EARLIER THIS YEAR Katharine Hepburn accepted an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the well-known not-for-profit organization whose goal is to record and present American fashion in the leading costume institutes of the country. Hepburn deserved the council's highest award, said Perry Ellis, president of the organization, , "because she showed us what American fashion was all about even before any of us thought of designing it."
At the awards dinner, Calvin Klein introduced the actress. "In her 42 films and in her life," Klein said, "she has truly epitomized the ultimate American woman. She's vibrant, she's outspoken, she's hard-working and she's independent and, fortunately for all of us, she's never been afraid to be comfortable. And for that reason fashion designers all over the world have a great deal to be grateful for." Responded Hepburn, with a grin, "Imagine the original bag lady getting an award for the way she dresses."
Klein has always been an admirer of Hepburn and was introduced to her over tea; they got together several times thereafter. At one of those meetings they talked about style, and their conversation was recorded for this interview.
Hepburn's is a style so personal it has become her trademark: a highly individual concept of femininity defined by intelligence, elegance and ease. She pioneered a way of dressing -- a turtleneck, trousers and loafers -- for comfort, function and freedom. Half a century ago it was thought of as eccentric; today it is the essence of the straightforward, confident, relaxed quality of American fashion. It's a way of dressing that continues to influence designers today, a prophetically modern attitude that affects the way women look, act and think about themselves. By setting her own rules, Katharine Hepburn set a whole new standard for American women.
CALVIN KLEIN: If I think about the modern, intelligent American woman, in relation to style and fashion, I think about someone who considers comfort, who considers practicality. But it has to come together in some kind of style that is very personal.
Where did your style start? Did it begin with your father? With your family?
KATHARINE HEPBURN: My father was like me. He had no clothes at all. He had a change of clothes, and he had evening clothes, and he had tails. That's it! They fit in one small cupboard. And the theory was sort of Scottish, you know. You had two pairs of shoes: one if the other one was wet -- and you had a pair of sneakers and you had a pair of pumps.
CK: I see your style as a kind of masculine one. You wore pants before anyone. How come?
KH: It was really because I couldn't abide stockings. And I think the short skirt is really fundamentally hideous. I mean, you are breaking the line that should be carried to the ground. I love things that trail. Or I like pants. I don't like short pants. I think certain kinds of shorts are acceptable -- long tennis shorts -- although it depends again on the legs.
CK: But pants, the turtleneck, that's the uniform?
KH: That's my uniform.
CK: When I think of you and I think of California, it would appear that you rebelled against that whole machine in your style. You were just the opposite of what Hollywood represented.
KH: When I first got to California, I wore a skirt. But then, hating skirts, I quickly went to pants. And then having a little money to throw away, I went to a good tailor and I had a suit made, and then I saw how long I thought the coat should be and how long I thought the pants should be and what shape I thought the pants should be. I was looking at line the way I look at line. I'm very line-conscious, more than detail-conscious.
Before that, when I was here in New York City I did not go in pants to rehearse or anything. I went in ratty clothes. A green tweed coat that I pinned together . . . and my hair was cierge, which maintained its neatness. I knew if it was kind of stringing down it would look as if I hadn't made any effort. I liked to look as if I didn't give a damn. I think you should pretend you don't care . . . but it's the most outrageous pretense. I said to Garbo once, "I bet it takes us longer to look as if we hadn't made any effort than it does someone else to come in beautifully dressed."
CK: Don't you think it's most difficult to achieve that kind of simplicity, or that kind of refinement or that kind of elegance? And don't you think few people really have it?
I mean, we are giving you this CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award because we think . . .
KH: Because I've lived so long.
CK: . . . because we think you are the epitome of style. And one wonders -- is this something that you learn? That you work at? Or is it something that just naturally develops?
KH: I think some of the style happened naturally -- the pants came because I didn't like stockings and I like low heels. I was comfortable in bigger clothes. I like the look of a double-sized sleeve. I thought my neck was too scrawny so I covered it up with a turtleneck. I have a little face, and I didn't want a great big collar with a little face coming out of it, so I had little collars. Practical.
