Fit for a princess

With her cool elegance,  Grace Kelly epitomised both the glamour of Hollywood and allure of European royalty. An icon of the 20th century, her treasured clothes and accessories that embodied the look of the times have long been safeguarded at her palace in Monaco. Now they are winging their way here.



IT ALMOST didn’t happen, that first meeting between the actor Grace Kelly and the man who was to turn her life into a fairytale, Prince Rainier of Monaco. It had been set up by a French magazine as a photo opportunity during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.
First, Kelly’s schedule was so frantic that she was tempted to cancel. Then her hotel suffered a power cut so she could not dry her hair or iron a frock.
The queen of Hollywood improvised. She pulled her hair back and wore her least-wrinkled outfit, a lush floral silk taffeta made from a McCall’s dress pattern that was quite different from her usual sleek look.
That evening she told Olivia de Havilland that Rainier was “charming, a very charming man indeed”. Her current love was consigned to oblivion. Within a year, aged only 26, she had had “the wedding of the century” and was elevated to Her Serene Highness — a title well suited to her trademark cool loveliness.
Royalty had long been her aim. As a child growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia, she once told her sister Peggy, “I’m going to be a princess.”
Even as a child, she had been unruffled by life’s ups and downs. Her other sister, Lizanne, once locked her in a cupboard. Kelly did not cry or bang to get out. She sat inside and contentedly played with her dolls for hours. “She seemed to have been born with a serenity the rest of us didn’t have,” Lizanne said years later.
That self-possession was part of Kelly’s allure. Add regal bearing, deep blue eyes, a classically beautiful face the camera caressed and a distant gaze — not so much superior as unfocused, her short-sightedness corrected by thick horn-rimmed glasses in private — and you have the basis of the Kelly look that would so entrance a generation of filmgoers, photographers and directors, including Alfred Hitchcock.
He used her in three of his films — Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief — and said she had “sexual elegance” and resembled “a snow-covered volcano”: cool on the outside but with the suggestion of raging hot torrents within. It was a good analogy, judging by Kelly’s own remarks on her sexuality to her friend and biographer, Gwen Robins: “She just adored sex. She made no bones about it. We were lying on the bed one day and I said something about sex and she said, ‘It’s heaven.”‘ She told someone else it “put lights” in her eyes.
But Kelly understood that mystery was needed for mystique. She was discreet and tenaciously private about personal matters. Her active love life was a secret until after her death. It was customary in those days for the studios to release the body measurements of their stars; Kelly refused.
She carefully cultivated a picture that smoothed over any rough edges in her history. A book put out by the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco quotes her as saying that her family always trusted her choices and supported her career: “There was no such thing as a bad profession for them.”
Not so, says one of her bridesmaids, who later wrote a book on Kelly that said her father, Jack, thought acting was “a slim cut above street-walking”.
This already delectable package had to be fashionably packaged by Hollywood and it is the clothes that were created for her films and her public appearances that really launched the signature Kelly style. Left to her own devices when young, she dressed like the preppy private schoolgirl she had been: wool skirts, cashmere cardigans, pearls and little heels (at more than 1.65 metres, she was considered tall for an actress).
She worked out when modelling early in her 20s that she looked best with her hair pulled back off her square face and stuck firmly to that policy thereafter.
She did not flaunt. Even as a star, she would wear figure-hugging evening frocks but avoided overly revealing clothes; her breasts were always discreetly covered and she disliked short skirts when they later came into vogue (“After all, who has pretty knees?” she asked.)
She became known for classic understatement and clean lines. The waists were cinched, the skirts often full, the shoulders either bare or wispy with chiffon. Floaty fabrics conjured up feminine archetypes: the goddess, the sprite, the dancer. Her look was more adult than Audrey Hepburn’s gamine but not as sultry as Sophia Loren’s highlighting of Mediterranean curves.
