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March 16, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

Grace Kelly Exhibition (Bendigo Art Gallery)


If you don’t like your mother, make the drive to Bendigo and go and see this exhibition. Upon hearing the news that you saw the famous soft lilac sleeved and embroidered dress Kelly wore while flirting with Frank Sinatra AND Bing Crosby in High Society, chances are good that your mother may melt with envy. You may want to consider telling your mother about the exhibition on some grass, or in your mother’s house instead of your own. Just saying.

For anyone who is even mildly interested in beautiful clothes or the films of Grace Kelly, you’ll be completely in your element at this exhibition. As I am obsessed with the gorgeous High Society and duly appreciate the material that anyone from Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy (also preferred dressmaker of Audrey Hepburn) and MGM dressmakers have touched, this exhibition ticks all the right classic elegance buttons, although the gallery itself did sometimes seem incapable of adequately planning for the crowds that this exhibition would attract. My primary gripes come from the fact that, in order to protect the dresses, the lighting was so dark you could barely read the information plates (in a tiny font, too) that explained the history of each dress. If I found it difficult, I can only imagine how the many older Kelly fans are going to fare when reading most of the text in the exhibit. The layout too, was awkward, with no clear flow path for guests to follow. In order to see every exhibit, it’s necessary to bump and wiggle through spots in an ad hoc line along one exhibit case in order to catch everything. And lastly, the gallery could have done with, well, me – there were several rather obvious typos in their exhibit text, made worse by the fact that featured text was transferred onto exhibit walls in what was probably 20-font.

But enough of my griping. The exhibition itself seems to have little wanting, as there’s plenty for cinophiles and Kellyphiles alike. Film costumes and the clothing she wore in her royal role as Princess of Monaco to her Prince Rainier III are more or less equally distributed. There’s Grace Kelly’s wedding dress, in replica, since the real thing is far too delicate to travel. Kate Middleton’s own wedding dress seems like a faithful homage to Kelly’s original choice. Aside from, perhaps, the high collar, it’s hard to imagine Kelly’s dress will ever go out of fashion. You can also see the dress Kelly allegedly had to throw on (after a power outage at her hotel made no other choice possible) the day she met her future husband, Prince Rainier III. There’s also Kelly’s real civil union gown, a much less extravagant but no less beautiful number than her white wedding gown. The former appears alongside the original Hermes ‘Kelly’ bag that Kelly herself made famous from constant use.

Among all these clothes, one thing is emphasised; Grace Kelly’s demure young waist, even while warped in a stunning elegant-while-pregnant ballgown. I hear she had a 23-inch waist on the day she was married. My pinkie finger is 23 inches. She was also significantly smaller than me though, scrapping any plans I had of breaking the glass, stealing some Givenchy and trying to shove it over my head as I am chased down Bendigo streets by art gallery security. Kelly’s effortless chic while wearing pretty much anything is emphasised by the dress she wore in Rear Window, a demure black pleated dress with a sweetheart neckline and a transparent bolero that would make any woman look stunning but made Grace Kelly positively magnetic.

Then there is what I term her ‘Oscar glory’ exhibit. There he is, polished to within an inch of his existence. On that day, Oscar’s square little face seemed to call to me. He was telling me something important. It could have been ‘Eat me, I’m actually made of chocolate’, but it also could have been ‘Get your fat head out of my lighting, I’m not shining quite enough.’ Oscar and Kelly made a great pairing, and the dress she wore on the night she won ‘Best Actress’ for The Country Girl, is, again, the kind of demure timeless gown I’d be happy to wear now. It shows some sign of age, particularly as sections of the material bear plenty of weight as the back of the gown is folded dramatically and beautifully in a way that allows the train to cascade straight down, in an apparently effortless waterfall of a kind of peppermint green.

Don’t forget, of course, that Kelly was also a woman loaded with cases of beautiful jewellery. She wore it all quite sparingly, but her pairings with clothes was always magnificent. A small case at this exhibit has enough diamonds to make the late Elizabeth Taylor faint in envy, but I’d wager the way either woman would have worn the pieces were on polar-opposite extremes. Either way, Cartier people are probably clapping their hands with delight at all the free publicity this exhibit is supplying.

For me, the highlight had to be the numerous High Society dresses that made it into the exhibit. There’s Kelly’s lovely sleeved and full-skirted embroidered lilac dress that she wore while pretending to be drunk and skirting some very strict boundaries on flirting with two men (Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra). There’s the balloon-sleeved, striped dress she wore for the ‘wedding’, and even the goddess-like white gown she wore as her and Crosby’s characters discussed their ship, the True Love, by a swimming pool. All of the costumes, for me, recall the kind of timeless Kelly fanaticism that hinges on Kelly staying exactly as she was; young, slender and achingly beautiful.

Her clothing choices overall, however, remind me just how talented she was at being one person removed from her own appearance. She seemed to completely grasp the idea of ‘dressing herself'; that is, understanding what did and didn’t suit her and sticking to this idea resolutely, throughout the decades she was in the public eye. It resulted in the kind of cool elegance that, when captured in a photo right next to the more extravagant style choices of Elizabeth Taylor, has the unfortunate tendency of making the latter look as though she had just stepped out of the nearest Cartier-funded trailer park. Kelly’s seeming incapability to hit a wrong note meant that if you were friends with her, woe betide the woman who didn’t do everything she could to keep up with the style icon, lest she be comparatively hideous in a chance publicity shot.

If you’re a fan of Kelly, High Society, little Oscar, wedding dresses or designer clothes in general, you may hate yourself for going. There’s just no way to compete with this woman, who seemed to conquer everything she touched; acting, royal love matches, a move to Monaco, the rigours of ageing. While in 1982 Kelly succumbed to death, just like any mere mortal, she is encapsulated in this fascinating collection of threads. It’s not often that anyone would want to be embodied by something as materialistic as clothes; I think in Kelly’s case, she’s a lucky woman.

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