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NY show explores Katharine Hepburn as fashion icon

NEW YORK -- A new exhibition is hailing the fashion sense of Katharine Hepburn, whose trademark khakis and open-collar shirts were decidedly unconventional in the 1930s and 40s, when girdles and stockings were the order of the day.

The fiercely independent Hepburn famously once said: “Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, 'Try one. Try a skirt.'”

But skirts and dresses abound in “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which opens Thursday.

Hepburn, who died in 2003 at age 96, saved almost all the costumes from her long career that included four Oscars and such memorable films as “The Philadelphia Story,” “The African Queen,” “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” and “On Golden Pond.” Forty are on view at the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 12.

One of the first things visitors will notice is how slender Hepburn was — she had a 20-inch waist — and a grouping of seven khaki pants artfully arranged on a pair of mannequin legs.

“The fact that she wore slacks and wanted to be comfortable influenced women's ready-to-wear in the United States,” said Jean Druesedow, director of the Kent State University Museum, which was given 700 items from Hepburn's estate. Kent State was selected because it's one of the country's only museums of performance clothes.

“That image said to the American woman 'Look you don't have to be in your girdle and stockings and tight dress. You can be comfortable.' That was probably the first aspect of becoming a fashion icon,” said Druesedow, a co-curator of the exhibition.

The strong-willed actress known for taking charge of her career worked closely with all her designers to decide her performing wardrobe.

“They understood what would help her characters, what she would feel comfortable wearing ... how it would support the story,” Druesedow said.

Margaret Furse, an English designer who created Hepburn's wardrobes for “The Lion in Winter,” “A Delicate Balance” and “Love Among the Ruins,” went shopping with the star and talked extensively about what kinds of things would set the scene.

Among the highlights is a stunning satin and lace wedding gown created by Howard Greer for her role as Stella Surrege in “The Lake.” The 1933 production was her first major Broadway role and also a huge flop. Writer and wit Dorothy Parker described her performance as running “the gamut of emotion from A to B.” The experience taught Hepburn to have a bigger say in what roles she accepted, said Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, curator of exhibitions at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

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 Boston museum puts celebs in the picture 
A gown by Valentina, from the 1942 production of “Without Love,” is shown as part of the “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” exhibit in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Tuesday, Oct. 16. (AP)

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