Writing in Vanity Fair, Laura Jacobs says, “In To Catch a Thief and High Society, references abound to both classical draping and classical dance … Grace’s gowns are columnar, with waterfall pleats and cascades fluting, sheer trains flowing down from the back (where wings would be, if she had them) and sheer scarves like soft breezes around her neck …
“Grace’s day dresses have fitted bodices and skirts blossoming from the waist — a very clever fusion of the ballerina’s tutu with the American shirtwaist and a shape that allowed her to move freely (as she did in the sensational flowered shirtwaist of Rear Window, in which she climbed a fire escape). As for colour, Grace was given her own Apollonian palette. Wheat-field and buttercup yellows, azure and cerulean blues, seashell pink and angel-skin coral, Sun King gold and Olympus white — no one wore white like Grace Kelly.”
Except, perhaps, Marilyn Monroe in the iconic image with white sunray pleats billowing over a New York subway grating.
Kelly’s clothes from both her Hollywood and her Monaco days now reside in a small, fluorescent-lit basement room in the bowels of the palace on the rock in Monte Carlo that has been inherited by her son, Prince Albert, and his new wife with the uncertain smile, Princess Charlene.
Rack upon colourful rack of haute couture and home-made ball gowns, suits and dresses stand covered in white dustcloths, the air around them dehumidified and the temperature chilled to help preserve them. Shoes, hats, gloves and bags are wrapped in tissue. Everything is tagged with information about its designer, the year of origin and the major occasions upon which it was worn.
While it is clear the 1970s were unkind even to princesses — jewelled caftans could work in no other era and it could be argued they didn’t work even then — prowling the racks cannot help but produce crows of delight. Here, the pale blue frock in which she was photographed for High Society with Bing Crosby on one arm and Frank Sinatra on the other; there, a magnificent, 19th-century-style, full-skirted black net gown with gold embroidery she wore to a ball themed “1900”.
Many of the most famous items have been touring the world as part of an exhibition on Kelly’s life that is now in Toronto. An Australian version is due to be opened by Princess Charlene in Bendigo next month.
The exhibits will include a copy of her wedding dress, which had a 21-inch (53-centimetre) waist, and the original of the beautifully cut navy coat and cream shift she wore when landing in Monaco after crossing the sea with 66 family and friends and a media posse for her much-trumpeted wedding of the century (“the carnival of the century,” she dubbed it wryly).
The original wedding dress is now too fragile to travel. It was styled by Hollywood designer Helen Rose, who had fashioned her delicious frocks in the musical comedy High Society, and took 35 people six weeks to make. MGM had promised to let Kelly have the High Society wardrobe if she let the studio provide the wedding dress and film the ceremony.
It was the William and Kate wedding of its time, with 1800 journalists accredited to cover it and a live broadcast watched by 30 million people in Europe.
The Duchess of Cambridge last year paid homage to Kelly’s frock with her own wedding dress, which was also tightly waisted with a similar lace bodice and full skirt.
Kelly became pregnant with her first child, Caroline, on the honeymoon and that led to another fashion classic. She bought a large handbag from Hermes that she carried in front of her bump, pregnant bellies not yet having become a fashion accessory in their own right.
And thus “the Kelly bag”, which has been copied and tweaked in many ways since, was created.
The original, in tan leather, will be part of the Bendigo exhibition. So will a small, prettily worked tapestry bag that Kelly carried the night she won an Academy Award for The Country Girl in 1955 and to the official “reception of wedding gifts” after her marriage.
The basement collection is presided over by Kelly’s former palace wardrobe mistress, Maryel Girardin. She worked for the Monaco palace for 50 years, 25 of them with Kelly. She was the princess’s embroiderer and linen supervisor overseeing a staff of 30 and later worked as her seamstress, too.
Kelly was casual and spontaneous in her everyday life, Girardin says. She would roll up bare of make-up, in everyday clothes, carrying a Vogue pattern she wanted made up or asking for a special little something from Girardin’s nimble fingers, such as an embroidered apron to be part of a Monagasque national dress.
