Fashion Month! ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

Heading into the 1940s now for my contribution to Fashion Month and I’m so excited to discuss some of my favourite outfits from my favourite decade in film and fashion!

I love it’s entire aesthetic; how wonderfully it tells of it’s history and the many different options it held for women. From casual day dresses to beautifully tailored suits, from lovely and feminine swimwear to stunningly glamorous evening gowns, the 1940s was an era that combined traditional feminine beauty with the more modern idea of female empowerment. As WW2 raged and women entered the work force, they were beginning to realise their “working” potential and their clothing reflected their new found ideas.

The Philadelphia Story was released just on the cusp of the new decade and is therefore still partially rooted in 1930s ideals. It is a Screwball Comedy that examines the class wars as if still focused on the economic crisis of the Great Depression. However, before it was a film, The Philadelphia Story had been a play on Broadway in 1939 and although the War began than year, America did not officially enter the fight until 1942.

Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart and John Howard in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart and John Howard in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

Still fascinated by socialites and “high society”, the film was a huge success and Katharine Hepburn won great acclaim for both her performance on Broadway and her transfer of it to film. Her collaboration with Adrian on the gowns designed for the film present some of the most lovely and powerful looks of the early 40s!

Katharine Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a spoiled heiress who sets impossibly high standards for the people around her, including the men in her life. The first few outfits she wears reflect her sense of superiority. They are all a variation of the shirt and “slacks” ensemble and one that Hepburn herself popularised in the 1940s.

Katharine Hepburn in
Katharine Hepburn in “slacks” with Virginia Weidler in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

The first traditionally feminine outfit that Tracy wears is when she is mocking the idea of the perfect hostess; social and gracious and dripping with sarcasm! It’s a brilliant scene, superbly acted by Hepburn and perfectly complimented by James Stewart and Ruth Hussy as reporters who have arrived to cover Tracy’s wedding. Their comic timing is sophisticated and tight and Tracy’s overly-ruffled dress reflects the silliness of the situation and her disdain for the very thing she is mocking.

Katharine Hepburn in the
Katharine Hepburn in the “overly-ruffled” dress with Cary Grant and James Stewart in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

It is a lovely gown, none the less, and she wears it beautifully.

Most of the outfits worn by Hepburn in the film are designed to suit the character’s state of mind in whichever scene they appear in. When she is feeling vulnerable, she is always half dressed in either a swim suit or a dressing gown but when she is on the defensive, she is either wearing slacks or glamorous gowns representing “no-nonsense” and power.

Vulnerable with James Stewart in a dressing gown.
Vulnerable with James Stewart in a dressing gown.
On the defense in a pant suit with Cary Grant
On the defense with Cary Grant in a pant-suit.

Perhaps the most famous gown of all, though, is the stunning rayon evening gown that Tracy wears at a party given the night before the wedding. After being balled out by her father for not having an “understanding heart”, Tracy arrives at the party in one of the most glamorous full length, flowing gowns I’ve ever seen! Maybe it’s the way Hepburn holds herself but the dress is just glorious! It’s presentation in the film is, once again, to represent superiority and “goddess-like” high class as Tracy desperately tries to hold onto her beliefs, all the while questioning whether they are right.

Katharine Hepburn in my favourite gown from 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)
Katharine Hepburn in my favourite gown from ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

As a side note, this is my number one favourite Classic Hollywood gown in any film and I would give anything to see it in person! It still exists and is currently displayed around the world at various costumes exhibitions.

The stunning evening gown worn by Katharine Hepburn in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940) on exhibition.
The stunning evening gown worn by Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940) on exhibition.

The final gown that Tracy wears is her wedding gown which is a mixture of conventional femininity and modern empowerment. It is made of white organza which was traditionally used to achieve an image of feminine daintiness but it also sports a thick waistband which adds a layer of modernity and shows that even though Tracy has relaxed her guarded ideals and chosen to give her previously failed marriage another try, she is still a strong woman and is slowly beginning to find balance between her pride and her love life.

Tracy's wedding gown in 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)
Tracy’s wedding gown in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)
Katharine Hepburn wearing the wedding dress in publicity portraits for 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)
Katharine Hepburn wearing the wedding dress in publicity portraits for ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

Most of the costumes designed for Hepburn in the film version of The Philadelphia Story were based on the costumes designed by Valentina for the stage play but Adrian does a wonderful job of reworking them to suit the characters moods and development. They are some of the loveliest and most striking costumes of this early part of the decade and what with Hepburn’s sleekly tailored pant-suits and beautiful rayon evening gown they present an exciting glimpse of just where fashion will head into the 1940s.

Jessica-Ellen X

Caricature of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart in 'The Philadelphia Story' by Jacques Kapralik.
Caricature of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ by Jacques Kapralik.

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