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Celebrating Grace

Grace Kelly. The name is synonymous with Hollywood’s glamorous heyday, timeless style, cool elegance and storybook romance. It may be exactly 30 years since her untimely, shocking death – on September 14, 1982 – but the fascination for the movie star who married a prince is still strong, and her influence is still keenly felt in the world of fashion and beyond.

During her 52 years – half of them as Grace Kelly, half as Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco – the bewitching blonde from Philadelphia established herself as a movie goddess, a style icon and a fairytale princess. In other words – a total one-off.

Throughout her pre-princess career, however, all Grace Kelly wanted was to be an actress – and a serious, respected one at that. And although she only made 11 films (squeezed into three and a half years), they include four classics and one Oscar-winning performance.

Born in Philadelphia in 1929, she was the daughter of a wealthy businessman – and two-time Olympic gold medal winner – who had made his money in the construction trade and was able to provide his children with a very privileged upbringing. The family had a 17-room mansion in Philadelphia and a holiday home in New Jersey. Servants waited on them, a chauffeur drove them, and the children attended the best schools.

While Grace Kelly’s three siblings took after their sporty dad, she was – said her younger sister, Lizanne – “a shy, retiring girl” prone to respiratory problems who avoided the rough and tumble of physical games and preferred reading and imaginative play. Her father, whose approval Kelly seems to have sought throughout her young life, didn’t know what to make of her – or how to handle her. Indeed, in just about every soundbite he ever gave when she was famous, he said that it had been her elder sister that he had expected to become a star.

Mousey Grace took her family by surprise when she announced, at the age of 17, that she was leaving for New York to study at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Not only was she leaving home, but she was determined to support herself – which she did by working as a model, and an extremely busy one at that. Her natural shyness with new people was often misinterpreted as aloofness, but it’s impossible to find a quote from anyone who knew her which does not mention her warmth and lack of affectation, even as she became a major star and then a royal.

Her first professional roles were on the stage but it was as an in-demand member of the emerging stock company of actors working on live television dramas made in New York that she first attracted attention in the business, not least for her dedication to her work and her discipline. She made her movie debut in the noir-ish drama Fourteen Hours (1951) but it was the brooding western High Noon (1952) in which she had her first sizeable role – as Gary Cooper’s young Quaker bride.

Impressed by the way even Cooper’s eyes shone with expressiveness when she watched the film afterwards, and deeply dissatisfied with her own performance and “flat eyes”, Kelly headed back to New York to study more so that she could do better. But the general consensus was that although she wasn’t great, it hadn’t been a disaster.

Producer Stanley Kramer later pointed out that despite being miscast and despite having to play opposite an established star with huge presence and charisma, “Kelly wasn’t swallowed up, because that ladylike quality she had came through.”

It certainly came through enough to persuade MGM to offer her a contract, one which she was reluctant to accept because she wanted to be able to continue acting on the New York stage. However, the promise of a location shoot in Africa with screen legend Clark Gable persuaded her to sign on the dotted line (in the airport en route to the Congo)- and her resulting performance, as a prim Englishwoman, earned her a surprise Oscar nomination and launched her on her meteoric rise.

But she really hit her stride – and began her run of classic performances – when she was chosen by Alfred Hitchcock to play the two-timing wife of murderous Ray Milland in his London-set thriller Dial “M” For Murder in 1953. Hitchcock saw in Kelly something that her own studio did not: he was attracted to her “sexual elegance” and he gave her the chance to make great use of it in Dial M, Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955).

In an era of voluptuous pin-up girls, Kelly’s refined, ladylike sex appeal stood out alongside her intelligence, and although she was often described as “ice cool” or in other glacial terms, what Hitchcock capitalised upon was the warmth and passion that simmered below the surface. Kelly was, after all, rumoured to have had tempestuous love affairs with some of her leading men (notably William Holden).This passionate, sexy side was hinted at more with each of his films, finally exploding – with fireworks – in To Catch a Thief. Indeed, the English director once said: “Grace Kelly’s apparent frigidity was like a mountain covered with snow, but that mountain was a volcano.”

Not only did Hitchcock fall in love with Kelly professionally and personally – in the same way as he had done with Ingrid Bergman, who, by coincidence was Kelly’s favourite actress – but he had tremendous respect for her and accorded her more freedom than most of his stars. She formed a terrific relationship with the esteemed costume designer Edith Head, in whom Hitch had the utmost confidence, and they collaborated on the wardrobes for the Hitchcock movies; Hitchcock being a director who took a keen interest in the finest details of his films.

