Like so many other people, I love Grace Kelly: she did that effortlessly stylish look so well, it makes ordinary people like me mistakenly think that it's achievable. It's easy to linger over pictures of her, too - that beautiful face, the kind, sweet eyes, the ever-inspirational outfits. Plus she was reserved, mysterious, a "snow-covered volcano", as Alfred Hitchcock once described her. So I bounded in to the "Grace Kelly: Style Icon" exhibition, which has just opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, feeling eager as a puppy to soak up that Kelly magic.
Except, it didn't quite go to plan. In the first case was a dress with huge flowers and a waist sash. It was hideous, so frumpy-looking that
I wanted to back away from it, shielding my eyes. I sought out the notes at the bottom of the dress. Had Kelly really worn this? Sure enough she had, for her first meeting with the man who would become her husband: Prince Rainier of Monaco. There was also a photo and, on her, the dress looked fabulous.
It was a common exercise as I moved from one cabinet of headless mannequins to another: I would look at the exhibit and then for the photograph of Kelly wearing it. The two things seemed entirely unconnected. She really did have the ability to transform clothes. There was only one dress that looked better off than on - the midnight-blue taffeta gown by Yves Saint Laurent that she wore to meet Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981. I realised then that if you had taken away all the signs, anything that could identify Grace Kelly, and asked "Who did these clothes belong to?" I would not have guessed. It's a rare skill to be able to take clothes that can look beautifully stylish, and that are rich in history, and render them lumpen and dull. But somehow this exhibition manages it.
Grace Patricia Kelly was born in Philadelphia in 1929, the third of four children. Her parents were sporty and madly competitive: her father won three Olympic golds at rowing, her mother was a model and athlete. Kelly was introverted and asthmatic. You get the feeling she wasn't exactly bigged up by her folks. Indeed, in photos of Kelly with her mother, Ma is often looking on disapprovingly. When Kelly became famous, her father expressed surprise that, of all his children, it was Grace - not Peggy, the eldest and Daddy's favourite - who had made it.
Thus, perhaps not surprisingly, Kelly was far from cocky about how she looked, thinking that her knees weren't pretty enough for miniskirts (she never wore them) and, as she got older, preferring comfort over constraint, almost disappearing into kaftan styles in her forties despite retaining an enviable figure.
Touchingly, she often wore old clothes that still had life in them. She hated waste: "It's just as good a coat as ever," she said of a nine-year-old specimen. She worried about having put on weight after having children but, because she was breastfeeding, she refused to diet. Lauded as she is now, it's sad to think that, had she been alive today, she would have suffered her fair share of "What is she wearing?" critiques from celebrity magazines.
The exhibition is small and divided into three sections: The Actress, The Bride and The Princess. Significantly, Kelly "The Woman" is absent. In the first, there are a few clothes from her films, the most notable being the long Grecian bathing robe from High Society, sartorial shorthand for the goddess she plays. The most beautiful is the black silk chiffon pleated dress from Rear Window.
Only the bride's civil ceremony suit is here, not the actual wedding dress. The suit, despite feats of embroidery by MGM's costume department, looks unremarkable and dusty. Disappointingly, only a few of the exhibits made my heart beat faster. The bathing robe was one. Next was a set of packing cases with the initials "G P K" on them. These were well travelled and hugely evocative; I imagined her packing them excitedly for her new life in Monaco. Did the dream match up? Then there was the eponymous Kelly bag, scuffed, used, loved. I stared at it for quite a while. Finally, a pair of shabby, ivory slingbacks with the sole coming away: obviously a favourite.
I left the exhibition feeling subdued and confused, but still in love with Kelly, and with a desire to watch all her old films again and to
see her, and "her" clothes, at their best. This seemed a collection of the outfits of someone never quite allowed to be herself, who was told how to dress, by the movie studio, or by her husband (she didn't buy anything he didn't like), by her desire to do the right thing. I would have loved to see more of her everyday clothes - the man-shirts, the little cardigans, that nine-year-old coat. Perhaps none of them exists any more.
“Grace Kelly: Style Icon" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 26 September. Details: vam.ac.uk