There’s a scene in the classic Hollywood musical High Society where upper-crust socialite Tracy Lord, played by Grace Kelly, poses beside a circular swimming pool the day before her wedding. Dreamily wrapped in a white draped bathing robe, she looks every bit a Grecian goddess. Meanwhile, her wounded ex-husband gives her some advice: “You’d be a wonderful woman if you just let your tiara slip a little,” he jabs.
It’s a memorable line and spookily evocative of the life that unfolded for Grace Kelly – the 1950s Hollywood actress who famously went on to marry a prince.
That classic bathing robe is among around 40 garments and 60 accessories, images and footage now displayed in Grace Kelly: Style Icon, a vast exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery.
There’s something here for fashionistas, film buffs and historians, not to mention those who simply admired Grace Kelly’s elegant restraint. It’s hard not to.
“She was seen as very different from the other actresses and stars who wore big kooky dresses and furs,” explains Grace Kelly expert, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and author of Grace Kelly Style, Kristina Haugland, at the preview. “Whereas they were publicity hungry and flaunted very elaborate clothes that perhaps tended to be on the vulgar side, she was tasteful and understated and really quite different, and this dress really sums it up – that cool iconic beauty which she personified,” she continues, showing the dress Kelly wore to receive her 1955 Academy award for The Country Girl.
Grace Kelly made 11 films from 1951 to 1956, though after she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco, her movie career was over. By all reports, she was deeply disappointed that being an actress was not seen as a fitting occupation for a princess.
“Of course film costumes don’t often survive, so to be able to have a few items from her film career is really fantastic,” offers curator of collections and research Tansy Curtin on the phone from Bendigo.
A classy black evening dress that Grace wore in the suspenseful crime thriller Rear Window is also exhibited. “As it is such a great icon of film costume and design and such a wonderful Hitchcock movie, I think a lot of people will be really interested in that dress,” Curtin adds.
The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first looks at her acting career; the second focuses on her engagement and includes the dress Kelly wore at its announcement on January 5 1956 – a classic shirt-waist in a golden-rich silk made by Brunel in 1955. “It really flattered her figure and summed up her all-American taste... The dress was later resold and retitled ‘To catch a prince’,” explains Haugland.
The third section covers the royal wedding. “Unfortunately the original wedding dress is too fragile to travel, so we have a replica of the gown that we’ve made for touring,” explains Curtin. Though not referenced at the exhibition, the story goes that Kelly wore slippers (by English shoe designer David Evins) to disguise that she towered over her prince.
The fourth section looks at the princess growing into her new role. It features magnificent gowns by Kelly’s favourite designers such as Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga.
Kid leather gloves, purple court shoes and a cartoonishly tall pink hat, worn during holidays on the French Riviera, strike a more casual note. While a 1965 wool jersey dress by Yves Saint Laurent, patterned with a black crucifix and geometrical shapes – and a salmon-dotted Dior gown in the more flowing romantic style of the 70s – reflect the evolution of fashion through the eras.
Despite all the glamour, according to her nephew John Kelly (who has a passing resemblance to his famous aunt), Kelly was a down-to earth auntie whom he usually saw in casual beachwear during holidays at the family’s beach house. “She was always very practical and never threw anything away, which was a good thing,” he says wryly, gazing around, smiling.
Amid the exhibition come wise words from the woman herself, offering a grounded perspective on all these beautiful garments: “Our life dictates a certain kind of wardrobe,” she is quoted. “I think it’s important to see the person first and the clothes afterwards.”
Grace Kelly: Style Icon is curated and organised by the V&A Museum, London and the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco. The exhibition runs until June 17 at Bendigo Art Gallery.