April 2012

The Nation Reviewed

All Frocked Up

By Catherine Ford
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Grace Kelly’s Gowns in Bendigo

On a recent March morning, the air over Bendigo Art Gallery turned suddenly noisy with lorikeets. Wearing ’70s day-glo capes and clocking delinquent speeds, the birds screeched past the gallery’s giant publicity billboard: a winsome come-hither headshot of Grace Kelly. Had she ever made it to Australia in person, Kelly would have loved the chutzpah of those fashion-backward parrots.

Inside, Karen Quinlan, the gallery’s director, who snaffled the Australian exclusive of Grace Kelly: Style Icon – the Victoria and Albert Museum’s sumptuous exhibition of the actress’s wardrobe – was taking assorted guests through the show in advance of Princess Charlene of Monaco’s visit.

John Kelly III, Grace’s nephew, a “banker from Philadelphia”, was there, inexplicably chaperoning the collection, along with H Kristina Haugland, author and curator from the Philadelphia Museum of Art; all three discussed why Grace Kelly’s clothes had strayed so far from their home in the Grimaldi palace.

Quinlan had seen the original show in London and thought it could “fit” in her gallery; John Kelly III wanted the idea that “Gracie” was glacial corrected – she was “emotional” and “caring”, he said, and considered by her beloved Catholic church to be a “great advertisement for working motherhood”. Ms Haugland stressed Kelly was of enduring interest because she differed from other actresses of the time – not so publicity-hungry, more “tasteful and ladylike”.

After the somewhat disjointed preliminaries, a clutch of journalists, all women, some with bewildered cameramen and sound recordists in tow, wandered through the rooms to peer at the gowns. The atmosphere was penumbral; the garments so fragile, Quinlan said, that they could only tolerate “50 lux, max”, and everyone obligingly leaned in to view the pieces, as you might with a platypus in captivity.

The sight of some 40 dresses, in strangely subdued tones, fitted on headless mannequins and arranged in otherworldly formations under dusky lights, held a certain incorporeal charm. There were murmurs of awe as we moved through, and the exhibit was shiver-inducing, but also melancholic; dim aquariums perform the same paradoxical magic. Exquisite, polychrome fish in glass tanks can light you up, but there’s the sadness, too, that pointless imprisonment evokes.

This collection, on show here till 17 June, is split into three discrete sections – Kelly’s years as an actress, her moment as a bride and her life in a gilded fishbowl in Monaco – but the divisions seemed unbalanced. It’s heavy on the fantastical and official palace garb, compromised on the bridal side, and light on the Hitchcock-friendly Edith Head designs.

Missing is the wonderful snow cone of an evening dress from Rear Window; the perfect working attire for the masterful double-act of feminine perfectionism and icy sexual manipulation that Kelly seemed born to perform.

Her wedding dress isn’t there, either, at least not in its original form; Haugland explained it was too fragile to transport, and so fiercely guarded by Philadelphians they simply wouldn’t let it out of their museum. But a copy doesn’t quite cut it in the cult-like, obsessional world of celebrity fashion-worship.

The majority of the show’s outfits are what Kelly clambered into for her toughest role: Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco.

These palace-appropriate “fluid jersey ensembles”, as Haugland neatly describes them, the don’t-mess-with-me paste encrustations on necklines and wrists, and the ’80s Monte Carlo Disco Nights caftans in billowing chiffon arguably represent a downward sartorial turn from those she wore in her more innocent, light-hearted days, as cinematic putty in the hands of the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. I learnt, from Haugland, that Marc Bohan, the Christian Dior designer responsible for the former gowns, was a genius, but if I hadn’t been told, I’d have assumed the guy was some kind of show-pony on Class A drugs.

Compared to these, one of the stand-out pieces is rather drab. It’s the evening gown Kelly wore while dancing, drunk, beside a pool with Frank Sinatra in High Society – a stinker of a film, but what a dress! A muted floor-sweeping study in grey and pink chiffon, its understated magnificence makes the heart canter.

When Princess Grace died in a car accident in 1982, the Grimaldis, John Kelly III informs us, received more condolence letters from Australians than from any other people in the world. Asked if this strange fact had encouraged her to import the show from London, Karen Quinlan said it had not occurred to her; her choices of touring shows depended on what was on offer. The Kelly clothes were merely one such choice. She could never guarantee numbers through her gallery, she added; all she could do was take the usual calculated risks. All of which sounded fair and practical.

Walking from the gallery, in a summery Australian downlight of approximately 100,000 lux, I passed another royal surveying the scene. Queen Victoria, resplendent in Bohan-like folds of white marble, scowled from her towering bluestone plinth towards the town’s mall, where some not-quite-Republican subjects, I noticed, were busily trying on generic white T-shirts that had been heavily discounted in the season’s sales.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

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