Member Trip Report: Visit to Kent State University Museum

This is part 2 of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s members’ trip to Kent State University’s Textile Arts/Weaving Studio and to view Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen at the Kent State University Museum on April 9. By Christina Gaston Membership Assistant Part II “They didn’t like me until I got into a leg show.” -Katharine Hepburn on HollywoodArriving at the stately Rockwell Hall, Kent’s one-time university library, we viewed the building as warm and welcoming as our host, museum director Jean Druesedow. As we admired the graceful museum, the thoughtfully restored elements of marble, woodwork and chandeliers in perfect keeping with the elegant 1927 Beaux Arts design, Jean charmed us with the tale of her most extraordinary acquisition. The collecting Kent Museum views performance clothes as finely-wrought emblems of character within the context of their respective role. And so it was only natural that Kent fulfill the legendary actress Katharine Hepburn’s explicit will to find a home for her collection with an educational institution, thereby acquiring the performance clothes of perhaps the grandest screen legend of all time.

Katharine Hepburn at 24 wearing her ticket to Hollywood.

On the majestic staircase, we gathered into the exhibition hall. To our right were five beautifully tailored pairs of pants. And with a knowing smile, Jean waits with perfect timing for the shock to set in. A collective gasp -- Hepburn’s waist was tiny. So unique, in fact, were Kate’s measurements that the museum was made to construct custom mannequins to suit her 20-inch waistline. Jean then addressed the challenge of cataloging a collection of such breadth. Using whatever means available, the museum was charged with bringing order to the unlabeled new holdings, and I am stricken with envy hearing of the lucky intern who watched countless hours of Hepburn films in search of visual clues. And those pants we’re admiring were among no less than 31 pairs of identical beige pants which required sorting. That tiny waistline proved quite informative in assembling a chronology as Miss Hepburn’s measurements expanded ever so slightly with age. We weaved though the displays, some costumes more familiar than others, before settling on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where one of the greatest Hollywood romances burned brightly for the final time. With actor Spencer Tracy passing away only weeks after shooting, Katharine Hepburn never had the heart to watch the film. I crossed to the stage costume side of the exhibition and joined the others gathered around a photo of Katharine as the Amazon princess Antiope in the play The Warrior’s Husband. Sadly, the costume had not survived, but the role it played in the lives of its maker and wearer is remarkable. The story goes that the young costumer who designed an ornament on Kate’s rather leggy Antiope costume was invited to Hollywood by none other than Cecil B. DeMille. His name was Shannon Rodgers, co-founding benefactor of the Kent State University Museum. And as for our Kate? She was immediately screen tested for Bill of Divorcementand the rest is glamorous Hollywood history.

Members enjoying a wine and cheese reception at the Kent State University Museum library

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