By the time Kelly met Prince Rainier of Monaco, during the Cannes Film Festival of 1955, the 25-year-old actress was already well on her way to becoming the style icon that she is today. From the get-go, her demure appearance – characterised by a penchant for pearls and a habit of wearing white gloves – had singled her out and sparked trends. When she won her Oscar, for the now less-well remembered drama The Country Girl – in which she courageously allowed herself to be seen looking frumpy and bespectacled – she dazzled the Academy audience in a mint-green satin gown which she had designed with Head. And, once her royal engagement was announced, in January 1956, there was almost daily speculation in the press about the contents of her trousseau – and of course the wedding dress itself.

The marriage of the Hollywood princess and the European prince in the summer of 1956 may have seemed like the ultimate happy-ever-after, but Kelly was a real woman who, by all accounts, felt real frustration at not being able to continue as an actress – though she did tell friends that playing a princess was to be her greatest role.

She and Rainier had four children and it was a miscarriage shortly after she had agreed to return to Hollywood to star in Hitchcock’s Marnie, in 1962, that put paid to a resumption of her career. Later – just six years before her sudden death – a new chapter of performing began when she came to the Edinburgh Festival to read poetry. This seemed to give her a new lease of life, alongside the charitable and cultural work she carried out in Monaco.

She died after suffering a stroke that caused her to lose control of her car on a journey from the family home in France to Monaco. Princess Stephanie, her daughter, was a passenger in the vehicle but survived the accident.

Her death robbed her adopted country of a much-loved princess, but she was already a movie and style icon, one whose influence remains as strong as ever …

* First published in The Scotsman, Thursday September 13, 2012

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Style on Film: Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rear Window (1954) is not only a masterwork of suspense; it’s also something of a fashion show with Grace Kelly/Lisa Freemont trotting out one gorgeous summer ensemble after another for both our and James Stewart’s delectation. After all, as James Stewart’s character points out: this is the Lisa Freemont “who never wears the same dress twice”.The costumes in this ravishing-looking film were designed by that doyenne of movie designers, Edith Head, and they had to highlight the differences between Lisa Freemont, socialite and model, and her relationship-shy guy, photo-journalist LB Jefferies. We know Lisa is a class act from the first moment we glimpse her in smouldering close-up, leaning in for a kiss – the simple, elegant single strand of pearls speaks volumes. If the pearl necklace and tasteful make-up didn’t immediately connote class and wealth, then Lisa’s description of her beautiful dress being “straight off the Paris plane” gets the message across. With its deep “V” neckline at the front and back,  and full, frothy skirt, it strikes the perfect Grace Kelly balance between sexy and chic, and was undoubtedly one of the most influential movie dresses of the 1950s. As you can see here, she wore it with a thin black patent belt, strappy black heels and a white cape and gloves.

According to Jay Jorgensen’s superb book, Edith Head – The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer (Running Press), Hitchcock’s brief to Edith Head was that Grace “was to look like a piece of Dresden china, nearly untouchable”. And yet, for most of the movie, it’s Lisa who is trying to seduce the incapacitated (he has broken his leg) Jeff … For her second seduction scene – where she’s thwarted by her man’s fascination with his neighbours and the possibility that one of them has bumped off his wife – Lisa is a vision of sophisticated sensuality in a black chiffon dress and the ubiquitous pearls, this time a triple strand necklace.

On the third evening of Jeff’s “last week” in his plaster cast, Lisa turns up looking suitably business-like in a sleek, mint-green skirt suit – after all, she is about to go into action as a detective, having been informed, by Jeff, that he saw their murder suspect going through a handbag stuffed with trinkets . As she unpins her veil and peels off her gloves, she explains to Jeff why this makes it all the more likely that he has done away with his wife: “Women don’t keep their jewellery in a purse getting all scratched and tangled up. And they don’t leave it behind either..”

