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Celebrated Customers: Ms Katharine Hepburn

Posted 02.11.18  - Heritage

‘I wear my sort of clothes to save me the trouble of deciding which clothes to wear’, said Katharine Hepburn, the only star to win four Best Actress Academy Awards, of her preference for masculine tailoring.

Her uniform of wide-legged, tailored trousers, oversize sweaters, men’s shirts and tennis shoes was as unfussy and educated as the woman herself. From the late 1960s until her death aged ninety-six in 2003, Katharine Hepburn wore shirts tailored by Turnbull & Asser and cashmere sweaters bought from the Jermyn Street store.

Hepburn’s masculine style was set as early as the 1930s when she, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo introduced androgynous chic to Hollywood. Dietrich and Garbo shocked audiences with sapphic kisses in Morocco (1930) and Queen Christina (1933) while dressed as men. But Hepburn’s preference for tailored clothing was rooted in sensible Yankee pragmatism rather than subversive sexuality.

Katharine Hepburn’s decades-long love affair with her co-star Spencer Tracey was a marriage in all but name and an open secret in Hollywood. She didn’t give a damn what her studio RKO thought or, for that matter, what anyone thought of her choices, sartorial or moral, off screen. As late as 1951 Hepburn stubbornly refused to forgo her beloved trouser suits when staying at Claridge’s to promote The African Queen. The hotel forbade slacks in the lobby so Hepburn took great delight coming and going via the kitchens and service entrance.

‘The Great Kate’ survived being branded ‘box-office poison’ in the 1940s and came back with two Oscar-winning performances in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968). ‘Katharine Hepburn was my customer’, says Turnbull & Asser’s then MD Kenneth Williams. ‘She first came to us in the late 1960s. It was always a firm handshake and a very business-like transaction with her secretary Phyllis Wilbourne in attendance. The first order was for a fine white Sea Island cotton turtleneck sweater made by Lyle & Scott to a man’s pattern. She wanted them cut especially high on the neck this being the time before ghastly face lifts. We repeated the order in white and ecru for the Hepburn turtleneck for years. We’d send them to her home in Connecticut’.

On one occasion Miss Hepburn visited when T&A’s American director Danny Zarem was in the shop. His brother Bobby Zarem, the legendary New York publicist, was working on The Lion in Winter. As Mr Williams tells it, Danny Zarem introduced himself to the star and tried to engage her in conversation about Bobby and the film. ‘Yes, yes’, barked Miss Hepburn in her corncrake tones, ‘you must excuse me but we’re keeping Mr Williams from his lunch’. Eric Humbles, who was managing T&A-owned James Drew in the Burlington Arcade remembers Katharine Hepburn visiting the shop in the early 1970s. ‘She was a very nice, very easy lady who knew exactly what she wanted’, he recalls. ‘We made her black silk tunic shirts with a mandarin collar’.

The strict uniform of masculine separates that Katharine Hepburn honed over decades with modest assistance of Turnbull & Asser allowed her to age gracefully. She famously never attended or collected her four best actress Academy Awards and only appeared once in 1974 to present an honorary award. For that historic occasion Katharine Hepburn chose to wear a loose mandarin-collared black coat and flowing black trousers with her white Sea Island cotton turtleneck sweater ordered from Turnbull & Asser.

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