Side Order: In a London exhibit, Grace Kelly's style lives on

Princess and actress Grace Kelly is still a fashion icon. See why at London's V&AMuseum.
Princess and actress Grace Kelly is still a fashion icon. See why at London's V&AMuseum. (Prince's Palace Archives, Monaco)
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By Diane Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 6, 2010; 9:30 AM

Princess Grace presided over a country no bigger than a bonbon. Yet 28 years after her death in a car accident, she remains one of the giants of fashion. From Betty Draper, the icily elegant Grace look-alike on TV's "Mad Men," to the Hermes "Kelly" handbag with the five-figure price tag and the three-year waiting list, her influence shows no sign of waning.

Now London, one of the world's fashion capitals, pays homage with a new exhibition: "Grace Kelly: Style Icon."

On a warm summer morning perfumed by jasmine, I went to the Victoria & Albert, the mighty museum of applied arts, to take in 30 years' worth of Kelly chic. The show tracks her transition from Hitchcock blonde, star of "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief," to grande dame of a Ruritanian principality.

Even as an actress, Kelly, with her patrician features and slender figure, looked like a princess. She may have been an Irish Catholic, but the movies dressed her as the consummate WASP. Alfred Hitchcock asked her to pad her bra for "Rear Window"; she refused.

On display here is the austere Edith Head evening gown and matching coat in aquamarine silk satin that she wore to collect her 1955 Academy Award, the classically inspired "goddess" bathing suit and robe she wore in "High Society," and the pale pink and gold suit she wore for her civil marriage to Monaco's Prince Rainier III in 1956. (The lace and silk faille wedding gown she wore for the nuptial Mass is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

There's also a mouthwatering selection of her Paris couture, including the grass-green Balenciaga ensemble she wore to a White House luncheon in 1961, a groovy Yves Saint Laurent "Mondrian" shift from 1965 and a Givenchy number in the same fuchsia color as the dress Michelle Obama wore on the March 2009 cover of Vogue.

Princess Grace said that she was as loyal to her old clothes as to her old friends, a charming justification for holding on to almost everything she ever bought. By the time of her death in 1982, she owned 45 pairs of Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses; untold pairs of shoes and kid gloves; hats and handbags, many of which are on display here, along with some of her witty jeweled brooches in the shapes of lions or birds; and the diamond tiara designed by Van Cleef & Arpels (a sponsor of the exhibition) that she wore at her daughter Caroline's 1978 wedding.

Her taste was almost infallible, though there are some unfortunate examples of the "rich hippie" look of the 1970s: an orange and yellow Dior maxi with an indefensible ruffle at the hem, a couple of overdecorated caftans and a Marc Bohan dress with a bizarre sequined breastplate. That stuff is put to shame by a 1959 Maggy Rouff ball gown in rose pink satin with a cloud of chiffon around the shoulders. It's so regal I felt like curtseying to it.

Afterward, I had a browse in the V&A's terrific shop, where you can put together a cheap and cheerful Grace Kelly look: short gloves in pastel colors for about $22, faux pearls for $10 and a smart broad-brimmed hat ($53) similar to the one she wore when she first arrived in Monaco in 1956.

Leaving the V&A, I strolled through Knightsbridge on a fashion reconnaissance mission. Sure enough, Hobbs, an upscale chain boutique, had Kellyesque shirtdresses in navy silk, and halter-top dresses echoing her black and white ensemble in "To Catch a Thief." L.K. Bennett had sharp sheaths in ladylike pastels with coats, shoes and skittish little hats to match, and everybody from Benetton to the Gap is selling twin sets. Princess Grace would surely approve.

The good news for anyone traveling to London is that it's in the throes of its annual summer sales, when giant department stores such as Selfridges or Harrods, as well as small specialty shops, slash their prices by up to 75 percent.

I'd give Harrods a miss, if I were you. These days it's more of a tourist attraction than a fashion leader. Harvey Nichols (just down the road in Knightsbridge) has much more interesting clothes. Besides, it's the spiritual home of "Absolutely Fabulous's" Patsy and Edina, though Lacroix has been replaced by younger designers such as Stella McCartney and Thakoon.

If you have time for only one department store, though, make it Liberty (near Oxford Circus). This temple of design was founded in 1875, selling cutting-edge pieces in luxurious hand-printed fabrics for London's more daring artists and edgier aristocrats. It still showcases the best of British design. And if you want to go the full Kelly and invest in something actually touched by Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy or Coco Chanel, Liberty has a section of vintage couture.

If the stratospheric prices are a little much (this ain't Goodwill), you can always go for a pair of oversize, paparazzi-defying sunglasses. Marks & Spencer does a fine $10 version that will make you look and feel like a princess swanning around on the Riviera. Roberts is a commentator for NPR and the BBC.

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