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Three woman from the 1930s in black hats, make up and delicate lingerie with fur coats on Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Taina Elg in Les Girls (1957)
  • Dressing Hollywood: the costumes and films of Orry-Kelly


    Posted on: 13/08/2015

    The personal and professional life of three-time Academy Award winning Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly is celebrated in Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood, which runs from 18 August to 17 January. There are many items on display, including 10 of Orry-Kelly’s costumes. Film critic Luke Buckmaster examines a handful of these costumes, revisits the films they were made for and speaks to lead curator Ulanda Blair.

    Director Gillian Armstrong’s new documentary Women He’s Undressed celebrates the life of Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly. The Kiama-born expat migrated to Hollywood in the early 1930s and came to be regarded as one of the greatest costume designers of all time – dresser of Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Wood, Humphrey Bogart, Carey Grant and countless others. But, at least until now, he has been virtually unknown in his home country.

    Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards – for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like it Hot – which is the second highest haul for an Australian of all time, eclipsed only by fellow costume designer and Baz Luhrmann collaborator Catherine Martin (who has won four). But comparing golden statuettes for costume designers comes with a significant caveat: there was no Academy Award for the craft until 1948, and by that time Kelly had worked on a staggering 250 films.

    Some Like It Hot Blog
    Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot

    His personal and professional life is commemorated in the ACMI’s Orry Kelly: Dressing Hollywood exhibition, which includes approximately 100 objects, 40 photographs, 20 letters, three Oscar statuettes and digital clip packages.

    “One of my favourite things is a letter from the censors, working with the production code, asking for all these changes to The Maltese Falcon,” says lead curator Ulanda Blair. “They believed the film was inflammatory and immoral, asking for costume changes and things like that. One thing I’ve really tried to do is give a sense of the social context Orry was working in and the kind of restrictions that were in place at the time.”

    The centrepiece of the exhibition is 10 of Orry-Kelly’s costumes, sourced from a selection of his films. One is director Llloyd Bacon’s The Gold Diggers of 1937, which features outfits that demonstrate very different approaches to the craft: costumes that are both strikingly elaborate and singularly appealing as well as costumes that become memorable when they form part of broader arrangements.

    An example of the former appears in the film’s opening number, featuring Ginger Rogers performing ‘I’m in the Money’ dressed in a gleaming skimpy outfit comprised entirely of coins, a large one obscuring her pelvis. But Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood exhibits one of the latter – a drummer girl costume comprising jacket and hotpants, which forms part of a complex framework arranged by legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley.


    “It’s a very sweet little outfit,” says Blair. “It’s a golden tan kind of colour and it’s drill cotton, so it’s quite a simple costume. The impact on screen is through repetition. By itself it is not dazzling, but it’s still a very lovely costume.”

    The Gold Diggers of 1937 tells the story a stage show endorsed by an insurance company as a way to avoid paying out money in the event of the death of its hypochondriac producer. The smoky black and white texture and depression-era settings impart a time capsulate-esque feel, but the pace and pep of the film give it a second, third, fourth, fifth life: it is an imminently re-watchable toe-tapping crowd-pleaser.

    Director Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 comedy-drama Gypsy, one of Hollywood’s most famous films about a stripper, is a different and far less lean kettle of fish, with a patchy plot structure and bloated 143 minute running time.

    But the film, which focuses on the story of a wholesome young woman lured into the world of burlesque, is a great example of Orry-Kelly’s work. There are few films where the work of the costume design virtually single-handedly save it from the doldrums, but this is one. Orry-Kelly’s designs imbue the production with a rich visual flavour that keeps it interesting.

    Nat Wood Gyp BlogNatalie Wood in Gypsy (1962). Photo credit: Corbis

    Gypsy builds to a strip show in which screen siren Natalie Wood takes her clothes off in front of a ravenous male audience. Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood showcases the bright yellow gown and little jacket Wood wears in this very famous scene, when her character finally becomes Gypsy Rose Lee.

    “They are not particularly revealing outfits even though she is playing a stripper,” says Blair. “They are in many ways quite modest, playing into the innocence of her character. Because she was such a tiny actress, the costume has this intricate beading around her hips to give the illusion of curves.”

    Sketch Natalie Wood Gyp BloOrry-Kelly, costume sketch of Natalie Wood for Gypsy (1962). Courtesy of Barbara Warner Howard. This is an example of the kinds of original sketches on display in the exhibition.

    One of Orry-Kelly's most famous films, director Billy Wilder's 1959 classic Some Like it Hot, used costumes that presented a different kind of illusion: not of height or size but of gender. Stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon play Joe and Jerry, on the run musicians who join an all-female band disguised as women. The stars successfully lobbied for Orry-Kelly to design their costumes as well as leading lady Marilyn Monroe’s.

    For the premise of the film to work, the stars needed to genuinely look like women, resulting in the costumes being joyous in some senses and subtle in others. Blair selected a pair of recurring outfits worn by the men: black chiffon dresses, transparent with glass beading. “The film was set in the 1920s so it’s got the loose, roaring 20s, getting rid of the corsets and girdles and all that sort of stuff going on. They are very freeing type designs,” she says.

    Orry Kelly Tony Curtis BlogOrry-Kelly and Tony Curis, behind the scnes in Some Like it Hot (1959). Photo credit: United Artists/Photofest

    A less well-known Orry-Kelly film, but one that is nevertheless a pleasure to watch today, is 1941 screwball comedy The Bride Came C.O.D., which stars Bette Davis and James Cagney. The two high profile actors were cast against type as unlikely romantic interests in a silly, fluffy, madcap romp about a bride-to-be whose father hires a man to kidnap her to prevent her making it to the altar.

    “Orry had a kind of career-defining ongoing collaboration with Bette Davis. They worked over a 14 year period together so it was really important I had one of her costumes on display,” says Blair.

    The costume on display is a silk robe and negligee from a scene depicting a confrontation between Joan Winfield (Davis) and Steve Collins (Cagney).

    And, of course, there is the spectacular Les Girls. This extremely colourful 1957 MGM musical is told via flashbacks from a trio of dancers who offer contradictory courtroom accounts of their on and off stage lives. Director George Cukor (who also made My Fair Lady and A Star is Born) takes a narrative structure famously used in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950) and repurposes it into a thigh-slapping spectacle. 

    The two costumes from the film exhibited in Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood are worn by the lead characters in the first song and song sequence.

    “One is a long black column strapless velvet dress, with a silk ivory jacket over the top which has this sort of shocking red lining and quite a dramatic black hat,” says Blair.

    “Towards the end of that sequence they are seen wearing the hat but with these flesh coloured pale pink jewel encrusted leotards. It’s like they’ve stripped off the dress and underneath are show girl leotards.”

    - Luke Buckmaster

    Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood runs from 18 Aug - 17 Jan, while Women He's Undressed and more films featuring Orry-Kelly's designs run throughout the length of the exhibition in our Australian Perspectives program. 

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