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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: To Catch a Thief

This is our first glimpse of Grace Kelly in one of her most stylish – and summery – films, To Catch a Thief, the 1955 romantic suspense movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Sunning herself at the Cannes Beach Club, she pauses mid suncream application as she clocks our hero, ex cat burglar and Resistance fighter John Robie (Cary Grant), strolling by.   It’s quite a while (20 minutes) before this first, fleeting, appearance by Kelly – and there’s another ten minutes before she is next onscreen –  but there’s still plenty of style to ogle, in the debonair form of Cary Grant.

When Francie (Grace Kelly) and Robie are finally introduced over dinner, she is a goddess-like vision in this elegant, flowing – and very now – strappy blue chiffon gown, created by the film’s costume designer, the inimitable Edith Head. Despite being the daughter of an oil tycooness who talks about “cuddling up to her jewellery” in bed, Francie, tellingly, is initially seen sans bijoux. There’s not so much as a pearl earring on her .. Francie is next seen just for a few seconds in a yellowy day dress before she slips into her bathing gear – this stunning ensemble which causes heads to turn as she strolls through the hotel lobby en route to her swimming date with the one-time cat burglar she’s sinking her claws into…Edith Head may well have been briefed by Alfred Hitchcock to dress his heroine in cool colours in order to underline the idea of her as an ice princess (and, presumably, play to Grace Kelly’s image as “the fair Miss Frigidaire”), but Francie is not exactly backwards at coming forwards – and on to the object of her desire. Dressed in a demure, dusty pink day dress (which, personally, I can’t stand), Francie whisks John off on a racy car trip. Driving at speed with a smug, knowing, in-control, look, she calls the shots about where they’re going and where they’ll have the picnic during which she famously asks: “Do you want a leg or a breast?” ..Having sussed that the object of her desire is also the object of the police’s, Francie tells John to come to her suite for cocktails and a bird’s eye view of the firework display at 8pm sharp. “I haven’t got a decent watch,” says John. “Steal one,” she replies. For the rendez-vous, she wears a simple, strapless white chiffon number chosen to showcase her mother’s (fake) diamond necklace.Francie has to work at it but she does manage to seduce John into some romantic action. (Her attempts at seducing him into some cat burglary aren’t quite as successful.) When they meet a few days later, and a contrite Francie confesses that she has fallen in love with him, she is dressed simply in a cream coat with a black top or dress underneath.The climax of the film is a lavish masquerade ball, with all the guests decked out in the style of the 16th Century. This proved to be the most expensive scene costume-wise that Edith Head had ever designed, and it’s an absolute riot of Crayola-coloured, crinolined dresses. Francie’s golden gown – the only strapless one in sight – stands out. To end, here’s a couple of shots that aren’t from the film. The first is a publicity shot of that extraordinarily simple yet stunning, icey blue Grecian gown: And the second is a favourite shot of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant off-duty. She’s wearing her own clothes (or at least clothes that weren’t seen in the film), and doing for espadrilles what Audrey Hepburn did for ballet pumps .. 

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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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