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Grace Kelly: Style Icon

Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England

April 17–September 26, 2010

Today, Grace Kelly may just be the song title of a mildly annoying, sugar-coated pop song by Mika, but thirty years ago, Grace Kelly was one of the most photographed women of the twentieth century. An Academy Award-winning American actress, she became a film star just as suddenly as she married a real prince, became Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco, and then tragically died in a car accident.

Kelly’s impeccable style has become transported into an exhibition nestled inside London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the museum for decorative arts and design. Grace Kelly: Style Icon divides Kelly’s style into four distinct stages of her life (which I suspect have more to do with the changing fashions of the times than with Kelly’s changing life): actress, bride, princess, enduring icon.

The supposed stages of actress and princess predictably carry the most glamour. Costume designer Helen Rose’s sparkling white creation for Kelly’s role in ‘The Swan’ (1955) stands proudly in one display case. Kelly’s real-life role as Princess Grace called for gowns of similar elegance, including the dress ‘La Bayadère’ (Marc Bohan for Dior, 1967), a liquid sunset of silk chiffon, that, when worn by Kelly, would be complemented with hair to rival Audrey Hepburn’s elaborate ‘do in the ballroom scene of ‘My Fair Lady.’

The strength of the exhibition, however, lies in the plainer pieces. Their clean, simple lines tell us more about the princess than the glamorous gowns—these truly represented a woman who unabashedly wore her clothes multiple times and often did her own hair and nails. Flowing gowns may have been for evening, but for the daytime she had her white gloves (a remnant from her Irish Catholic upbringing) and tailored suits, not to mention multiple pairs of dark-rimmed eyeglasses (Kelly made no secret of her near-sightedness, and owned over 45 pairs by Oliver Goldsmith by 1980). Personally, I wouldn’t mind owning that lace sheath dress (Marc Bohan for Dior) or that Hermes ‘Kelly Bag.’

The designer Oleg Cassini once remarked of Kelly that “by wearing clothes that don’t get too much notice, she gets noticed more herself.” It’s true, even now, hundreds of people of all ages (though admittedly, mostly of the female persuasion) will line up to buy the tickets that will make them salivate over that purple silk evening gown or stare in reverence at that video footage of Grace Kelly embarking on her honeymoon.

But somehow Grace Kelly: Style Icon still manages to create more mystery than it sheds. The problem is, life and style are really quite different.

Grace Kelly: Style Icon gives no insight beyond the public image and the marriage that, on the surface, seemed like a fairy tale. The real woman is lost in a sea of Chanel, Givenchy, and Balenciaga. Really, it is quite ironic that the exhibition itself advertises Kelly’s own words: “I think it is important to see the person first and the clothes afterwards.”  It’s funny, then, how we go to see the clothes first, and only a glimpse Grace Kelly, the person, afterwards.

The mystery lies behind true style not behind this summer’s burst of floral prints and trendy runway knockoffs in the spirit of anything goes in London, and certainly not in the rather frightening clones of Abercrombie & Fitch that haunt the suburban American shopping mall, but in something that has more to do with comfort than with your grandmother’s matching pumps and purses. We may never know Grace Kelly: A Life, but her elegance has yet to fully disappear from our minds.