For this scene, the single strand of pearls is back, along with plain, pearl disc earrings – but the whole effect is enhanced by Lisa’s beautiful satin halterneck top and, especially, the fabulous, clunkingly great, multi-strand pearl bracelet on her wrist. Not only does it add a bit of pearly pizazz to the elegant ensemble but it adds weight to Lisa’s case for the prosecution.. “Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take make-up, perfume and jewellery. .. It’s basic equipment. And you don’t leave it behind in your husband’s drawer.”Next, Lisa gives Jeff a masterclass in what else a woman would pack if she was going away for the night … an exquisite negligee. The story goes that when Hitchcock saw Kelly in this nightgown, he asked Edith Head to put in “falsies” to beef up her cleavage. But an indignant Kelly instead stiffened her back and stuck her chest out, and she and Head managed to convince the director that his instruction had been followed. The weakest link, in my view, in Grace Kelly’s wardrobe for Rear Window is the day dress she wears when Lisa goes snooping in the suspect’s apartment. It has always reminded me of curtains -albeit expensive ones.. See what I mean?I think the other issue I have with this frumpy frock is that I could equally imagine Stella (the wonderful Thelma Ritter), Jeff’s middle-aged, world-weary nurse, wearing it. I much prefer Lisa’s final look of the film – which is inspired by her man’s wardrobe, and which we see in a slow tracking shot, from the  Gene Kelly-style loafers up to the watermelon pink men’s shirt (which Head nipped in with a scarf ring at Kelly’s waist). 

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Style File: Grace Kelly’s Film Years

This Helen Rose gown, one of several from High Society which were given to Grace Kelly as a wedding gift from MGM, is in the V&A exhibition.

Grace Kelly, one of the most influential style icons of the 20th Century, is the subject of a major exhibition which opens this weekend at the V & A in London. A movie star who became a real-life princess, she is the perfect example of what it means to be stylish: although she followed fashion, she was always true to her distinctive, ladylike look. Only very rarely did she deviate from the streamlined, unfussy suits and dresses which she knew suited her.

The exhibition is divided into three parts: Grace Kelly the actress, Grace Kelly the bride, and Princess Grace of Monaco. Although the view of Jenny Lister, the curator, is that Grace Kelly wouldn’t have become an enduring style icon had she not had a high-profile wedding and become a princess, I personally believe that her movie years alone would have ensured her status.

Here are some of my own favourites from her onscreen wardrobe during the 1950s, starting with a selection from Rear Window (1954), the Alfred Hitchcock thriller which acknowledged the growing fascination with Kelly’s style by casting her as a young woman who works in the fashion industry.

The Edith Head suit - worn with a cream halterneck and cream pillbox hat - in Rear Window was very much Grace Kelly's own style.

Playing a fashion-mad socialite, Kelly is seen in a different outfit in every scene – and her onscreen wardrobe includes slinky lingerie (which she memorably pulls from the dinkiest overnight case – much to the bemusement of her boyfriend, James Stewart), evening wear and casual attire. It’s a veritable fashion parade – and much of it was a reflection of Kelly’s own style. Here’s how she makes her entrance – note the signature pearls are there from the get-go, and watch how the outfit is revealed very gradually (and tantalisingly), culminating in a full-length shot.

In To Catch a Thief (1955), Kelly worked again with director Alfred Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head, and the wardrobe was as memorable as Rear Window’s. As a  socialite holidaying on the Riviera, she was seen in a number of casual outfits – including this chic little ensemble:

Of course, To Catch a Thief pairs Kelly with another great style icon, Cary Grant who  swaps his usual sharp suits for the casual clobber that one presumes is de rigueur for a retired continental cat burglar. I love this picture of this most elegant pair of stars relaxing between takes – and, although espadrilles aren’t associated with Kelly in the way that Hermes bags, pearls and twinsets are, I always think of her when I am tempted to buy a pair…

It’s not just the To Catch a Thief espadrilles that have forever linked Grace Kelly with this style of footwear in my mind; she also sported them – with beige shirt and chinos (and silk kerchief) – in the opening scenes of High Society (1956).

But  back to To Catch a Thief … The evening gown that people often remember is the gold lame, Marie Antoinette number which Kelly wears for the masked ball. I’m not a fan of it; this beautiful, Grecian-style gown gets my vote in the evening wear stakes.

High Society was Grace Kelly’s last film, made during the short period between her engagement and her wedding, a period when she was also assembling her trousseau under the watchful eyes of fashion commentators from all over the world. Her clothes in High Society were designed by Helen Rose, and, again were very much in-keeping with her own personal style – so much so that she was given a number of the gowns  as a wedding present from her studio, MGM. One of these was this exquisite dress, again in the draped, Grecian style – appropriately enough, as her character has something of a Goddess complex..

This gown, which was worn over a swimming costume in High Society, is also in the V&A exhibition.

*Grace Kelly: Style Icon runs at the V&A from April 17- September 26; the accompanying book, Grace Kelly Style (V&A, £19.99) is out now.

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