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Grace Kelly defined


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<span style="font-size:10.5pt;">Grace Kelly defined

As the V&A dedicates an exhibition to the iconic style of Grace Kelly, we reveal why her elegance and mystery endures today

Luke Leitch

their appeal was upfront and understood. But Grace Kelly? Hedda Hopper, the most powerful and poisonous gossip merchant in Hollywood history, declared herself bamboozled. "What has Grace Kelly got?" she mused in her syndicated column: "There, you have me. What is it about Grace Kelly that has our town in a tizzy?"

That was in August 1954, when Kellymania was in full swing. That year alone five films starring "the Philadelphia mainliner" (Hopper's description), including Alfred Hitchcock masterworks Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, were released. Two years later Kelly's fantasy trajectory was complete when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco to become a model-turned-actress-turned-princess.

Next week Kelly is to be immortalised afresh in the blockbuster exhibition opening at the V&A. And as the latest looks from the autumn/winter 2010 collections attest (see overleaf) Grace Kelly provided a paradigm of chic that continues to inspire fashion's great houses more than half a century after that cinematic peak. So while Hedda Hopper never found a satisfactory answer to her catty question (she, rather unsisterishly, would eventually brand Kelly a nymphomaniac), we can . . .

1. Great genes + good training

Her mother, Margaret Majer Kelly, was a swimming champion and successful model of German descent. Her father, Jack Kelly, was a strapping, self-made Irish-Roman Catholic who won gold at the Olympics in sculling (three times) and went from bricklayer to millionaire building contractor.

After an early passion for ballet foundered as she grew too tall, Kelly declared her ambition to become an actor. She subsidised her years as a drama student in New York by modelling. That, with the dancing, gave her that floaty, sternum-first poise.

To combat her unenchantingly high and nasal natural voice, she subjected herself to rigorous elocution exercises — where she picked up that breathy, straight-from-the-diaphragm English luvvie-speak, now exemplified by Carey Mulligan.

2. A cinematic genius who worshipped her

When Ingrid Bergman fell by the wayside, Alfred Hitchcock needed a new leading lady for Dial M for Murder. He found Kelly, who proved so hypnotically camera friendly that Hitchcock went on to cast her in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief too. Hitchcock's lens lingered tellingly on Kelly at every opportunity, panning away only to infer what he could not show, as per the fireworks when she kisses Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.

3. A whiff of intrigue

Hitchcock called her a "snow-covered volcano". In time, it transpired that this snow could, on occasion, be defrosted, at least to slush. What were at first rumours were gradually corroborated: Kelly was, for the period, really rather racy. From Clark Gable in Mogambo to William Holden in The Country Girl (for which she won her Oscar) and a smattering of civilian swains, Kelly fooled around. Hopper bitterly branded her a "nymphomaniac", which was far too strong a word for what, post-sexual revolution, is perfectly normal behaviour. But at the time the collision between her iceberg-bright, wholesome exterior and the rumours of "unwholesomeness" served only to spark her audience's appetite. George Seaton, director of The Country Girl, alluded to this when he told Hopper: "Grace is subtle. You start discovering her the day you meet her, and you go right on discovering. And even when the last scene is shot you have the feeling there's lots more to know about the girl . . . what I'm saying is that Grace is the eternal female. She makes you feel you are discovering her. Men like to feel that way about women."

4. Faultless fashion advice

Too scruffy even to be called preppy, the young Grace Kelly liked to dress down, perhaps as an apology for those looks. Once on a studio contract, however, she fell under the guidance of two great Hollywood designers. At MGM Helen Rose dressed Kelly in Mogambo (effortless safari-chic), The Swan (empire-line princess fantasy) and High Society (Grecian goddess attire updated for the 20th century). And at Paramount Edith Head — who always wore shades — created the daringly contemporary chic of the first two Hitchcock films, as well as the wish-fulfillment Riviera-wear of To Catch a Thief. And one of Kelly's boyfriends was Oleg Cassini, a designer who in 1961 would become the official couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy.

5. Leave them wanting more

Just two years after that snarky Hedda Hopper column, Grace Kelly made High Society, her final film. The last great Kelly production was her wedding, filmed by MGM (Helen Rose designed the wedding dress) and attended by more journalists than guests. After that, however, Kelly was never meaningfully committed to celluloid again (she tried to reconvene with Hitchcock, but her husband forbade it). The public saw photographs of Grace's key later life stages — princess and mother — and she was an avid consumer of fashion throughout the 1960s (plenty of floaty kaftan dresses) and the 1970s (often unfortunate), when she even became a brunette. Yet the broader perception of Kelly will for ever be corralled in that speedily produced portfolio of 11 films from the mid-1950s.

6. The Princess fantasy

There was the enormous box of Van Cleef & Arpels jewellery from her Prince. The huge wedding trousseau containing hundreds of items by the best designers of the time. And the cream and black Rolls-Royce that was a wedding gift from Kelly's new Monégasque subjects. Her role in The Swan anticipated her elevation to princess, and the Riviera setting of To Catch a Thief — in which, by chance, she pronounces Monaco the most beautiful place in the world — anticipated her eventual home. That Grace Kelly left the public gaze not in disgrace, or through death, but to take up the ultimate for-ever-after posting as princess.

7. Timing and timelessness

The slightly tedious succès d'estime that is Mad Men is being cited as the great influence on the collections this year. Really, though, series 1 Mad Men is a costume drama homage to the 1950s style best worn by Kelly. Rear Window, but without the suspense. Or, as the show's costume designer Janie Bryant tells Vanity Fair this month: "Every time I see Grace Kelly I'm influenced by what she wears. The simplicity, it's so classic, but it's always dramatic." But to say Grace Kelly's style endures simply thanks to a vogueish TV show, or a single season rich in 1950s references, would be to do down her memory. Fashionwise, Kelly is a hugely photogenic, strangely blank beauty, who wore beautiful clothes very publicly — just as the designers who dressed her really hit their stride.

Grace Kelly: Style Icon, sponsored by Van Kleef & Arpels, opens on April 17. For more information see: vam.ac.uk</span>

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No, I haven't but I'd love to. Hate to use such an overused word, but the idea of living there seems surreal to me, this tiny little $$$ principality by the sea that looks like something out of a storybook.

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It is very pretty and used to be very charming. The whole Cote d'Azur was. However, there is a seamy underbelly to Monaco now which probably always was there but was better hidden. It is very glitzy, very bling, a bit like St Tropez, with lots of dodgy, rolex-wearing types cruising for "models." And by that, I mean the Russian mob cruising for high-end hookers. These mob ties go right the way to the very top -- Princess Grace gave a sheen of respectability to Le Rocher and Prince Rainier who was, essentially, a kingpin.

Also, because Monaco is so teeny (about the size of Central Park) and a tax haven, everybody wants to live there. As a result, it is very built up, with lots of pink-colored high-rise apartments.

But there is no mistaking the luxurious boutiques and the ginormous yachts idling in the harbor. The weather is stunning from March-November and the quality of life is pretty fab. I wouldn't say No if I was offered a chance to live there, although I think Cannes (and its satelite village in the hills Le Cannet) is prettier, Cap Ferrat classier and big city Nice has much more going for it.

As for this exhibition, I cannot wait to see it! I think I saw something similar last summer in Paris but it is worth a second trip. The private photos and family film that Grace took are quite poignant, and the letters Hitchcock wrote to her were hilarious.

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