Emulating Katharine Hepburn’s Practical, Depression-Era Glamour

Katherine Hepburn from the 1930s wearing a black dress with graphic print blazer which is cinched with a belt next to a photo of a women posing in a similar outfit in a similar pose.

“It’s no longer smart to be chic … The new mode is casual, bold, chunky, and realistic.”

~ Vogue, 1936


The 1930s was a turbulent decade, to say the least. The market crash in 1929 which brought about The Great Depression left many people destitute. Those who had already been on the margins were left to scrap and scrape and hope they didn’t starve.

All of my grandparents survived The Depression, though I do wonder how sometimes. My maternal grandmother, who is 93 now, tells the story of how their family lived on a bank-owned plot of land in Oklahoma when she was a girl. Her parents couldn’t keep up on their payments, so guys from the bank came and took whatever they could find of value. This included the family’s only milking cow. Even decades later, my grandmother can vividly recall watching the men lead their cow away, leaving her to wonder–at a very young age–how they were going to survive. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was fiction but not because the things he wrote about didn’t happen. It was a rough time for a lot of people. (Side note: If you haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath, I highly recommend it.)

This photo was taken before The Crash.
This photo shows my great grandparents with two of my aunts before The Great Depression.

When the Market Crashed, Fashion Hit a Fork in the Road

The fascinating thing to me about fashion in the 1930s was how creativity flourished in spite of the tough times. Two camps with opposite perspectives grew out of the 1930s and it could be argued that those two branches continue to flourish in their own way today.

There was the New York side, which “embodied the nation’s values,” according to the book Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and StyleThis side focused on ready-to-wear styles that were mixed and matched and transitioned from one occasion to another. In more abundant times, women changed outfits several times a day.

Austere styles from the 1930s.
These aren’t fancy-pants outfits but they sure look fabulous! Photo from Marie Claire.

And then there was the Hollywood camp, which embraced over-the-top glitz and glamour. I’ll cover Hollywood’s influence on fashion in later posts, but it’s important to have a sense for what they were up to during that time, especially since the two camps were at such extremes.

1930s Actresses

There were some Hollywood superstars who seemed to side with the “little people,” at least when it came to fashion. Katharine Hepburn was one. Of all the actresses I studied for the 1930s, she seemed most at home in styles that were less glitzy. Even with such a practical style, she managed to pull off glamour in her own way. She embodied what Vogue meant when they wrote in 1936:

“It’s no longer smart to be chic….
The new mode is casual, bold, chunky, and realistic.”

Emulating Katharine Hepburn’s Classic Style

Katharine Hepburn’s style is, in my mind, classic. Don’t get me wrong — I adore the fashions of the frillier, drape-ier, fancier ladies from that era, and I hope to do their styles justice in future posts. But many of the outfits Katharine wore can be refashioned for today, whereas it’s more difficult to do that with some of those floor-length beauties worn by Joan Crawford and the like.

Katharine Hepburn in a cinched-waist blazer and black dress from 1930s.

I chose this photo of Katherine to emulate because of its timeless elegance. She paired a simple black dress with a novelty-printed blazer that cinched at the waist and a pair of adorable polkadot sandals. All these elements are considered fairly classic today but they are also special to the 1930s:

  • Cinched waist
  • The combination of black and white
  • Novelty and geometric prints and polkadots

Below is my version of Katharine’s outfit. As you can see, it’s incredibly similar and has all the same elements, but it doesn’t look like I’m wearing a costume from that decade.

An outfit inspired by Katharine Hepburn's classic style.
No good blog post is complete without a cameo appearance from the dog.

My modern take on Katharine’s look starts with an Eileen Fisher “Lantern” tank dress. That’s layered with a lacy Nanette Lepore blazer and an Eileen Fisher suede obi belt.

IMG_4145

The dress bows in at the hem, which gives it a unique shape. The jersey it’s made out of of drapes comfortably and moves with me when I walk. I’ve had this dress for several years but rarely wear it. (See last week’s Fab Collab with Jodie at JTouchofStyle.com for an explanation on why.) Given my newfound enjoyment of casual dresses, though, I think I’ll put this into my regular rotation as summer continues to heat up.

IMG_4134

The jacket is a thrifted treasure I found at Elite Repeat in Saint Paul, Minnesota when I visited there in May. Lace is another one of those details I rarely wore before I started this blog and met people like Jodie who encouraged/gently challenged me to try new things. As it turns out, I kind of like lace, especially when it doesn’t itch and it comes in such a unique geometric pattern.

IMG_4137

Another reason I chose to pair this jacket with the dress is because it has a kicky little pleat on the back, which gives the whole outfit a touch more shape and interest, especially after I added the black suede obi belt.

