Usually only in fairytales (and movies) do beautiful young women wed handsome princes, but Philadelphia-born, Academy Award-winning actress Grace Kelly (1929-1982) did exactly that on April 19, 1956, when she married Monaco’s Prince Rainier (1923-2005). To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the royal wedding, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is planning an exhibition and related publication centering on Princess Grace’s wedding dress, which the bride donated to the Museum shortly after the ceremony. Grace Kelly’s Wedding Dress (working title) will open in April 2006, the first time the gown has been on view since its appearance in the Museum’s 1997 survey of 250 years of fashion, Best Dressed.
“The anniversary gives us an exciting opportunity to focus on Princess Grace’s wedding dress, which wonderfully combines Philadelphia, fashion, Hollywood, and European royalty,” said Kristina Haugland, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles. “The accompanying publication will allow for an in-depth exploration of the creation and history of this wedding dress, an icon of 20th-century bridal design.”
Helen Rose (American, 1904-1985), the Academy Award-winning designer who made the costumes for Kelly’s films High Society and The Swan, was chosen to design the gown - a present to the bride from MGM Studios – which was made by MGM’s wardrobe department. The dress, created to complement Kelly’s “fairy princess” beauty, features a bell-shaped skirt of ivory peau de soie supported by three petticoats, and a high-necked bodice of Brussels lace, which was re-embroidered to render the seams invisible and then accented with seed pearls.
Continuing the theme of pearl-embellished lace are the bride’s prayer book, shoes, and headpiece, which will also be on view. The circular silk net veil, designed so that Kelly’s face could be seen, is decorated with appliquéd lace motifs, including two minute love birds.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a lavishly illustrated publication with an essay on the dress written by Haugland. It will focus on the dress’ design and construction, with line drawings to illustrate its unusual four-piece construction, called a “masterpiece of engineering” at the time. The publication will discuss dresses worn by Kelly’s bridesmaids and flower girls - examples of which are in the Museum’s collection - the excitement about the dress, created under top secret conditions, its transportation to Monaco for the wedding, and its donation to the Museum by Kelly just weeks after the ceremony, when it was presented at a gala champagne reception.
The publication will also outline the immense popularity the dress has enjoyed since its donation in 1956. A longtime fixture of the Museum’s Fashion Wing, the dress is fondly remembered by Museum visitors and Philadelphians in general. Due to the increasing fragility of textiles as they age and their extreme sensitivity to light, presentation requirements now necessitate that the dress is only shown during special exhibitions.
About the Kellys’ Philadelphia legacyGrace Kelly was born into one of the most famous Irish-American families in history. Grace’s grandfather John Henry Kelly, an unskilled laborer, left County Mayo, Ireland, for Philadelphia where he married Mary Costello.
Of their six sons, Grace’s father, John B. Kelly, Sr. (known affectionately as Jack), was arguably the most ebullient. A millionaire businessman, an Olympic gold-medal sculler, and a Philadelphia Democratic mayoral nominee, Jack Kelly settled his family into the East Falls section of the city. One of his brothers, George Kelly, also enjoyed time in the spotlight as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. He was the author of The Torch-Bearers, The Show-Off, and Craig’s Wife (for which he won the Pulitzer), among many others.
Thanks to Jack Kelly’s civic-spirited exuberance and Grace’s beauty, Hollywood stardom, and royal life, there are many Philadelphians who have special affection for the Kelly family, whose legacy continues to thrive in the city.