She has been called America’s princess, the Oscar-winning actress turned European royal who captivated two continents with her beauty. But looks can be distracting: so poised was Grace Patricia Kelly that historians have largely forgotten that she was born into what was then a marginalized group.
The daughter of an Irish American bricklayer in Philadelphia, her impeccable image — her crisp white gloves and flaxen chignon — had dramatic effects on views of Irish Catholic immigrants in the 1950s. Indeed, America seemed to pardon her tainted blood, tuning into her televised nuptial Mass in droves despite aversion to the religious spectacle.
Only four years after her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco, another Irish American icon, John F. Kennedy, would continue the ascendancy. With both princess and president, an underclass rose.
Yet, Kelly’s impact on the social fabric of America is rarely examined; instead she’s celebrated for fabrics she wore. The Dior suits. The Helen Rose gowns. Fittingly, her wardrobe is now shedding light on an oft-forgotten narrative of Kelly as hero to an American immigrant group, which has helped to keep her myth alive.
Forty-three of Kelly’s most memorable gowns, on loan from the palace in Monaco, are currently on display in “From Philadelphia to Monaco: Grace Kelly Beyond the Icon” through January at the James A. Michener Art Museum in this town north of Philadelphia. Kelly’s clothes have been circulating the globe since 2008, stopping in Moscow’s Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the McCord Museum in Montreal. But it’s here, in the suburbs of Philadelphia just miles from where Kelly grew up, that her garments give us insight into how her carefully crafted Hollywood image inadvertently combated a long-held stigma against Irish Catholics. Indeed, the Irish label — or rather, the broader immigrant label — is a piece of Kelly lore we can’t and shouldn’t ignore, particularly at a time of evolving demographics in America.
Kelly’s ascent came on the heels of the initial Irish boom in mass media, when actors like Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien helped to catapult the Irish out of dregs. Anthony Smith, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, notes that Kelly’s looks may have added glamour to Irish Americans, who had suffered from ethnic stereotypes since the 19th century. Timothy Meagher, a professor at the Catholic University of America specializing in Irish American history, says that though the Irish had made great gains since the ’30s in Hollywood, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment were still pronounced when Kelly married in 1956.
“There was still great tension in the ’50s, but it’s also a time when the Irish kind of win. She is part of this, as in ‘we have the most beautiful woman in the world,’ ” Meagher said. “She represented a very aristocratic Catholicism at a time when it was still a kind of ghetto church.”
When viewed as remnants of a socially fraught era, her early gowns seem more like armor than ornaments. Ornate lace and silk dresses by Oleg Cassini show a woman who never pushed boundaries of tradition or decency. The exhibition includes the famous sea-foam satin gown she wore to the 1955 Academy Awards, and the Kelly bag Hermes named in her honor. Those pieces are juxtaposed with gowns from “High Society,” the last film of her career, which tells the story of an American social class she could never truly enter despite her family’s wealth until she left for Monaco.
Visitors will notice that the clothes from the film are so similar to the those in her personal collection that it’s hard to view Kelly as separate from her Hollywood invention. In some ways, seeing the clothes up close confirms that she was always playing a part, which perhaps is why she moved so seamlessly between roles and countries.
Though this isn’t the first exhibition of Kelly gowns, it is the first exhibition in the United States. The homecoming gives context that the gowns didn’t provide in previous exhibitions. In 2010, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London hosted the largest exhibition of Kelly’s fabulous wardrobe, welcoming over 200,000 attendees. It offered only a cursory look at her life, focusing wholly on her “style impact.” The exhibition had some drawbacks: the layout was cramped, the ceilings were low, and it was so poorly lit that the details of the gowns were obscured. In that location, the gowns highlighted Kelly’s European veneer, adding to her mythology rather than deconstructing it.
The Michener exhibition, thankfully, does the opposite, curated to highlight the intricacies of her life, not just her impact on fashion. Bright lights, high ceilings, and 360 views of some gowns suggest openness and even showcase their flaws. While most gowns are impeccably preserved, her wedding gown from “High Society” shows stains from water damage. The imperfections, though minuscule, are on full view, humanizing Kelly in a way we haven’t seen before.
Some critics say the museum is no place for popular icons, and with so many dull fashion exhibitions and celebrity tributes, they often seem like gimmickry. But for women like Kelly, burdened with iconic status, a museum may be the safest place for close examination. Kelly’s upcoming biopic starring Nicole Kidman is likely to treat her sensationally, as have many unauthorized biographies, which focus more on salacious speculation rather than history and context. Whether because of her diffidence or beauty, Kelly has always been treated as commodity, rarely examined for her impact on anything other than clothes. It’s possible that her entrance into museums across the globe will lead to a more serious treatment of her life.
For Kelly fans, the trip to the Michener is a must. Royal obsessives who have been charmed by the Duchess of Cambridge’s media ubiquity will enjoy this anthropological look at the original picture perfect princess. And though many will go to marvel at the “To Catch a Thief” picnic dress or to gawk at Kelly’s shocking 21-inch waist, there is a deeper narrative on display. The Doylestown exhibition adds context to her wardrobe and should force us to consider Kelly’s broader impact. For many, Kelly is more than just a picture of American taste. Her Philadelphia story was also a welcomed symbol of American progress.
James A. Michener Art Museum. 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. Through Jan. 26. Adults $18; seniors $17; college students $16; children 6-18 $8.