I enjoy line. I am very aware . . . although I dress in rags. I think this conductor's jacket that I bought for two dollars and a half is sensational looking.
CK: Style really has nothing to do with price.
KH: Well, style has something to do with price because quality has to do with "hang." I mean sometimes cheap stuff can hang brilliantly. I used to buy dungaree sailor pants when they buttoned on the side. I had favorites, but then they got holes in them. I put patches in them just to say, "I don't care. Look at me, I don't care." I think I must have.
CK: So it is conscious.
KH: It's conscious-casual.
CK: And it's a true reflection of your personality in that there's that sense of independence, strength, "I'll be damned, I'm going to do it my way." What would happen when you were doing your films? How did you work with designers?
KH: Well, I would just say, "Make this skirt longer."
CK: Did you have approval on all the clothes?
KH: Yes, with Hollywood designer Adrian, with Walter Plunkett, another Hollywood designer . They were good friends, and I think they saw life, more or less, the same way.
CK: So there was a collaboration?
KH: There were one or two people who I would say were very conventional. They were sort of store-window designers. I wasn't too flexible because I figured what was becoming to me was becoming to me. I wasn't conscious of whether it was in style or not. I was only conscious of whether I thought that it was becoming to me.
CK: Doesn't every great actor or actress have the same sense about lighting?
KH: I don't know a damn thing about lighting. I have no idea. I have brains enough to know that if you are a woman, and they shoot you low so that you look tall and skinny, that's much better than if they shoot down on you so you look like a dwarf. In the most general sense, I know that. But I was very easy to photograph on both sides. Some people have totally different sides.
CK: Would you pay as much attention to your style of dressing in film as to your approval of script.
KH: Yes, I was fussy, damn fussy.
CK: Who was your favorite designer in film or who was the one who worked best for you?
KH: I think that Adrian and I had the same sense of smell about what clothes should do and what they should say.
CK: What about the films where you were dressed in a very grand manner? "Lion in Winter"?
KH: Oh, I love all that stuff.
CK: Who else?
KH: For the theater, Valentina was genius for me. Oddly enough, though we were very different, we could wear the same things.
I thought her clothes for "Philadelphia Story" were brilliant. That pleated dress was just a gem. And that dress was interesting because she had shown me some sketches, and I didn't think much of them. We opened in New Haven, and she came rushing back and said, "You're right, it's no good." George Schlee rushed down to New York and got one of her dresses. She was much shorter than I, and I wore her dress, which is a mystery. Then, of course, she copied it for me.
CK: What about Chanel?
KH: I admired Chanel personally very much. Her sense of style and my sense of style were totally different. She was wedded to a particular thing. She was a brilliant fitter. Wonderful tight armholes, but get the gun pointing a finger to her temple , as far as I'm concerned.
CK: How did you deal with it in the show "Coco" ?
KH: I just did. I was playing Chanel. In one scene -- where I talked about dear old daddy and he was dead or had deserted me -- I had an old robe upstairs, and I just wore that because I thought, "If you want them to listen to you, just paint yourself out or just be a sort of line and make them listen."
CK: Would you think differently for the theater about your clothes?
KH: Yes, because you have to think about the top for the movies. Not the whole thing. And the whole thing is what is interesting, really, in line. Isn't it?
CK: I think it's all total. I think about the makeup or the lack of it, or the hair. I'm really asking you about your philosophy. It's not just about clothes, it's about a total style. Whether it's just the hair hanging a bit or the shape that it takes; the jewelry.
KH: I just can't stand jewelry. If you put a dress on someone and they have a great big thing she makes a big circle with her fingers in front of her chest there, then you look there. I don't mind rings sometimes, and I don't mind earrings if they don't wiggle. But if you look at someone and they have something dangling on the screen, I'm looking at it.
CK: What about the shoes?
