Style: Katharine Hepburn in ‘Woman of the Year’

With Woman Of The Year (1942) Katharine Hepburn emerged as the archetype of the strong yet feminine woman, whose battle of the sexes was not really a threat to the status quo, but merely a search for love. The movie, directed by George Stevens, was a success when it was released and it reinvented Hepburn. Katharine’s independent nature fit the patriotic vogue in the year the US entered the war, when women were increasingly keeping the country running as men headed off to the front lines.

But the movie did something else, it sexualized her in a way no other film had succeeded before. Tess Harding, the brash, polyglot, internationally inclined political affairs newswoman, falls in love with Sam Craig (played by Spencer Tracy), the crusty sportswriter. Every time I see these two great actors play together, it is a feast of talent I’m treated to.

If you have seen the movie, you certainly noticed the chemistry between the two stars. It was very much the real thing. There is a moment on the stairwell in one of the opening scenes when the electricity between Hepburn and Tracy nearly crackles on the soundtrack. Woman of the Year was the picture that brought the two together. The glow in the stars’ eyes isn’t just the result of trained spotlights.

Stretching her shapely leg across the screen, Tess adjusts her nylon stockings with all the allure of an Ava Gardner. Katharine is a temptress here, a role she had never played before. The famed couturier Gilbert Adrian, known simply as Adrian, carefully veiled over the eccentric Hepburn of the past with gowns designed to flatter her small waist and long legs. The stylist Sydney Guilaroff spun Kate’s hair into gold thread. Her skin was burnished to its highest sheen by the makeup artist Jack Dawn. Thirty-four-year-old Katharine Hepburn emerged, for the first time really, as a classical movies star, something not even The Philadelphia Story had succeeded to do.

How do you like that for a baseball game? A white day clutch and checked coat with matching gloves and wide brimmed hat.

Whenever I saw the publicity stills where Kate was wearing this outfit, I thought that was a striped top. In fact it’s a collarless, belted tailored jacket.

Tess is wearing all sorts of hats in almost every scene of the movie. This is such a beautiful coat, a clean and elegant line, again collarless (a detail I love in clothing, but have so much hard time wearing in winter if we talk about coats, as adding a scarf to protect your neck against the cold, wind or snow, would limit its effect), paired with dotted hat and long gloves.

Look at her poise in that shot! So noble and composed.

Tess wearing a gorgeous tweed cloak, with side slits. Adrian had already designed a black velvet cloak for his first muse, Greta Garbo, for Mata Hari in 1931, foreseeing the trend that would emerge five years later of long cloaks, reworked by French designers.

In a velvet smoking jacket (20 years before the historic collection in which Yves Saint Laurent invented the women’s tuxedo), with embroidery adorned fastening system. Adrian was again ahead of the times, as velvet became very popular in the ’50s.

Katharine’s pants had once caused consternation, but now the newspapers began to write that “every girl in her right mind” was wearing slacks. Hepburn’s empowering attitude and revolutionary style made masculine look elegant and prompted every woman to follow her example and every designer be inspired by her.

In a dressing gown made up by pants and blouse with black macro polka dots on a white background.

The little black dress.

When you watch the movie, you should pay attention to the way Katharine moves across the room in this scene. A lesson in style. Why don’t they teach that in school? In Woman of the Year, the age-old conflict between men and women takes on quite profound implications. While the first half of the movie is fun and sexy, the second half often feels dated to audiences today, especially when Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter), her aunt and a woman of career Tess has always looked up to, gets married and draws the conclusion that no woman should be “above marriage” and Tess realizes that having a career and a happy marriage aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Tess is wearing a pinafore dress, with side slits, and a white blouse. What I particularly like about the blouse is that it’s collarless (yes, again), with buttons on the back and it has a scalloped detailing front and back, starting from the neckline.

For the last ten minutes of the film we are treated to the spectacle of Tess unsuccessfully trying to cook breakfast for her man who she wants to surprise. Sam finally reassures her that he doesn’t want to domesticate her on every front. She can be both independent and submissive at the same time.

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images: stills from “Woman of the Year”, captured by me; kindly link back to classiq if you use any of these images / production credits
sources for this article: the book “Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn”, by William J. Mann, and; Might I add that Vogue Italia has one of the best websites in fashion?

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