was around 10 years old when I first saw Katharine Hepburn glide across the screen in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. Dressed in riding boots or an embroidered evening gown or a bathing cap, she exuded a self-possessed grace and delivered withering one-liners in a steely voice. She went swimming at midnight and said things like “My, she was yar.”
Soon I was printing out pictures of my newfound idol to make collages for my bedroom wall. Her collared shirts, her menswear inspired blazers, that hot rolled hair — she was the epitome of refined glamour. I was hooked. Particularly throughout the awkward horror of middle school, she served as both style icon and role model, her confidence like a beacon.
Her spirit of defiance imbued my girlhood with a fierceness for which I’m grateful. I delivered my own one-liners on the playground and I felt a confidence in my abilities that many girls my age did not share. I also wore some truly hideous khakis from the Gap that I thought were Hepburn-esque but most certainly were not. (She owned 30 pairs of custom-made tan slacks.)
I dabbled in plenty of ‘90s trends — my collection of power beads, butterfly clips and snap bracelets can attest to that — but throughout my childhood and into adolescence, I was drawn to more classic styles. My mother owned a set of hot rollers that I would use on my hair for special occasions, and fitted blazers were a part of my wardrobe at an age when it was more weird than cool. I found comfort in reconfiguring styles that had been appreciated not only by Hepburn, but also by strong women in my own family. In high school, my grandmother gifted me pieces of beautiful costume jewelry from her mother, a first generation Italian immigrant who, like Hepburn, was prone to wearing pants, playing sports and asserting her independence.
It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I found a new idol. She wore babydoll dresses and smudged lipstick and sang lyrics like, “Slit me open and suck my scars.” When I discovered Courtney Love, I experienced that same sense of Hepburn awe. It was like breathing out a grunt I hadn’t realized I’d been stifling.
A rage I had tried to push away crawled back in those years, and I found myself less interested in presenting a polished face to the world, as Hepburn did. I felt like a different woman, eager to embrace a new vision of womanhood in all of its messiness and pain. Listening to the music of Love’s band Hole, I heard some of my own experiences reflected: toxic relationships, assault and above all of it, anger. I saw that anger embodied in Love and in her so-called “kinderwhore” aesthetic, with all of its femininity chewed up and spat out. I traded in my pearls for fishnets.
Everything Love wore was a little off — too tight, too short, ripped. Her attitude was like a dare. At age 18 in a personal experience that was laughably on the nose, I was once turned away from services at a Catholic church for having a run in my tights. Later I took a disposable razor to those tights and shredded them beyond recognition. I still wear them, and they look better than ever.
Love’s style was a far cry from the pantsuits of Katharine Hepburn, but the contrast alone isn’t why I liked her. I admired her bravado, the likes of which I had only witnessed in men, alongside a will to survive I had rarely seen in anyone. Like Hepburn, she had substance, too. Her 1994 album Live Through This is a work of art, winning Rolling Stone’s Album of the Year. It was so good that some critics insisted Kurt Cobain must have written it, refusing to believe that a woman — let alone this woman — had created it. But she was an ambitious rock star in her own right, and that’s part of why people hated her: for doing a man’s work in a little girl’s clothes.
“It was about intentionally taking the most constraining parts of the feminine, good-girl aesthetic, inflating them to a cartoon level, and subverting them to kill any ingrained insecurities. It was about taking back the power and screaming, ‘You want the female sex? Here you go,’” punk singer Mish Way wrote of the kinderwhore aesthetic Love was known for.
Courtney Love and Katharine Hepburn seem to have little in common, one a grunge rocker and the other a put-together prepster. For many years, I believed they represented a dichotomy in both my style and my personality, as if I were a divided closet full of ripped band t-shirts and tailored trousers. But the more time I’ve spent watching, listening and reading about them over the years, the more I’ve come to see them as kindred spirits.
In the intervening decades since the height of Hepburn’s fame, much of her radicalness has been erased from public memory. If young women today know who she is at all, they don’t think of her as fundamentally different from Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner or any number of 1940s starlets. But when Hepburn first arrived in Hollywood, she was far from the image of a mid-century damsel.
Early movie reviews called her “too masculine, too rough,” and her penchant for wearing pants served as a severe act of gender transgression at a time when sporting “men’s clothes” could still land women in jail. Director George Cukor once described her in a way that might shock fans of her charm, saying: “The audience had never seen a girl like that — she seemed to bark at them. She didn’t play for sympathy at all. At first, the audience wasn’t quite sure whether it liked her or not.”
Not so different, in the end, from Love. While these two women’s legacies might be diverge, they both rejected the expectations forced onto women and embraced their nonconformity. They stood at the apex of transgression, femininity and power and helped me find my own path to self-expression.
Today, I’ll mix in some 1940s touches with a punk look, wearing a faux fur coat with combat boots. I feel more at ease in my own body, sometimes poised and other times very much not. I’ve found freedom in celebrating women who have different approaches to what is ultimately the same cause, because it’s allowed me to do the same. Plus, I never have to worry about getting a run in my tights, and there’s freedom in that, too.
Jess McHugh is a New York-based journalist writing about the intersection of culture, politics and other things that strike her fancy. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Nation, TIME.com, Village Voice, International Business Times, CNN, and The Believer, among others. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Feature photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.