Dressing Down: The V&A's Exhibition of Grace Kelly's Clothes Doesn't Quite Do Justice to the Actress

By Barbieri, Annalisa | New Statesman (1996), May 3, 2010 | Go to article overview

Dressing Down: The V&A's Exhibition of Grace Kelly's Clothes Doesn't Quite Do Justice to the Actress


Barbieri, Annalisa, New Statesman (1996)


Like so many other people, I love Grace Kelly: she did that effortlessly stylish look so well, it makes ordinary people like me mistakenly think that it's achievable. It's easy to linger over pictures of her, too--that beautiful face, the kind, sweet eyes, the ever-inspirational outfits. Plus she was reserved, mysterious, a "snow-covered volcano", as Alfred Hitchcock once described her. So I bounded in to the "Grace Kelly; Style Icon" exhibition, which has just opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, feeling eager as a puppy to soak up that Kelly magic.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Except, it didn't quite go to plan. In the first case was a dress with huge flowers and a waist sash. It was hideous, so frumpy-looking that I wanted to back away from it, shielding my eyes. I sought out the notes at the bottom of the dress. Had Kelly really worn this? Sure enough she had, for her first meeting with the man who would become her husband: Prince Rainier of Monaco. There was also a photo and, on her, the dress looked fabulous.

It was a common exercise as I moved from one cabinet of headless mannequins to another: I would look at the exhibit and then for the photograph of Kelly wearing it. The two things seemed entirely unconnected. She really did have the ability to transform clothes. There was only one dress that looked better off than on--the midnight-blue taffeta gown by Yves Saint Laurent that she wore to meet Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.I realised then that if you had taken away all the signs, anything that could identify Grace Kelly, and asked "Who did these clothes belong to?" I would not have guessed. It's a rare skill to be able to take clothes that can look beautifully stylish, and that are rich in history, and render them lumpen and dull. But somehow this exhibition manages it.

Grace Patricia Kelly was born in Philadelphia in 1929, the third of four children. Her parents were sporty and madly competitive: her father won three Olympic golds at rowing, her mother was a model and athlete. Kelly was introverted and asthmatic. You get the feeling she wasn't exactly bigged up by her folks. Indeed, in photos of Kelly with her mother, Ma is often looking on disapprovingly. When Kelly became famous, her father expressed surprise that, of all his children, it was Grace--not Peggy, the eldest and Daddy's favourite--who had made it.

Thus, perhaps not surprisingly, Kelly was far from cocky about how she looked, thinking that her knees weren't pretty enough for miniskirts (she never wore them) and, as she got older, preferring comfort over constraint, almost disappearing into kaftan styles in her forties despite retaining an enviable figure. …

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