On August 4, 1952, Life Magazine published a feature on Eartha Kitt, then 24 years old, who had returned from performing abroad to stake her claim on Broadway in a production titled New Faces of 1952. For the story, Kitt is photographed by Gordon Parks, who captured the dancer, actress and singer in Central Park playing baseball, taking a break from riding a bike and swinging from a maple tree, her feet arched as they dangle beneath her. In unpublished photographs taken by Parks for the feature, Kitt is captured stretching into different dance positions. Her outfit befits her outdoors meandering –– high-waisted denim shorts with a wide cuff, a collared, knit top complemented with a short string of pearls around her neck. In captions written by Kitt that appear on the pages like a photo album, she writes about her enjoyment of athletic activities such as biking which “keeps my body trim.”
At a Glance
Outside of the Balmain and Givenchy dresses that were typical to her onstage performances and public appearances, Kitt’s off-duty style –– a mix of dancewear and sportswear turned streetwear –– was shaped by her knack for movement and her penchant for deviance that spanned her career. She was often a step ahead of the ensuing trends, such as hot pants and bodysuits, that would eventually be adopted into mainstream fashion. Indeed, for Kitt to wear “short shorts” in the early part of the decade is notable (a prelude to the hot pants trend in the 1970s), if only for the fact that their mere length went against the acceptable gendered, fashionable mores of the times. “Acceptable” women’s sportswear styles discussed and advertised that year in magazines such as Vogue and Jet highlighted knitwear ranging from turtlenecks to matching sets combined of cardigans and knee-length skirts. Such sartorial choices as Kitt’s reflected her “embodied rebellion of respectability,” which was ever present in her vocal inflections and onstage and onscreen roles. Juxtaposed against Black women contemporaries such as Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll, Kitt was arguably an outlier. Writing of this contrast in her book Sounding Like a No, No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca Royster writes that “Horne’s and Carroll’s dominant onstage and offstage images most often signified gentility, achievement, sexual restraint, and socially approved class mobility—respectable images of black womanhood,” while Kitt was unabashed and more eccentric, taking on roles “associated with the sexual underground.”
Her most notable role was that of Catwoman, the antagonist in the 1960s television series Batman. The bodysuit that she wore during her brief stint on the show was made of Lurex – a yarn made from aluminum that gave off the glitter and shine – and paired with cat ears and a mask, allowing her to slink and move as she concocted plans for Batman’s demise. The look propelled the international performer into the style icon that she is remembered as today, but her catsuit was predated by her stylish spin on leggings and leotards. While another contemporary, Audrey Hepburn, often gets credited with the mainstreaming of leggings because of her 1956 film Funny Face, leggings had been a part of Kitt’s usual attire. Moving from South Carolina to Harlem as a young girl, she eventually fell into dance and went on to tour internationally with the Black-led Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Like many dancers, leggings and tights were a part of Kitt’s typical attire for rehearsals, but throughout the years, she amplified them in her own way. While Hepburn paired leggings with flats and white socks, Kitt covered hers with a wide belt or an oversized top cinched at the waist.
Well into her years, Kitt maintained her commitment to movement and personal fitness, complemented by styles old and new. In a June 14, 1973 issue of Jet, Kitt is featured on the cover that preludes a lengthy story about her youth foundation in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Several photographs include Kitt wearing a black leotard and head scarf teaching dance techniques to children in the program. In a feature published in the July 1993 issue of Ebony, Kitt, at 65 years old, is discussed alongside Halle Berry whose path was undoubtedly shaped by Kitt’s decades-long career. Berry is photographed working out with a weights machine wearing Joe Boxer shorts, a sports bra and Reebok sneakers. In a separate photograph, taken outside of Kitt’s home, Kitt is photographed stretching on top of a rock and wears a yellow velour sweat suit and what look to be Nike Air Pegasus, noting that despite her age, she continues to exercise every day. In one of her many final acts before her death in 2008, Kitt published Rejuvenate! It’s Not Too Late, her how-to guide on staying healthy both mentally and physically. The book, as Royster argues, is evidence yet again of “her ability to shape-shift and resuscitate her career.” On the cover, Kitt wears a black lace dress and arches her back in a way that harkens back to her pose captured by Parks 50 years earlier as she joyously swung from a maple tree. Evidence, within itself, that Kitt’s legacy not only lived on in her performances, but also in her dance with style that befitted a woman who knew what she wanted to do with her body.
In 2004, Halle Berry starred in the lead role in Catwoman as the second Black woman to play the character after Kitt. In recent years, Sanaa Lathan has voiced the character of Catwoman in the HBO series Harley Quinn and Zoë Kravitz will star in the role in an upcoming Batman film.
In addition to her style influences, Kitt was also a notable activist. In 1968, she was invited by Lady Bird Johnson to a luncheon at the White House. There, she spoke out against the Vietnam War. Afterwards, she was effectively blacklisted for years, returning to Europe where she could continue to perform. She eventually returned to the United States and began performing once more on the stage.
Black Women Entertainers on the International Stage
Kitt was a part of a lineage of Black women entertainers from the United States who found success in Europe. Before Kitt, there was Josephine Baker, who relocated to France in 1925 to perform at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in La Revue Nègre. There was also Katherine Dunham, who also performed at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and at the Prince of Wales Theater in London.
 “Eartha Kitt: She Branched Onto Broadway,” Life Magazine, August 4, 1952, 45-48. https://books.google.com/books?id=YFYEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA45&dq=eartha+kitt&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiZwIaU9KnxAhXFqp4KHU1yBPoQ6AEwAHoECAcQAg#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Francesca T. Royster, “Becoming Post-Soul: Eartha Kitt, the Stranger, and the Melancholy Pleasures of Racial Reinvention,” in Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 41.
 “The Science of Lurex,” The Museum at FIT, December 18, 2018. https://news.fitnyc.edu/2018/12/11/the-science-of-lurex/
 Robert E. Johnson, “Eartha Kitt Observes Seventh Year With Black Ghetto School,” Jet Magazine, June 14, 1973. https://books.google.com/books?id=p68DAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA56&dq=eartha+kitt&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwilybakteXxAhWsFjQIHXiYDyEQ6AEwBXoECAoQAg#v=onepage&q=eartha%20kitt&f=false
 “Running in the Fast Lane,” Ebony Magazine, July 1993. https://books.google.com/books?id=_MsDAAAAMBAJ&q=eartha+kitt#v=snippet&q=eartha%20kitt&f=false
 Royster, 37.
Article: Daniher, Colleen Kim. “Yella gal: Eartha Kitt’s racial modulations.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 28, no. 1 (2018): 16-33.
Article: Brooks, Daphne. “Planet Earth(a): Sonic Cosmopolitanism and Black Feminist Theory.” Cornbread and Cuchifritos: Ethnic Identity Politics, Transcultarization, and Transculturation in Urban Popular Music, edited by Wilfried Raussert and Michelle Habell-Pallan, 111-125. Tempe: Bilingual Review Press, 2011.