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 was one of the films that reinvented Hepburn, along with The Philadelphia Story (1940). 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 made her more appealing than any 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. She was thirty-six at the time and it was her first film with Tracy. Every time these two great actors played together, it was a feast of talent. And Katharine simply radiates on screen, being at her most beautiful, her natural self, fierce, and confident, and learning that it is okay to be vulnerable, too.
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. The glow in the stars’ eyes isn’t just the result of trained spotlights. In her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, Katharine recalled that, before making their first movie together, Spencer Tracy said: “How can I do a picture with a woman who has dirt under her fingernails and who is of ambiguous sexuality and always wears pants?”. He then saw The Philadelphia Story and changed his mind, she continued.
But there was something more to their rapport and battle on screen, something they would soon have to deal with in real life as well: living a great passion, without either one being completely tamed by the other, without either one being anything but their own true selves.
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.
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, paired with a dotted hat and long gloves.
Her poise! 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.
Adrian put Katharine in a velvet smoking jacket with embroidery adorned fastening system, 20 years before the historic collection in which Yves Saint Laurent “invented” the women’s tuxedo. The designer was again ahead of the times, as velvet became very popular in the ’50s.
Katharine’s slacks 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. “Hepburn’s presence is always more radical than her films” and “this suggests why she is so important: her presence forces her films to go in directions they cannot possibly follow, adopt strategies they cannot fully sustain, raise issues they cannot adequately resolve,” says Andrew Britton. And I believe that when Hepburn emerges in trousers and a velvet smoking jacket, she is more Katharine Hepburn than Tess Harding. Adrian was ahead of the times, and Katharine was too. They were a perfect fit.
A dressing gown made up of black macro polka dot trousers and blouse. In an image from the set, Katharine appears wearing this costume while she is sitting down on the floor, leopard print heels on, smoking a cigarette, and flanked by George Cukor, Joe Mankiewicz and George Stevens. She simply looks cool, and in her element.
When watching this movie, one 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 realises 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 with scalloped detailing front and back, starting from the neckline. She is wearing it while she is trying, unsuccessfully (a spectacle for the audience), to cook breakfast for her man whom she wants to surprise. Sam finally reassures her that he doesn’t want to domesticate her on every front. He must know she will do as she pleases – taming her passion in order to remain herself, but learning that “love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get – only with what you are expecting to give – which is everything,” as Katharine would confess about her relationship with Spencer long after he had passed away.
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 vogue.it; Might I add that Vogue Italia has one of the best websites in fashion?