Smashing the Mold (Inspiration Series, Week 13)

Katharine Hepburn defied the Hollywood norms and set her own standards for style and substance.

When Katharine Hepburn had her pants taken from her RKO dressing room by someone who deemed her wardrobe insufficiently feminine, she did what any self-respecting Inspirer would do. She walked around in her underwear until her clothes were returned to her. 

Becoming a star at a time when the ideal woman was most often catering to the men around her, Hepburn not only refused to give into the tradition, she openly flouted it. She oozed independence, with a command of speech and stature that would not be ignored. 

Born to a suffragette mother who campaigned for feminism and a father equally focused on fighting for social change, Hepburn was encouraged to think for herself from an early age. The negative reactions of the community to her parents’ unorthodox views only strengthened her own, a trait she carried with her throughout life as she bent norms wherever they appeared. 

Her career didn’t start with a bang. She was fired from several plays and panned in others before hitting it big with The Warrior’s Husband on Broadway in 1932. Success led her to Hollywood, where she would win a Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory – it was her second film. 

As her name grew, so did the certainty that Hepburn was not going to soften into a typical starlet. She argued with the press and generally shunned the celebrity lifestyle and its expectations; on one occasion she went after a paparazzi trying to get her picture; on another, she turned her attention to a woman who took a photo of her during a theater performance. Suffice it to say that lady left in tears.

She famously refused dresses and skirts as a requirement of her sex (in public as well as on set) and was often photographed in trousers, ignoring those who pleaded with her to feminize her angular body. Hepburn also eschewed makeup on occasion – in short, she did what she damned well felt like doing. 

Her love life fell equally outside the norms. It isn’t simple reconciling her romantic choices – including long relationships with difficult, married men – with the woman who seemed to put up with little bullshit from the world. Or perhaps it’s just another example of not being concerned about what anyone else thought. 

Surely Hepburn could have chosen to stand and pose for the picture, to wear the skirt, or to find a “suitable” mate. She still would have been a marvelous actor. It is that middle finger to convention, though, that secured her spot as an inspiration to so many, me included.

Seeing her choices, I can’t help but ask: How many times in my own life have I choosen to “go along to get along” in order to avoid conflict? How often do I allow expectations and concerns about “image” influence my actions? Perhaps most importantly, am I being true to myself?

It will always be easier to follow the playbook. And yet, by shunning conformity we open ourselves to that most elusive quality – authenticity, and to the freedom of living outside the lines. We can be a little more like Kate. 

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About Paula

I am a brilliant writer with the thoughts of a genius, the habits of a sloth, and the perseverance of an ant. View all posts by Paula

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