The shoes are Eileen Fisher as well — a bargain I found on eBay.

Not only does this outfit reflect some of the trends from the 1930s, it also kind of embodies the spirit of frugality and practicality from the day. The dress and belt were originally purchased at full price, but they are items that last and don’t go out of style. They’re investment pieces. The jacket and shoes were thrifted, which is my way of saving money and reusing something that is in perfectly good shape but which would otherwise go into a landfill. I like that.

Given everything that was happening in the 1930s, I think I’m going to enjoy playing in that decade for a while. The glamour from the 1920s was still around, but it was mostly in Hollywood and wasn’t accessible to the majority of people. Yet, planted in the ground of austerity, creativity took root and showed up in unique ways. Some of the ideas that were unique then are considered classic now. The idea of exploring both of these creative extremes makes me a little giddy. I hope you’ll join me for the ride!


Shop This Look:

Eileen Fisher Lantern Tank Dress (old): Similar  |  Nanette Lepore Lace Blazer (thrifted): Similar in Size 4,   |  Eileen Fisher Suede Obi Belt (old): Similar  |  Eileen Fisher Wedge Sandals (eBay): Similar


1930s Austerity Playlist:

For this playlist, I chose songs that reflected the tough times people faced during The Depression,  as well as their resilient spirits. Although these are modern renditions of the songs, each one was a major hit in its day, sung by people like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louie Armstrong.


Affiliate link disclaimer: Please note, the items linked above are affiliated with companies I am associated with. By clicking the affiliated links and purchasing from those stores, I might receive a small commission. I do not place these links lightly — any company I represent is a company I buy from regularly, including eBay and ThredUP. By purchasing from these stores, you support the work I do here and I greatly appreciate your support! 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • It’s amazing how your outfit can be considered a copy of the 30’s…I would totally wear this (in fact my mom did here: http://bit.ly/29t3gxV without the belt—and I put her in colored pumps although she would have chosen black ones if left to her own devices!!)
    I really think this dress can be extremely versatile if you play around with it! Even throwing a t-shirt over top will make it look like a skirt!! And those metallic sandals you wore in your sundress post would also work nicely!!
    And I admit the whole mix &match idea from this era is realistic—I mean, that’s real life for us, right?
    And I think I’ve told you before, but let me remind you how wonderful the soundtrack is you include in your post!! I love going to the bottom and playing it as I read the post!!
    jodie
    http://www.jtouchofstyle.com

    • Wow, Jodie! All three of you in that post could have stepped out from the 1930s! Your jewelry and shrug (which I LOVE!) would feel right at home there. The way Nancy is wearing her wrap is something I have seen in photos from the 1930s as well. But you’re right — your mom’s look is almost identical to the one I created using Katharine Hepburn as my muse! Is that cool, or what???

      For what it’s worth, I like the pop of color you gave to your mom’s look using shoes that were a different color. I really wanted to find some shoes similar to the ones Katharine wore in her photo in a bright orange or red, but I didn’t have any luck finding exactly what I was looking for, so I went with the black ones. I did think about wearing the metallic sandals from the last post! I put the sandal on one foot and the shoes I wore in the photos on the other foot and then asked Hubby for his opinion. He chose the black ones, so that’s what I went with. 🙂

      That dress is so versatile and I’m only now realizing it, thanks to you and our sundress post! The weather here has been a bit fickle — a little too cold morning and evening for dresses, but perfect for the afternoon, so I’ve decided I need to start changing for dinner in order to get some wear out of my sundress and this black dress that is so comfy!

      The mix & match that came out of the 1930s just makes a whole lot of sense. Coco Chanel really started that idea, along with a couple of other designers who were tuned into what women really needed in order to live real lives and not just stand around look like dolls in a jewelry box.

      As for the soundtrack — thank you for the feedback on that! I’ve been wondering if I should move it to the top of the post, but I’m afraid it will visually get in the way of the content. What do you think?

      Hugs,
      Sherry

  • Sherry, this was fabulous. I love that you are pulling inspiration from the past and building outfits perfectly wearable today. Black and white is always classic and I love lace. This jacket is so cute and cinching it in with the belt gives it a figure flattering appearance. Yay for thrift store finds!!! Great post! – Amy
    http://stylingrannymama.com/

    • Thank you, Anne! History and people’s stories/memories, like the ones you shared on your blog yesterday, fascinate me. This experience brings all my favorite things together: history, stories, fashion (and a little bit of music mixed in).

    • Thanks to Jodie at JTouchofStyle.com we have finally found one another! I couldn’t be happier for that. I am woefully behind in my blog reading and writing due to personal circumstances that have taken me away, but your blog is one I receive by way of email. I look forward to going through each post and catching up to see what you’ve been up to.

      Hugs,
      Sherry