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Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Taina Elg in Les Girls in 1957. Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Taina Elg in Les Girls in (1957).
  • Orry-Kelly

    Education Resource 

    The Exhibition

    Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood provides a behind the scenes look at Orry-Kelly’s creative genius. In a career spanning more than 30 years, this prodigiously talented Australian costume designer created designs for nearly 300 Hollywood films, dressed some of Hollywood’s greatest stars and won three Academy Awards® for his designs. This exhibition tracks Orry-Kelly’s remarkable journey from the NSW town of Kiama to the star-spangled world of Hollywood; introduces us to the style, inventiveness and diversity of his designs; and explores some of his most significant relationships and collaborations.

    Gillian Armstrong’s introduction to the exhibition.

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    Orry’s Odyssey

    Born in 1897, George Orry Kelly’s journey from coastal Kiama to the glittering world of Hollywood was eventful. As a seventeen-year-old, he travelled to Sydney to work in a bank, whilst moonlighting as an actor and mixing with a number of the city’s more colourful characters. In 1922, at the age of 24, he travelled to New York, picking up a job as a tailor’s assistant and then painting murals for nightclubs and restaurants. In 1931, he moved with his partner Archie Leach to Hollywood. Once in Hollywood, Leach would transform himself into Cary Grant, one of the greatest stars of all time, while Orry-Kelly would make his mark as one of Hollywood’s greatest costume designers.

    Gillian Armstrong’s film Women He’s Undressed (2015), as well as Orry-Kelly’s posthumously published memoir Women I've Undressed tell the story of Orry-Kelly’s voyage from a provincial Australian town to the glamorous world of Hollywood.

    Women He's Undressed (2015) Trailer

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    Gowns by Orry-Kelly

    1 Acmi Orry Kelly

    Costumes: Gold Diggers of 1937 (collection of Geoffrey Harman), Mother Wore Tights (collection of Geoffrey Harman), Auntie Mame (collection of Larry McQueen) and Gypsy (collection of Larry McQueen)

    Orry-Kelly became chief costume designer at Warner Bros in 1932. In his early years at Warners, Orry-Kelly worked with Busby Berkeley on his spectacular musical extravaganzas, designing flamboyant costumes to complement dazzlingly choreographed numbers made up of a bevy of glamorous chorus girls. As his career progressed, he became renowned for his astute analysis of script and story, leading him to design costumes that made a significant contribution to the storytelling process. As well as having an exceptional capacity to create character through costume, Orry-Kelly was also able to cut and style costumes to suit the looks and body-type of the wearer. This endeared him to many of Hollywood’s greatest stars including Ingrid Bergman, Natalie Wood, Betty Grable and Bette Davis.

    This section of the exhibition features costumes that highlight the nature of performance and track Orry-Kelly’s exploration and interpretation of the concept of glamour from his earliest work with Busby Berkeley through to a spectacular mustard-coloured dress designed for Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), Orry-Kelly’s penultimate film.

    Focus On Costume: Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936)

    A costume inside the exhibition space at ACMI.

    Tan cotton hot pants; matching jacket with fringe on pockets and epaulettes.       (Collection of Geoffrey Harman)

    Gold Diggers of 1937 is driven by extravagantly staged song and dance numbers, choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. Berkeley’s work was distinguished by striking formations of large numbers of dancers. The drummer girl costume of jacket and hotpants featured in ACMI’s exhibition offers an insight into the styling required for a costume worn by multiple dancers to create striking visual patterns based on repetition and precision. A key element of these spectacular production numbers was the display of the female form.

    • Watch the trailer of the production and identify the way that Orry-Kelly’s designs contribute to Berkeley’s vision.

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    Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936) Image © Corbis

    • Using this publicity image as a prompt, imagine that you are a costume designer and you have the task of creating a costume that needs to be worn en masse to create an effect relating to the group rather than the individual – you may be designing for a synchronised swimming routine, a production number in the latest Broadway musical or for a marching band. Use your imagination!

