other actresses obsessed about every nuance of their appearance.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 2, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Katharine Hepburn -- Photo captions in a fashion appreciation of Katharine Hepburn in Tuesday’s Calendar gave incorrect information. One photograph, which mistakenly was described as a 1945 portrait, was taken in the mid-1930s. Another, in which the actress sported a boy’s haircut, was from the 1936 film “Sylvia Scarlett,” not 1933’s “Christopher Strong.”

Hepburn even managed to incorporate her off-screen style into her on-screen costumes. The upswept hair, the trousers and more became trademarks, whether she was a librarian in “Desk Set,” a socialite in “The Philadelphia Story” or a drug addict in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” She essentially dressed as herself in “On Golden Pond,” in which she played loving wife to the grumpy Henry Fonda.


Against her many leading men, including Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant and John Wayne, Hepburn held her ground. Although she was reportedly only 5 feet 7, she carried herself like a tall woman, an effect that was amplified by her preference for sleek tailoring.

Hepburn had so completely integrated her personal style into her public identity that her look resisted attempts to transform it. When she played fashion legend Coco Chanel in the 1969 stage musical “Coco,” her style infiltrated even the Chanel look. There, above the jewel neckline of a classic, boxy Chanel jacket was a turtleneck blouse -- Hepburn’s signature, not Chanel’s.

The high necklines weren’t just an affectation adopted to hide the signs of age, although they did that well in her later years. They were part of a no-nonsense approach to clothing that was nearly taboo for its masculine leanings.

“It was almost scandalous that she wore pants,” said Marjorie Plecher Snyder, a former costume supervisor who worked on “Desk Set” in 1957. “It was an unheard-of thing.” Like many leading ladies of her day, Snyder said, Hepburn simply knew what worked on her athletic body, with its long neck and limbs. While the press routinely recorded Hepburn’s trouser-clad appearances as if they were transgressions, every photograph helped direct women to new ways of dressing.

Hepburn, not Giorgio Armani, most helpfully advanced the cause of androgynous clothing for women. The teenager who once cut her hair short and called herself “Jimmy” Hepburn explained her style in a 1975 interview with Ladies’ Home Journal, in which she said: “I’ve dressed this way for 40 years, just because I had brains enough to know that certain kinds of shoes were comfortable and keeping up stockings is uncomfortable.” The idea took 20 more years to catch on.

Katharine Hepburn was all business and always casual. Her style matched her character, on and off the screen. The tough-talking, strong-willed and intelligent women she portrayed weren’t bound by convention, and neither was she.