KH: I always thought you should make the heels as high as you can because ladies' legs are all too short in proportion to the length of their body. So grow up the legs -- you know, make them high.
CK: My personal preference is very high or absolutely flat.
KH: Or nothing. Don't make any effort at all.
CK: What about age and style? Your personal style has been consistent. It's worked at every stage of your life. But for so many women it doesn't. They look a certain way at a certain age and then it changes.
KH: I don't think you should ever look as though you have made a tremendous effort. I think it should be just a lucky happening. Now, a lucky happening takes a lot of time; if something is agonizingly perfect, it becomes exhausting, doesn't it?
And a person at a different age is interesting for a different reason.
CK: But what about the way one dresses at another age. Is it just an adjustment in what's comfortable for you?
KH: It's always been a question of comfort with me, and once in a while, if I think something is delicious, I'm willing to put it on for as short PAGE 46 a time as possible.
CK: Do you think of all those women who go through such pains about fashion -- because they think they should be wearing the newest thing of the moment -- as victims of fashion?
KH: Yes, I think that's sad to feel that you should be doing what somebody else tells you to do. I think that's a mistake. But I think designers have to have a sense of the world that they live in.
CK: Your style, did it come from you? Or was it someone else that influenced you?
KH: No, no one influenced me. I think that I must have been very self-conscious about my appearance, that I wanted to present something that looked as though it had just come out of the woods or something, and everyone thought, "I've never seen anything like that before."
I'm sure it was conscious. Conscious or subconscious. Then I'm sure, also, that I scrutinized myself, especially on the screen. And then, I was lucky enough to meet Walter Plunkett, for instance, and we just applied the same sort of rules. I did a test for "Little Women," with a legitimate hairdo for the period, parted in the middle and brought down in braids over the ears. Well, it was hilarious. I looked as if I had been starved for years. So we just invented that frizz in the front that was high that came from nowhere; it came because I looked just ludicrous, and I said, "You can't . . . look at that thing the braids ." It had no humor. It wasn't fun.
CK: Were you influenced by any of the men you knew at that time?
KH: No! I never dressed up for any man. If I thought he cared how I looked, I would have thought he was a fool. I really would have.
The men dressed for me, you know. Nobody ever made a pass at me unless I fully expected them to and welcomed the notion.
CK: Good for you.
KH: I'm rather a forbidding character.
CK: I think you are the greatest. Where does it come from, the sense of line, the eye? Is one born with it or is it learned?
KH: I think you are born with it. I see people who really can make nothing of themselves, male and female. They absolutely don't know how to do it! They can put it on and make it hideous.
CK: I have a heart attack when it's mine.
KH: I think that's a knack, an instinct that you have. I think it's a sense of proportion, don't you?
CK: I think it has to do with all the elements that we're talking about. It's color, it's proportion. It's knowing what's right. Ultimately, it's knowing what's best for yourself.
KH: And then knowing what's fun. A little sense of humor about it. And to look as though you hadn't been up all night figuring out what you were going to do with yourself.
CK: I think on behalf of all of us, of every American designer, you have set a style and you've set a tone for what is the modern American woman.
We appreciate what you had the guts to do: To go against what was happening. You represent everything that's modern.
KH: Isn't it funny. I see what you mean and I am very touched by it. I'm also very amused by it. I didn't do this alone. Walter Plunkett, Schiaparelli, Valentina -- they all contributed.
My good fortune and length of life is due to the fact that I am really an example of someone who was born at the right time for their shape, for their attitude, for their mentality, for their looks and for their sound.
I think you have to finally live long enough and satisfy yourself long enough, and then a bunch of kids like you think, "Oh, she's rather fun, isn't she. She's been doing this for . . ." and they sort of glorify you and I don't think you deserve it. I mean I don't think I deserve it.
CK: Well, you're alone in that opinion. You've been a great inspiration to all of us, not only because of the way you look, but also the way you've led your life. You're the best. Thank you.