The remains of grace

A display at the V&A of clothes and accessories from Grace Kelly’s royal wardrobe reveals too much o

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:

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.