Katharine Hepburn: Rebellious and Sporty

Over the past couple of weeks while preparing for the opening of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, I’ve been thinking a lot about Katharine Hepburn.

One thing that I keep going back to is her parents – and how much they must have influenced her. Hepburn loved sports and was fiercely competitive. Her father, Dr. Thomas N. Hepburn, was an accomplished athlete, and always pushed his daughter to excel and to never back down from a challenge. I imagine this must have been pretty rare in a pre-title IX world.

Hepburn reported that her mother, Martha Houghton Hepburn, was not very athletic, but she never tried to quash daughter’s competitive spirit, as you might imagine mothers in the 1910s would do. But Mrs. Hepburn was not your average early twentieth century mother!

Mrs. Hepburn never stood in the way of her daughters’ tomboy tendencies, and this may have contributed to Hepburn becoming one of fashion’s biggest icons! One of my favorite stories from her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life is about the day she showed up at school wearing her brother’s shirt and pants. Her teacher sent her home to put on a dress or skirt, like proper little lady. When she arrived home, her nanny changed her in to a dress and sent her back to school. The next day Hepburn wore pants to school and was sent home AGAIN. When she arrived back at school about an hour later, she was still wearing pants. Just as the teacher started to lay in to her, her mother rounded the corner and made it clear that it was her business what her daughter wore, not the teacher’s – Katharine finished the day wearing pants.

To see the garments that reflect Hepburn’s style, as well as her personal collection of performance clothes, visit the exhibition Katharine Hepburn Dressed for Stage and Screen on view until September 13, 2014. If you want to be inspired by Hepburn’s style, be sure to come to Kate Couture: A Hepburn-Inspired Fashion Show on May 10 – tickets available online.

 Andrea Rapacz is the Head of Interpretive Projects at the Connecticut Historical Society.

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