A New Exhibition Celebrates Grace Kelly's Defining Classic Style

The Princess Grace exhibition at the Christian Dior Museum in France showcases the icon's glamorous clothes and accessories


Grace Kelly, circa 1955. Photo / Getty Images

You don’t have to dig deep to find catwalk (and high street) nods to Grace Kelly. Dior is forever referencing her, as well they might, given that she patronised the house from her early 20s to her death. Even in the early days, when she didn’t always wear the real thing, she wore “tributes” rustled up by studio costume designers.

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She was never an official muse, but so perfectly did her aesthetic overlap with Dior’s, it’s hard to know who inspired whom. After Dior’s death in 1957, Kelly struck up a fruitful working relationship with Marc Bohan, the underrated creative director whose three decades-long reign lasted longer than anyone’s, including the founder.

Now, the fashion house is mounting an exhibition of Kelly’s Dior clothes and accessories (taken from her personal collection, diligently preserved by her son, Prince Albert) at its museum in Granville, the designer’s birthplace in northern France. It follows hot on the heels of the mega, sold-out show at London’s V&A.

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Why is it that her style and taste is so enduring when other, equally lustrous stars from her Hollywood heyday — Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, Cyd Charisse — seem marooned in their time? The more we’re exposed to Kelly, the more permanent her place in the ether.

There’s a reason for the ubiquity. Like that other lodestar of 20th-century elegance, Audrey Hepburn, Kelly was blessed with innate style. True, she was cultivated by two legendary and terrifying style visionaries, Edith Head, the costume designer, and Alfred Hitchcock, the director, but she wasn’t the exclusive invention of her Svengalis.

Photos of the young actress ooze poise and reveal an instinctive inclination towards simplicity, a style choice that always ages better than complexity and fussiness. You only have to look at the exhibits in Camp: Notes on Fashion, at The Met museum in New York, to see how extremes and convolutions can relegate you to a fashion curiosity at best or a joke at worst.

Like Hepburn, Kelly emerged after two world wars, and neither had the harsh, brittle look of pre-war stars. Hepburn became the gamine precursor of Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Kate Moss, while Kelly’s soft, tastefully curvaceous look remains the template for the red carpet. The late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, whose chic, simple uniform of shirts, sweaters, fitted skirts and minimalist dresses inspired many a fashionista (including one Meghan Markle), had clearly studied the spirit, if not the letter, of Kelly’s modus stylisti.

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Codifying Kelly’s style — both during her Hollywood career and the regal Monaco years — isn’t difficult. It was unpretentious and unapologetically feminine without ever being overly sexualised. She was consistent and clear: crisp shirts and shirt dresses, neat suits, discreetly expensive accessories, cat’s eye sunglasses, gently waved hair, always hovering around the chin or just above the shoulder; but she also moved with the times.

As the decades wound on and her body changed, the stiff, unforgiving fabrics of the Fifties and early Sixties — the taffetas and wools — gave way to softer, flowier chiffons and jerseys. The glasses grew larger and more square-shaped; the hair remained immaculate but acquired root lift and volume and was darkened a little (the opposite direction of colour travel for most women as they get older, but in the early Seventies, the platinum blondes of the Fifties would have seemed very dated).

Nor was she afraid of being playful, with feathers, turbans, embellished kaftans and ever more extravagant jewellery. Perhaps she had become aware of her own status as a bone-fide fashion icon, which opened her up to being a camp figure, and had decided to have some fun with this. If she had not died at 52, would she have become a fully fledged Camp Standard Bearer or pulled back?

Probably the latter. She was too respectful of her rank as a princess in one of Europe’s oldest monarchies to play fast and loose with its signs and symbols. As the child of successful Irish immigrants, she learnt early the importance of upwardly mobile dressing and never stopped using clothing to buttress her rank and, by extension, that of the small principality she served.

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There are style lessons here aplenty, but not literal ones (the lessons we take from our favourite style inspirations should never be literal). If she were around today, she would be wearing expressions of Grace, rather than replicas: soft shirt dresses, deconstructed trouser suits, shirts — perhaps a bit of Palmer//Harding asymmetry rather than shirts tied at the waist. She’d still opt for clear, bright pastels over dark colours. There’d be kaftans galore, the shorter versions worn over slim trousers.

It would be much easier to maintain those well-defined eyebrows (she’d probably have gone in for a spot of microblading). She’d still go easy on the pattern (nothing ages an outfit more definitively than a print, which anchors it to a year as closely as the rings on a tree), cultivate her wardrobe of belts to shape her silhouette, and have a field day with all the turbans and hair bands around at the moment. She’d definitely still be shopping at Dior. She inspired so much of it, after all.

• The Princess Grace exhibition is at the Christian Dior Museum, Granville, France, until Nov 17 2019; Musee- dior-granville.com

— The Daily Telegraph

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