Grace Under Fire

Every little girl dreams of becoming a princess—or at least that’s what people thought once upon a time. Nowadays, young women are more likely to look up to female pop stars, politicians, and professional athletes. But the Cinderella narrative, the hope of being plucked from obscurity by a handsome Prince Charming and showered with all the couture and tiaras one could ever want, still holds power in our collective imagination.

How else to explain the exhibit Grace Kelly: From Movie Star to Princess at the TIFF Bell Lightbox? The indisputably beautiful Kelly shot to fame in the 1950s as Alfred Hitchcock’s “icy blonde” in classics like Rear Window and To Catch A Thief, only to abandon acting to marry His Serene Highness Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Unlike the princesses-turned-celebrities Diana Spencer and Kate Middleton, Princess Grace went in the other direction. Her 1956 wedding was an international news sensation; MGM produced the official documentary, thus delivering the final film on her contract. Princess Grace turned tiny Monaco into a glamorous weekend getaway for her Hollywood friends. Gradually retreating from the camera’s gaze, she wrote poetry and pressed flowers, only to die in a car crash at age 52.

“Grace Kelly brings together the Golden Age of Hollywood, European royalty and the very best of 20th century fashion,” says Noah Cowan, Artistic Director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. “Considered the epitome of elegance and glamour, she was also among the most significant taste-makers for women around the world.”

The show features personal items from Kelly’s time as Hollywood royalty (telegrams signed “Affectionately, Hitch”) and actual royalty (her famous Hermès purse, eventually renamed ‘the Kelly Bag’, with which she cleverly hid her pregnancy).

Despite her fruitful relationship with costume designers Helen Rose and Edith Head, most of the items on display are from Kelly’s personal wardrobe. In lieu of the glamorous gowns she used to seduce Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, we have the simple flower-patterned frock, from an easy-to-sew catalogue, she wore on the fateful day she met Prince Rainier. (A power outage prevented her from ironing the fancier dress she planned on.) It mattered not, as the couple were engaged three days later.

Also on display is a replica of Kelly’s bridal gown. The original was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art shortly after the wedding and is too fragile to travel. The gown, as Cowan explains, is thought by many to be French couture but was actually designed by Kelly’s MGM costumer Helen Rose, an example of Kelly’s overlapping careers as actress and royal.

The Princess’s ‘style icon’ status rests on the classic elegance of her 1950s look, but the exhibit documents her move away from grey tailored Dior suits to Yves Saint Laurent’s famous Mondrian dress and Marc Bohan’s colourful caftans in the 1960s, with, as Cowan puts it, “their corresponding turbans.” Then, after a dark silk jersey caftan designed by Madame Grès, photos of which later inspired Halston, the outfits stop, with no mention of what Princess Grace wore in the last decade of her life.

Afterwards, in the gift shop, as the sales clerks brought out the Kelly memorabilia, I thought about the marketability of celebrity. To be a Royal Highness is, presumably, to achieve a greater level of prestige than that of an actor, but we admire most Kelly’s screen persona—an elegant blonde who always kept her cool.

Becoming a princess solidified Kelly’s fame and crowned her with the adjective “regal,” but it also silenced her and flattened her image to that of a commemorative stamp. Hitchcock wanted the Princess to star in his film Marnie, but Prince Rainier reportedly nipped the idea in the bud. Introducing a classical-inspired draped gown by Christian Dior, which she wore when pregnant, Cowan comments: “Princess Grace did what any good princess should do, and created heirs.”

The glamour of royalty notwithstanding, as I picked up the Grace Kelly Barbie Doll, I hoped we could create a future for little girls more fulfilling than ‘happily ever after.’

text and images by Max Mosher

Grace Kelly: From Movie Star to Princess runs until January 22, 2012 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Along with the exhibit, TIFF will be screening Grace Kelly films Rear Window, To Catch A Thief and Dial M for Murder as part of their series Icy Fire: The Hitchcock Blonde.

One thought on “Grace Under Fire

  1. You went easier on the exhibit than I thought you would, Max. It’s interesting that nothing from the last decade of her life is in the exhibit, I wonder what the reason for that is. I feel a strange but fitting tension in you piece between the exhibit’s portrayal of Kelly as a flat, static icon and attempts to view her as a ‘real’ person, and not an untouchable princess.
    The part about her wearing the floral catalogue dress to meet Prince Rainier because of a power outage made me smile. Tidbits of stories like these I feel bring us closer to the actual individual behind the persona of Grace Kelly that this exhibit (at least from the title even) seems to want to skim over.

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