As a movie star-turned-princess, approved Grace Kelly’s fashion choices were always well-documented by the media in her lifetime, and it’s no surprise that the new exhibition of her wardrobe at the Victoria and Albert Museum has been eagerly anticipated by fashion-lovers.
The show – which is actually fairly small and tightly-edited – includes pieces from Kelly’s Hollywood career, as well as her later role as Princess of Monaco. Alongside the film posters are the costumes she wore in films like High Society, To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. The most interesting thing is the insight the show gives into Kelly’s ‘real’ style. She popularised a seemingly effortless, elegant, immaculate look, but the stories behind some of her wardrobe choices show a surprisingly low-maintenance, pragmatic attitude: a floral dress she wore to visit her future husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, turns out to be the only uncrumpled thing she had in her suitcase, and it came from an easy-to-sew patternbook. As well as the many, many gorgeous red-carpet dresses, the exhibition shows how she assembled a stylish wardrobe. “I just buy clothes when they catch my eye and I wear them for years,” Kelly said. She wore her favourites until they wore out: displayed on its own, her famous leather Hermes bag – renamed in her honour after she was photographed holding it to conceal her pregnancy in 1956 – is scuffed from years of use. Similarly, she took the same embroidered evening bag to multiple red-carpet events, and the dress she wore to collect her Oscar was originally created by costume guru Edith Head for a movie she was in the previous year.
Later, when she became Princess Grace, she wore Givenchy, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent. Another thing that comes as a surprise is how modern some of the pieces are. Imagining Grace Kelly conjures her trademark white gloves or the full-skirted dresses she wore in many of her movies, but as some of the displays of outfits from the 1960s and 1970s show, she adapted her style over the years without giving up on fashion. She wore a YSL Mondrian dress to a children’s party, and accessorised to maximise on every occasion, as the collections of jewels, sunglasses, handbags and shoes show.
The clothes in the exhibition are teamed throughout with memorabilia, quotes and film clips. The photographs of Princess Grace wearing fabulous outfit after outfit are a valuable part of the displays, but it’s almost a shame they’re so small. In those pictures, Kelly always looks poised, and glamorous in a subtle, regal way (even before she was a princess). Some of the magic is lost in viewing her wardrobe – as fabulous as it is – on stiff, headless mannequins, in the museum’s dimly-lit glass cabinets. It just goes to show that the secret of why Grace Kelly was such a style icon is about more than the clothes. And it’s pleasing to know that even a woman with such an impossibly glamorous lifestyle would never chuck out her favourite handbag.
Grace Kelly: Style Icon, open until 26 September 2010 at the V&A Museum, London
Admission £6 (£4 concessions)
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