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Grace Kelly exhibition in London

Madonna, Marilyn, Beyonce, even Britney. One of the signs that a celebrity has truely become a star is when those of us who aren't even remotely interested in fame recognise them by first name only.

18 Jul 2010

By Steve Meacham

Madonna, Marilyn, Beyonce, even Britney. One of the signs that a celebrity has truly become a star is when those of us who aren’t even remotely interested in fame recognise them by their first name only.

So what does the Christian name ‘Grace’ convey?

Bet you are thinking of Grace Patricia Kelly, aka Princess Grace of Monaco, who starred in just five films - including such classics as High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and High Society - before retiring from the screen to marry royalty, aged 26.

A new exhibition about Kelly, who died in 1982 in a car crash near her palace, has just opened at London’s venerable Victoria and Albert Museum, dedicated to the actress’s long-lasting impact on style - the classic and enduring antithesis (according to many critics) of the ephemeral and sluttish thing we know as ‘fashion’.

Reviews of the V & A show (Grace Kelly: Style Icon, marking the 50th anniversary of her wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco) have been mixed (more later). But its very existence and popularity proves that over the past decade or so, fashion has become as much of an engine of tourism as sport or art was a few decades ago.

It probably all started with Jackie Kennedy and continued with Princess Diana. Those two other undoubted style icons have both prompted museum exhibitions inspired by the clothes they wore rather than the women they were. Likewise Audrey Hepburn’s outfits - and lasting impact on style - merit serious curatorial inspection.

And then there are the designers themselves. Vivienne Westwood and the late Gianni Versace have both been the subject of museum exhibitions around the world, and the current spate of movies about Coco Chanel is bound to mean shows featuring her clothes are just around the corner.

In the past few years, too, fashion shows themselves have become tourist attractions. Sydney’s Fashion Week, for example, brings in visitors from all over Australia - not just those in the trade. The same is true of Paris and Milan. Even if you can’t score a ticket to one of the big name haute courtoire shows it is worth planning a trip to those fashion capitals during the collection seasons just to soak up the atmosphere.

But back to the Grace Kelly exhibition, which ends in September. The London Daily Telegraph’s critic, Richard Dorment - a former curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Kelly’s wedding dress (designed by Edith Head), has long been one of the most popular items on display - was sniffy.

Dorment labelled the show ‘‘a damp squib’’, complaining that “though she owned dresses by Dior, Givenchy, Chanel and Balenciaga, in this exhibition her threadbare clothes, well-worn hats, naff jewels, scruffy shoes, and scuffed handbags look as if they came from a high-class Oxfam shop”.

His main criticism was that the clothes were all too conservative (“Grace had her own style – which was correct, proper but never adventurous”.)

Other reviewers have been much kinder. The Daily Mail’s Tamara Abraham quotes the verdict of McCall’s magazine of Kelly in 1955: “The thing that made her stand out is what we call ‘style’.” According to Abraham, ‘”almost six decades on, the statement is as true now as it was then”.

The exhibition features not only the outfits she wore in Hitchcock classics such as Dial M For Murder and To Catch A Thief, or the gown she wore to accept her Oscar in 1955, but also the clothes she wore to her first meeting with Prince Rainier in 1955 and the French haute couture required for her final role as Princess of Monaco.

Her favourite couturiers were Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves St Laurent. And yet, of course, perhaps her main legacy to style wasn’t a gown, a hat or anything she actually wore.

It was that practical accessory still known as “the Kelly bag” - the classic Hermès creation she first popularised in 1956, the year of her marriage.

The design wasn’t new; in fact it dated back to the 1930s, but legend has it that in 1956, the newly-pregnant Princess shielded her growing stomach from the papparazi by clasping the bag to her. Fifty years on, it is as popular as ever.

Published: 18 Jul 2010