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The Guardian (27/Jul/2007) - State of Grace: Grace Kelly

(c) The Guardian (27/Jul/2007)

State of Grace

Curvy dresses, prim white gloves and the Kelly handbag ... more than 50 years after her Hollywood heyday, the effortlessly stylish Princess of Monaco is still inspiring the world's top designers. Bronwyn Cosgrave reports

"Why not sing about Audrey Hepburn?" a reporter asked the pop star Mika, as his single Grace Kelly topped the UK charts earlier this year. No one, the singer replied, could resist the blonde superstar who managed to seduce the lead actor on almost every film she made - a roll call that reportedly included Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Ray Milland, Bing Crosby and William Holden. Mika also confessed that he penned Grace Kelly's provocative lyrics - "Am I too dirty? Am I too flirty?" - after enduring an hour-long meeting with record company executives "telling me how I should change to be more commercial".

Twenty-five years after Kelly's death, no fashion legend - not effortlessly chic Hepburn, sultry Elizabeth Taylor or glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis - can rival her pulling power. Half a century after she used a Hermès saddlebag to shield her pregnancy bump from a Life magazine photographer, the "Kelly" - as the accessory became known - remains an international bestseller. The Princess Grace aura also bolstered Gucci's flagging fortunes when in 2005, the brand's incoming creative director, Frida Giannini, resurrected "Flora" - a perky floral pattern created in 1966 for her Royal Highness as the motif adorning a handbag range and a cruise-wear line. Both became must-haves. And 53 years after Life proclaimed 1954 the "year of Grace" - because of the release of five of her hit films, including Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers Dial M for Murder and Rear Window - the fashion scene is dominated by looks inspired by her glacial glamour.

Next month, Louis Vuitton will debut its autumn 2007 campaign, featuring an ice-cool Scarlett Johansson emulating Kelly as the expertly groomed 50s Hollywood debutante. And Calvin Klein will launch designer Francisco Costa's autumn/winter collection with curvy dresses inspired by Helen Rose, the MGM costumer for the 1955 fairytale High Society. The preppy, elegant wardrobe for the film so pleased Kelly that it became part of the extensive trousseau she sported in 1956 during her wedding to Rainier III, Prince of Monaco. The Prada turban - 2007's most controversial accessory - owes a lot to Kelly too. In her decadent "turban period" - when freewheeling, fortysomething Princess Grace, reportedly separated from Rainier, divided her time between Paris and Monaco in the "company of younger men" - she proved women could look cool on a bad-hair day.

The Grace Kelly Years, a grand exhibition that runs at Monte Carlo's Grimaldi Forum until September 23 and is set to travel to London, attempts to put Kelly the icon into some sort of context. Tracing, chronologically, the origin and impact of her classic style, it presents for the first time a stunning array of screen costumes, lavish Paris couture and luxury accessories in tandem with personal memorabilia, film and sound recordings. The personal finery makes particularly fascinating viewing because Kelly was a power shopper who fastidiously preserved her possessions in a personal archive at the Monte Carlo palace. After her death, a devoted aide fulfilled the duty for a quarter of a century. "She was like a super-governess - a great lady who, charged with the custody of the princess's 250 dresses, took them out every year, ironed them, aired them and made them fresh," explains the exhibition's curator, Frédéric Mitterrand, a former actor and nephew of former French president François Mitterrand. He spent two years inspecting the Princess's wardrobe and selecting the best items for display, including paparazzi-wowing red-carpet Hollywood numbers as well as the couture by Balenciaga, Chanel, Christian Dior, Madame Grès and Yves Saint Laurent that the princess wore while undertaking official duties for the Monégasques.

But by dividing Kelly's life into neat stages, the show glazes over the struggles that she faced. Growing up in Ravenhill, a salubrious part of Philadelphia, Kelly strove to earn the approval of Jack Kelly, her cold-hearted property tycoon father. Kelly's formidable mother, Margaret, who headed the physical education department at the University of Pennsylvania, can take much of the credit for her daughter's commitment and her lithe, dancer's frame.

The scope of Kelly's fashion legacy is underscored in the exhibition by the ice-blue satin ensemble in which Kelly claimed her Oscar for her part in Country Girl. In its sweep and innocent pastel shade, it can claim to be the forerunner of the ceremonial attire created by Prada, Gucci and Ralph Lauren for modern stars as Uma Thurman, Helen Hunt and Gwyneth Paltrow. But the true heart of the exhibition is the Hitchcock room. "Hitchcock was the first director to realise Grace Kelly's talent and make her feel like she was a great actress," Mitterrand explains.

The portly master-craftsman, whose movie contracts included a clause stipulating that he controlled the look of his films - including the costumes - dispatched Kelly and Paramount's expert designer, Edith Head, to the Hermès flagship shop at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris. There, the pair would acquire accessories for Kelly's star turn as Frances Stevens, the oil heiress vacationing in Cannes at the Hotel Carlton in To Catch a Thief. "People dress here," explained Hitchcock to his location chief on the film. "It's the place where style is created. So do it."

And at some point as Kelly peeled off her trademark white cloth gloves, and slipped in and out of the butter-soft suede models and hand-embroidered leathers offered up to her on a silver tray at Hermès, she became hooked on the label. Meanwhile, Head discovered Kelly as a perfect muse. "Grace Kelly and I were her pets," confirmed Arlene Dahl, the Paramount actress, describing their relationship with Head. "Edith taught us everything from the bottom up, from the inside out, how to stand and how to hold the train of a dress."

In 1954, Head spent $4,000, a then-astronomical sum, acquiring French satin for Kelly's Oscar dress. Like a fond picture postcard, the cloak and dress recalled the fun they had in Paris prepping To Catch a Thief. Its light aquamarine satin dusted with mother-of-pearl beads matched the colour of Kelly's eyes. It was the sort of sugar-spun shade Hitchcock felt best suited his ideal blonde and also evoked the imperious spirit he asked Head to capture while making Kelly's Rear Window wardrobe. "Make her look like a princess," Hitchcock told her.