One of the special requests was a full-length coat in red and gold brocade, which Girardin made up for her from a sketch and from fabric that Kelly had already found. “She always knew exactly what she wanted,” Girardin says. “She was always very certain.”
Girardin had come to France at the age of 10 from Vietnam, orphaned by war and raised by nuns in a religious institution. She dislikes talking about that. “I don’t look back,” she says briefly. Thanks to Kelly, she says, she has had a happy life and seen many marvellous things, such as the glittering banquets laid out for special functions. She helped raise the princess’s children; Kelly wanted her in the nursery, too.
She performs a different kind of labour of love now. It was Girardin who, on Prince Rainier’s orders, gathered all Kelly’s clothes together after her death. She helps curators assemble and display them for exhibitions and she made Kelly’s replica wedding dress. Photographing clothes for The Saturday Age, Girardin knows just how to make them sit well with the help of a pin here or a judiciously placed fistful of tissue paper there. Some are wearing thin with age or developing age-related stains and Girardin has a rescue plan for each one.
After her marriage Kelly wore more haute couture, with Marc Bohan of Christian Dior a favourite. Two of her Bohan evening dresses cannot travel, however, as they are trimmed with ostrich feathers — they might be fit for a princess but they won’t pass modern quarantine rules.
Kelly always said she was frugal with her clothes and rarely threw any out, preferring to re-wear her old favourites. Rainier, on the other hand, liked to go shopping with her and sometimes overruled her thriftiness. She used to say he had excellent taste and instinctively liked the most expensive things, “a delightful quality in a man”.
She had long known she did not want to grow old in Hollywood, which she said was a “town without pity” where only success mattered. She had also seen what life was like for fading stars.
“I get up at seven for the make-up, Rita Hayworth at six, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at five. I don’t want to know the time when I’ll have to come to the studio even earlier,” she said.
But she had not initially thought that her marriage would burn the bridge to Hollywood. She had thought before she married that perhaps she might make more films but somehow it never happened; she was busy with the children and her royal role, the right script did not come at the right time and somehow the possibility floated away.
But royal life brought its own problems. It sounds like there were times she felt like the princess in the tower. Vanity Fair reported that she had tears in her eyes when telling a friend, producer John Foreman, “I know where I am going to be every single day for the rest of my life.”
She had her own interests, though. She revived the glittering grand balls of Monaco’s past, inviting aristocratic as well as Hollywood royalty. Palace staff knew never to throw out telephone directories; she kept them to press flowers, which she arranged into artwork. She made home movies and often inserted herself as a cameo in a final frame — a homage to her old friend Hitch and to her old life, perhaps.
It almost didn’t happen, that plunge off the cliff on the Cote D’Azur that killed her.
Like her meeting with Rainier, Kelly’s exit from the stage of life was linked to fashion. She had filled the back seat of her car with clothes she was taking to be altered for the coming season.
She didn’t want them crushed, so she brushed aside her normal chauffeur to take the wheel herself, with her younger daughter Stephanie at her side.
Driving along the very road made famous in To Catch a Thief, she is said to have suffered a minor stroke that made her lose control of the car. In September 1982, aged only 52, the queen of style and princess of Monaco was dead.
Girardin’s face crumples even today when she is asked about it. “She was so beautiful,” she says through a translator, briefly covering her face with her hands. “Her eyes were sublime. I miss her very much. Twenty-five years [the period they worked together] is a long time.” Kelly once said she wanted to be remembered as a kind and loving person. In Girardin, she gets her wish.
■The exhibition Grace Kelly: Style Icon will be opened by Princess Charlene of Monaco on March 10 and will run from March 11 to June 17 at the Bendigo Art Gallery.
Karen Kissane travelled to Monte Carlo as a guest of Monaco Tourism. 

First published in The Age’s Life and Style Magazine.