Grace Kelly
Style icon

review by Thérèse Osborne

Grace Kelly’s acting career was over before I was born, and I turned 50 this year. A popular and glamorous actress, she made 17 movies until her marriage in 1956. But it was this marriage, to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, that transformed her in the public’s mind into the imagined princess of fairytales – an enduring story that has been lived and relived in hugely popular, contemporary Cinderella stories: Princess Diana, Princess Mary and, most recently, Princess Catherine. For Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios it was a publicity dream come true, and the company did all it could to blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy, encapsulated in the 1956 release of The Swan, in which Kelly plays the part of a European princess. Just to complete this slightly confused circle, MGM’s last film starring Kelly was its footage of the royal wedding itself.

'The actress' gallery in the exhibition
The first gallery in the exhibition, 'The actress', displaying costumes that featured in Kelly's most famous film roles
Bendigo Art Gallery

The exhibition Grace Kelly: Style Icon has been showing at the Bendigo Art Gallery in regional Victoria – its sole Australian venue – since March. Curated and organised by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, there was apparently some room for Bendigo Art Gallery director, Karen Quinlan, and her curators to have input into the choice of objects – the most significant addition to the display being the ‘official’ copy of Kelly’s wedding dress (the original being too frail to travel). The exhibition occupies four of the gallery’s main exhibition spaces, each devoted (chronologically) to a major theme: ‘Actress’, ‘Bride’, ‘Princess’ and ‘Enduring icon’. The rooms are dimly lit and the exhibition labels especially so. It is an exhibition of costumes, rather than clothes – the dresses are from films, parties and special occasions, underscoring the remoteness, almost aloofness of Grace Kelly’s personal style.

'The bride' gallery in the Grace Kelly exhibition
'The bride' gallery in the Grace Kelly exhibition - the floral print McCall's pattern dress that Kelly wore when she met Prince Rainier can be seen in the background
Bendigo Art Gallery

Lovers of fashion, and lovers of Grace Kelly, will probably not be disappointed. The former will be content with dresses by Christian Dior, Givenchy (including an exceptional purple silk dress from 1960), Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent (the 1965 ‘Mondrian’ dress is probably the star of the exhibition), while 45 pairs of sunglasses by Oliver Goldsmith provide a quirky distraction in the exhibition’s final room. The latter will find dresses that they recognise from significant moments in Grace’s life and career – dresses from her most famous films (an Edith Head design in floating black chiffon from Rear Window), the dress she wore for her first meeting with Prince Rainier (a cheerful print from a McCall’s ‘Easy-to-sew’ pattern book), and other stunning gowns (her favourite ‘Bayadère’ dress that moves in a diaphanous wave from hot pink to yellow, by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior). Photographs of Kelly wearing each of the outfits help to bring the static display to life, as do the films on various topics: her film career, the engagement and marriage, family life. Home movies show a more relaxed side of the ever-reserved princess, but they also reinforce the sense of just how elite her life is, as she lounges poolside with various members of the royal family, and other celebrities such as David Niven, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Aristotle Onassis. Kelly is ever passive, often aloof. ‘Are you happy?’ asks a reporter, and the princess sighs. ‘I have had moments of happiness.’

The gallery’s website claims that the exhibition examines Kelly’s ‘glamorous Hollywood image and enduring appeal’, but there is little analysis to be found in the exhibition text panels. These tend to use the same sorts of descriptions of the actress/princess that have always been used: she is summed up with phrases like ‘cool beauty’ and ‘subtle sex appeal’ – the truth is that it is really hard to grasp either what Kelly herself was really like, or why she is still so popular. The official website also claims that the exhibition will explore the evolution of Kelly’s style, but again, the evolution is not so much in Kelly’s personal style (which retains a certain conservative, although highly polished elegance throughout), but rather the natural ebb and flow of fashion trends throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s.

'The princess' gallery in the Grace Kelly exhibition
Some of Kelly's most beautiful dresses feature in the third gallery, 'The princess', including a shell pink Maggy Rouff ballgown just left of centre
Bendigo Art Gallery

In fact, the most interesting thing about this exhibition is not the phenomenon of Grace Kelly per se, but the phenomenon of this Grace Kelly exhibition, in this venue, in this town, at this time. I suspected that there was something a bit unusual about this exhibition when, for several weeks before I visited Bendigo, people started asking me whether I was going there to see Grace Kelly. The Bendigo Art Gallery, in the words of Premier Ted Baillieu announcing $160,000 worth of Victorian Government sponsorship for the exhibition, is certainly ‘punching well above its weight’. Grace Kelly has been extensively advertised, including an enormous poster plastered on an overpass on the freeway leading out of Melbourne, and full page spreads in fashion magazines Vogue and Frankie. The Melbourne Fashion Festival held themed Grace Kelly events and Victorian railways put together a package offering discounted exhibition entry for train travellers to Bendigo. Promotional puffs, including glamorous Kelly lookalikes chasing (and catching) press coverage, preceded the opening of the exhibition. The opening itself was a glittering occasion, and the exhibition was launched by Grace’s daughter-in-law Princess Charlene of Monaco.

Image from the Bendigo Art Gallery's marketing campaign
One of the images from the Bendigo Art Gallery's well-orchestrated marketing campaign

And these efforts certainly seem to have paid off. We visited on an ordinary Monday in April, and were advised to book. When we turned up, about an hour before the first session of the morning, two of the sessions for that day were already sold out – each session accommodates 300 visitors. The ticket seller told me that all the previous weekend’s sessions had sold out. We sat across the road from the museum, drinking coffee amidst several Grace Kelly-themed shopfronts and watching the queue form to enter the exhibition, out the door of the museum and down the footpath. Visitor numbers have been consistently good: the Bendigo Advertiser reported more than 5000 people through the doors on the first day, and has predicted a total visitation of 125,000 and an injection into Bendigo’s economy of $10 million. (By the end of April, 85,000 tickets have been sold and the last few weeks of the exhibition, notwithstanding the extra sessions being scheduled, are largely booked out.)

There is little doubt that the gallery’s outstanding recent performance (Grace Kelly follows on the heels of two other highly popular exhibition that, coincidentally, also focused on frocks: Golden Age of Couture (2009) and The White Wedding Dress (2011)) can be firmly credited to its director, Karen Quinlan. The figures are astonishing – when Quinlan arrived as a curator in the mid-1990s, visitation was about 17,000 annually. This financial year, the gallery is expecting the figure to be closer to 250,000. Quinlan’s choices of exhibitions, her connections with international institutions, in particular the V&A, and ability to garner funding from state and local government, have all contributed to the gallery’s recent success.

Grace Kelly will be the last major temporary exhibition at the Bendigo Art  Gallery for some time. In mid-2012, building work will start on a $7.55 million redevelopment of the gallery. Watch this space.

Thérèse Osborne is a co-editor of reCollections.

Exhibition: Grace Kelly: Style Icon
Institution: Victoria & Albert Museum, London with the Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria, drawing on an exhibition originally put together by the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco
Venue: Bendigo Art Gallery
Exhibition team from the Victoria & Albert Museum, headed by Jenny Lister; exhibition team from the Grimaldi Forum; and team from the Bendigo Art Gallery, including Karen Quinlan, Tansy Curtin and Leanne Fitzgibbon
Exhibition design:
Design Office
Graphic design:

Good One Graphics

H Kristina Haugland, Grace Kelly Style, ed. by Jenny Lister, V&A Publishing in association with Bendigo Art Gallery, London, 2010
Bendigo Art Gallery, 42 View St, Bendigo, Victoria, 11 March 2012 - 17 June 2012