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Katharine Hepburn's fashion sense on display

An exhibition opening Thursday hails 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.

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 96, saved almost all the costumes from her long career, which 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 at Lincoln Center.

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 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,' " 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 choose her performing wardrobe.

Highlights include a stunning satin and lace wedding gown created by Howard Greer for the role of Stella Surrege in "The Lake." The 1933 production was her first major Broadway role and a huge flop. The experience taught Hepburn to have a bigger say in what roles she accepted, said Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, curator of exhibitions at the Library for the Performing Arts.

When she really liked a costume she had copies made for herself, sometimes in a different color or fabric.

Comfort was paramount to Hepburn -- being able to throw her leg over a chair or sit on the floor. She always wore her "uniform" -- khakis and a shirt -- to rehearsals and pant ensembles to publicity appearances.

A companion book, "Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic," describes how RKO executives hid Hepburn's trousers to persuade her to abandon them.

In her private life, she shopped at the major cutting-edge New York couturiers and worked with the best costume shops, said Cohen-Stratyner.

The exhibition is supplemented by film clips, movie posters and photographs of Hepburn wearing the costumes shown on the mannequins.

Her false eyelashes, makeup trays and sensible shoes are also on display.

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