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    Bette Davis: The Muse

    Inside the Orry-Kelly exhibition at ACMI

    The Bride Came C.O.D.: cream silk chiffon negligee; robe of crepe back satin worn by Bette Davis as Joan Winfield. (Collection of Greg Schreiner)

    Orry-Kelly designed for Bette Davis on his first film for Warners, The Rich Are Always With Us (1932). From the outset, Davis appreciated his talent for building character through costume. She was destined to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, renowned for creating complex and individual characters. Collaborating on 30 films, they shared a fascination with the language and power of costume and its capacity to enhance a performance. When Orry-Kelly left Warners in 1944, Davis described his departure as “like losing my right arm”.

    The exhibition features a costume from The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), a romantic comedy starring Davis and Hollywood tough-guy Jimmy Cagney. Davis was very much playing against type in this role and the silk nightgown and negligé on display were designed to communicate the vulnerability and (potential) availability of Davis’s character, the wealthy Joan Winfield.

    Focus On Costume: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)


    • Watch the trailer and identify key features of Davis’s costumes

    The Bride Came C.O.D. is a broad comedy based on the idea of opposites attracting.

    • How is costume used to communicate this comic premise?

    According to Deborah Nadoolman Landis:  “Personalities are created in the fitting room…”    

    • How does costume help an actor to create a personality? How does costume create character? 

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    Oscar Honours

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    Les Girls: velvet dress, ivory coat and hat; beaded leotard.  (Collection of Greg Schreiner)

    The versatility Orry-Kelly showcased at Warners stood him in good stead after he was discharged from the studio in 1944. After spending three years with Twentieth Century Fox, he freelanced, working on a variety of film projects including spectacular musicals such as An American in Paris for which he won his first Oscar®, sharing the award with fellow designers Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff. Orry-Kelly subsequently won a further two Academy Awards® for his designs for Les Girls and Some Like it Hot, and he received a further nomination for Gypsy.

    It wasn't until 1948 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognised the contribution of costume design to filmmaking, with the Academy Award®. By this time, Orry had designed costumes for a staggering 269 films. From 1948 to 1967, there were two categories for Best Costume Design; one for black and white films, and one for colour.

    The exhibition features two dresses worn in Some Like it Hot by Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis) to disguise themselves as Daphne and Josephine. The elaborate beading provides a comic contrast with the costumes’ chunky silhouette. Josephine and Geraldine’s old-fashioned frocks share the plinth with two costumes from Les Girls. The black velvet dress and ivory silk coat from the opening production number highlights the restrained elegance of Orry-Kelly’s designs while the appliquéd and beaded pink cotton bodysuit worn by Mitzi Gaynor in the same scene demonstrates Orry-Kelly’s understanding of the female form.


    Focus On Costume: Black and White Versus Colour

    Like It Hot

    Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot (1959)

    Orry-Kelly won the award for best black and white costume design for Some Like it Hot.

    • What are some of the challenges of designing for a black and white film and how might these be solved?

    Les Girls was a lush musical and in the 1950s, musicals were typically filmed in colour.

    • Explain how Orry-Kelly used colour in combination with silhouette and texture to contribute to the fantasy and spectacle associated with the musical of this period.

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    Fashion and Tastemaking

    During the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood films gave audiences the chance to escape into a fantasy world, where movie stars offered them glamour and style. As ordinary people sought to emulate the fashions worn by their favourite stars in the movies, the studios were able to market fashions based on costumes created by designers such as Orry-Kelly. As well as being given the opportunity to purchase ready-to-wear copies of favourite designs in city Department stores, women could buy sewing patterns and produce their own elegant Orry-Kelly creation at home.

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    Movie Classic, Mar-Aug 1935, Lantern Media History Digital Library


    Focus On Costume: Films that have influenced fashion

    • Describe a film costume that has influenced your taste, or a fashion choice you have made. What was it about the costume and its role in the film story that captured your attention?
    • Do some research on the internet to find out more about films that have influenced fashion. You might like to start here:
    • Can you identify particular elements that makes it more likely that a costume will capture the public’s imagination?

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    Explore further



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    Analyse The Design Process

    • Look at the image gallery below to view individual costumes and the details that make them so special.
    • Consider features such as fabric, detailing, silhouette, colour and texture.
    • Find out more about the dramatic context for which the costume was designed and account for the design decisions made.