Monday 9 December 2019

Wardrobe mistress: Susannah Frankel on the Grace Kelly look

When Ava Gardner gets into a taxi, the driver knows at once that she's Ava Gardner," Grace Kelly once said. "It's the same for Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor, but not for me. I'm never Grace Kelly. I'm always someone who looks like Grace Kelly."

An exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum next month promises to dissect the elusive Grace Kelly look, as encapsulated by the actress on and off screen, and, of course, also by a long line of pale imitators who include everyone from Kate Winslet to Diana, Princess of Wales. Kelly's signature white gloves, the neatly pressed masculine shirt teamed with narrow cropped trousers and polished loafers, the demure tailored day suits worn with a sensible mid-heel and, naturally, the Hermès Kelly bag, will all come under scrutiny once again.

Over the years, Kelly's style has been described both as "unpretentious" (that it was) and "natural" (only in our dreams). There was nothing even remotely natural about the way Grace Kelly chose to present herself. The model-turned-actress-turned-European royal controlled her image with a precision that any apparent ease belied. Off-screen, Kelly's everyday appearance was, in fact, remarkable for its simplicity. It's small wonder that, in her cinematic heyday, magazines used her, just as they might Kate Moss today, to sell copies to aspiring females the world over, all of whom believed, not entirely unreasonably, that they might be able to buy into her style.

Until her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco – and even, at times, after that – size-10 Kelly bought her clothes off the peg and was as interested in the quintessentially American aesthetic of Claire McCardell as she was in Dior's New Look. "The Grace Kelly look," says Jenny Lister, curator of the V&A show, "is classic, elegant, sensible and practical. It's restrained, but also incredibly glamorous."

While the more voluminous styles of the Sixties and Seventies were adopted by Her Serene Highness Princess Grace, those are not the clothes she will be remembered for. Instead, Kelly's greatest fashion moments were the smart, streamlined silhouettes of the Fifties. If her oft-emulated, no-nonsense personal style was a triumph of understatement, it was her wardrobe in film – and in those of Alfred Hitchcock in particular, designed by the great Hollywood costumier, Paramount's Edith Head – which cemented her image as perhaps the most beautiful woman in history.

"Grace Kelly was ambiguous," says Lister, "and Hitchcock managed to unlock her potential for playing characters who are very sensual but who, from the outside, look remote, untouchable. Perfect." Their first collaboration, Dial M For Murder, opens with Kelly playing the English-rose heroine, dressed at the breakfast table in palest rose-coloured cardigan to match. So far, so demure. But it's soon revealed that not only is Kelly's husband (played by Ray Milland) plotting to murder his wealthy wife, but also that she is concealing a lover (Robert Cummings). Her wardrobe echoes the intrigue.

In the scene where Cummings is introduced she wears scarlet, and as the film progresses the clothes become darker and darker – aubergine, brown – in line with the menacing sentiments beneath her well-mannered allure. "Hitchcock's scripts tell what colour the dress is to be, and whatever other details he considers important," Head said later. Infamously, Hitchcock decreed that Kelly should play the film's murder scene in a dramatic velvet gown. It is a mark of respect from the director who called his actors "cattle" that he allowed his leading actress – in cahoots with Head – to override his decision.

"He said he wanted the effect of light and shadow on the velvet during the murder," recalled Kelly, as quoted in Donald Spoto's biography High Society: Grace Kelly and Hollywood, published last year. "I had a fitting for it and it seemed right for Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking scene, but not for me in this sequence. So I told Hitch... Hitch's face went slightly red – it always did if he was upset – and he asked me: 'Well, what would you put on to answer the phone?' I told him, 'I wouldn't put on anything at all – I would just get up and answer the phone in my nightgown.'"

In the end, that was just the way the scene was shot – Kelly wears a slim-fitting, powder-blue slip that expresses just the fusion of innocence and experience her character comes to personify.

"After that, I had his [Hitchcock's] confidence as far as wardrobe was concerned, and he gave me a very great deal of liberty in what I wore in his next two pictures," Kelly said. Those two movies were Rear Window and To Catch A Thief, and by this point the wardrobe mistress and the actress had become friends. In Rear Window, Kelly's appearance as fashion editor Lisa Carol Fremont is nothing short of mesmerising. "She's too perfect," says James Stewart in the laconic leading role, of Kelly's character. "She's too talented, too beautiful, too sophisticated ... if only she was just ordinary." Head ensured that Kelly's wardrobe was anything but.

"The Hollywood studios could produce garments to such a high standard," says Lister. "They're basically using couture techniques for the screen. Everything is handmade and it's all beautifully detailed. The waists are tiny. Grace Kelly wasn't a small person, ...but she really did suit that narrow-waist and full-skirted look."

By now, Hitchcock's films were confirming Kelly's reputation as one of the world's most desirable women. When she was cast as Georgie Elgin in The Country Girl (directed by George Seaton), Bing Crosby, playing her alcoholic crooner husband, Frank, was less than amused. Spoto quotes Kelly: "He almost withdrew from the picture when he heard that I was going to play the part. 'She's too pretty,' he told producers about me. 'She has no experience... She's too glamorous for the part of Georgie.'" But it wasn't long before Crosby changed his mind, not least because Head's wardrobe for Kelly in The Country Girl was determinedly dowdy. Head said: "She was to play a woman who had been married for 10 years and has lost interest in clothes, herself – everything." Her character's drab house dresses, cardigans, tweedy skirts and sensible shoes were shockingly austere, but the film's producers insisted on flashback scenes which restored Kelly to her usual perfection.

There was nothing much austere about Kelly's wardrobe in the climactic moments of her last film made with Hitchcock, To Catch A Thief. Here, in a moment of fashion folly, she wears a period ball-gown complete with overblown crinoline skirt that appears to have been spun from her own radiantly golden hair. Hitchcock had ordered that the opulence of the setting – the action takes place on the Cote d'Azur – should be reflected in the clothes. Perhaps in preparation for the excess to come, on the way to the set Kelly and Head stopped off in Paris to visit Hermès, where they spent a fortune on accessories. A suitably sun-kissed Kelly opens this film in cerulean chiffon gown. Then come the wide-brimmed sunhat and Capri pants and even – in a rare, risqué moment – an inky black swim-suit and dark glasses. Never had the actress appeared more lovely

To Catch A Thief was filmed in 1955. In 1956, Grace Kelly's engagement was announced and she wound up her acting career with roles in The Swan and High Society. It was MGM's Helen Rose, responsible for wardrobe in both films, who went on to design her real-life fairy tale wedding gown. Edith Head was livid, and it was left to Kelly to coolly remind her: "MGM is paying for it. Would Paramount do that?" Head had to make do with designing Kelly's going-away suit. She was, though, responsible for the linear, shimmering blue satin gown and equally narrow coat (both of which appear in the V&A exhibition) worn by Kelly when she picked up the Oscar for Best Actress for The Country Girl.

In six years, Grace Kelly had made no more than 11 feature films. Those directed by Hitchcock and dressed by Head are her great legacy to style. As if those sparkling blue-green eyes, Cupid-bow lips, gently waved hair and extraordinary bone structure weren't enough, her wardrobe, too, should be remembered as nothing short of perfection.

'Grace Kelly: Style Icon' is at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from 17 April to 26 September; for more details

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