Los Angeles in the 1940’s immediately makes one think about the smell of cigar and

pipe smoke in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel. You glance over and see Spencer

Tracy with his main squeeze Katherine Hepburn sitting down for a drink after a long

day of production. You may notice movie stars coming and going, and famous

producers talking about upcoming motion pictures with budding young actors. In

the wings, Edith Head may be over in the corner working with a prospective

costume manufacturer and it’s at this point that you notice something more than the

people; you notice the fashion and the individual expressions behind it.


Let’s first take a look at Ms. Katherine Hepburn and the idiosyncratic approach to

fashion and what the critics called “rebel chic” fashion. Starring in motion pictures

from screwball comedies to literary dramas, Katherine was daring, talented,

beautiful, determined and above all a fashion trendsetter. Before David Bowie and

the androgynous style he made popular in the 1970’s, Ms. Hepburn was making

these huge fashion leaps starting in the 1940’s. She would utilize menswear-

inspired blazers, button-down shirts, trousers, and even loafers which would

eventually carve out a style all her own. For 60 years she dazzled the silver screen

and her style was a reflection of how the role of women was changing in the broader

sense of American society. By simply donning a pair of trousers, she flipped

contemporary fashion on it’s head; and by challenging the norms women followed,

Katherine established a unique sense of American casual style that many designers

have attempted to copy to this day. Her informal laid-back yet elegant approach to

fashion on and off the screen is the basis for that quintessential American style that

permeates fashion today.


Although Rita Hayworth’s career began in the mid 1930’s, it wasn’t until the 1940’s

where she started having her clothing professionally designed and manufactured for

her. During the genesis of her career at Fox and subsequently at Columbia Pictures,

Hayworth would pose for hours in the portrait gallery having her picture taken over

and over again in the movie studios most stunning gowns and swim wear. It was at

this point that a designer named Robert Kalloch created Rita her first specifically

designed wardrobe for the film The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. From that point forward

custom fashion became synonymous with Rita Hayworth.


In turn, this custom approach to wardrobe design spurred Ms. Hayworth’s press

agent into a publicity coup with popular fashion publication at the time Look

Magazine to get Ms. Hayworth named “Best Dressed Girl in Hollywood.” Costume

designers started using Rita’s fashion as a dynamic and dramatic aspect of the films

that she starred in. With designer Travis Banton heading up the costume design of

the film Blood and Sand, he chose to make a more form-fitting Spanish style dress

for a specific scene that would make the interaction sizzle with co-star Anthony

Quinn. Banton created a mood not only for the film but also Hayworth herself as she

was generally seen as shy and timid person and this scene called for a femme fatale.

Throughout her career Rita would gain notoriety with her fashion with whoever she

worked with; her spread in Life Magazine with “The World’s Most Costly Gown” as

well as all her work modeling the latest in swim wear would make her a household

name with both fashion and the American public throughout the 1940’s and beyond.

Although both of the aforementioned 1940’s starlets careers spanned decades, their

individual fashions couldn’t be further from one another. While Hepburn opted for

timeless American elegance, Hayworth went all in with custom one-off dresses and

swimwear; but both of their contributions have shaped cinematic and every day

fashion to this day. Ms. Hepburn made it ok to experiment with fashion often

dipping into areas of fashion that females had never been before. While Rita

reinforced high Hollywood fashion that only a few people had the pleasure of

knowing. Regardless of which style that you may prefer or personally associate

with, you cannot overlook the importance of these two 1940’s starlets and their

contributions to fashion and costume design.