The 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 age 96, saved almost all the costumes from her long career that 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.
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 a pair of 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. That was probably the first aspect of becoming a fashion icon," 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 decide her performing wardrobe.
"They understood what would help her characters, what she would feel comfortable wearing ... how it would support the story," Druesedow said.
Margaret Furse, an English designer who created Hepburn's wardrobes for "The Lion in Winter," ''A Delicate Balance" and "Love Among the Ruins," went shopping with the star and talked extensively about what kinds of things would set the scene.
Among the highlights is a stunning satin and lace wedding gown created by Howard Greer for her role as Stella Surrege in "The Lake." The 1933 production was her first major Broadway role and also a huge flop. Writer and wit Dorothy Parker described her performance as running "the gamut of emotion from A to B." The experience taught Hepburn to have a bigger say in what roles she accepted, said Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, curator of exhibitions at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
When she really liked a costume she had copies made for herself, sometimes in a different color or fabric. A silk dress and coat by Norman Hartnell from "Suddenly, Last Summer" and a green raw silk jumpsuit by Valentina from "The Philadelphia Story" were among the pieces she had copied.
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 in an effort to persuade her to abandon them.
"Her response was to threaten to walk around the lot naked. Though she only stripped down as far as her silk underwear before stepping out of her dressing room, she made her point and she got her trousers back," fashion writer Nancy MacDonell wrote in an essay for the book.
But comfort didn't mean sacrificing style and she certainly knew how to be glamorous especially when a role called for it.
In her private life, she shopped at the major cutting-edge New York couturiers and worked with the best costume shops of the period, including Muriel King and Valentina, said Cohen-Stratyner.
"She really appreciated good fabric and good construction," she said. "Even her trousers are couture."
The exhibition is supplemented by film clips, movie posters, and archival photographs of Hepburn wearing the very costumes worn by the mannequins. Her false eyelashes, makeup trays and sensible shoes are also on display.