A Sight to Behold: Katharine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story”

“It’s so fun to do a really good comedy,” Katharine Hepburn would recall about filming The Philadelphia Story in her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life. George Cukor was one of her favourite directors and her “best friend in California”. “We made many pictures together – always happily. Must have had the same set of standards. We both adored the business – we loved to work – we admired each other. The same liberal point of view – the same sense of right and wrong”.

The Philadelphia Story was based on the 1939 Broadway play by the same name, by Philip Barry. Howard Hughes bought the movie rights for Katharine as a present. She had also starred in the play, having returned to the stage after her recent setbacks at RKO. She sold the movie rights to MGM, in return of complete creative control. She wanted George Cukor. She also wanted Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, but they wouldn’t do it. L.B. Mayer, the head of MGM, said they could give her James Stewart and she agreed. She brought along Cary Grant. And they did a great screwball comedy, and an effortlessly classy film, together. “The script by Don Stewart retained all the delirious humour and quality of the play” and George Cukor “was a wonderful director and this was his ideal material”, Hepburn said.

Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a tempestuous, hot-blooded heiress whose imminent marriage to her upper-class fiancé is disrupted by her former husband, Cary Grant, who pays her family estate a visit accompanied by two society reporters, James Stewart and Ruth Hussey. The film was the first time Katharine and costume designer Adrian worked together. He was one of the few American designers of the era capable of making an individual statement, and he had the incredible talent of letting an actor’s true personality and natural beauty shine through even behind the most extravagant gowns, especially when it came to the greatest nonconformist stars of the times, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.

In The Philadelphia Story, which would revive her career, Katharine’s goddess gowns, transcending the magnetism of her personality, highlight her beauty, vulnerability and her human and feminine side too little perceivable in her previous movies, and much of the merit goes to Adrian. The designer’s “challenge was to counter the perceived haughtiness that was sinking her personality,” Christian Esquevin writes in the book Adrian: From Silver Screen to Custom Label. “He did this with costumes that struck a balance between flair and elegant simplicity. Hepburn’s physique was the type Adrian liked – tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, similar to Garbo’s but with even thinner hips. She had a long neck that Adrian alternately encased in high collars and showed off simply in open necklines. He often used white in her costumes, reinforcing a flowing and classical line of purity and strength echoing Greek statuary.”

In an early scene, Katharine appears in a black pantsuit worn over a white blouse. The jacket is short and tight, with a high collar and without lapels, and has a large white breast pocket and oversized white buttons. Christian Esquevin writes that Adrian’s sketch for this trouser suit has producer Joe Mankiewicz’s penciled note to Hepburn. “Are you sure these too should be slacks? Fine by me if fine by you.” Katharine always used the word slacks to refer to trousers. And they certainly were fine with her. She is wearing another trouser look further on in the story, a sign that Adrian always tried to let her real personality seep into the character. The character in classic Hollywood movies was not just a character, it was an image, a star-making vehicle, a representation of both the character and the actor playing it. And Adrian was the kind of costume designer that let the real Katharine Hepburn, with all her presence and self-confidence, in on the screen. It’s easy to understand why the two of them stroke a beautiful collaboration. About The Philadelphia Story, Life magazine wrote: “When Katharine Hepburn sets out to play Katharine Hepburn, she is a sight to behold. Nobody is her equal.”

Adrian called the creation below a dance frock. Katharine wears this very pastoral American look when she encounters the pair of reporters. “It is composed of a red and white gingham skirt, flounced with four layers of ruffles stylishly placed on the bias, and a blouse of mousseline de soie, edged at the sleeve, collar and string tie in the same gingham.”

The most talked about gown in the movie is the Greek goddess white chiffon gown with stepped gold sequin belting and bodice decoration, emphasizing Katharine’s lean figure. The dress is one of Adrian’s Hellenic motif costumes he designed for the actress, emphasizing her patrician character in the movie. Cary Grant’s character, Tracy’s former husband C.K. Dexter Haven, comments in one scene that she “has the withering look of the goddess”. And her new fiancé calls her “beautiful purity like a statue”.

But the dress that best reflects her character and her transformation (a journey of self-discovery for everyone involved unfolds as the film seamlessly, wittily progresses) is the wedding dress, orchid-white, accessorized with a white-brimmed picture hat and chin strap streamers. Her midriff is protected with a smaller fabric “buckle” fastened by string ties. The weightless fabric, transparent silk organza, is beautifully fitting Katharine’s svelte silhouette and character. There is the real Katharine somewhere in that character. “Who is Katharine Hepburn? It took me a long time to create that creature.” But Katharine Hepburn always remained a tomboy and non-conformist in real life: “I just had good timing: the pants came in, the low heels came in, the terrible woman came in, who spoke her mind.” She had more than good timing. Katharine Hepburn was simply ahead of her times.


images: movie stills, Classiq Journal | credit: MGM

editorial source: Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, by Christian Esquevin / Me: Stories of My Life, by Katharine Hepburn

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