Fifty years ago the eyes of the world were fixed on the tiny principality of Monaco, where a real-life fairy tale was unfolding in the marriage of Philadelphia-born film star Grace Kelly (1929-1982) and Prince Rainer III of Monaco (1923-2005), head of Europe’s oldest ruling family. The royal wedding that took place on April 19, 1956 represented a dazzling intersection of the worlds of monarchy and celebrity, high fashion and Hollywood, old Europe and Irish Catholic Philadelphia. Every aspect of the nuptials was a source of intense public interest, but none more so than the silk and lace bridal gown which was designed for Miss Kelly by Academy-Award winning designer Helen Rose (American, 1904-1985), and fabricated under top-secret conditions by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the royal wedding, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present the exhibition Fit for a Princess: Grace Kelly's Wedding Dress, on view from April 1 through May 21, along with a lavishly illustrated publication devoted to Grace Kelly’s style, her famous gown and its colorful history. This focused exhibition will give visitors a rare opportunity to view the celebrated dress, donated to the Museum shortly after the ceremony, which has become one of the Museum’s most beloved objects. For conservation reasons, the dress can only be placed on view for short periods of time, and was last shown in 1997-98 in the large survey exhibition Best Dressed: 250 Years of Style.
Museum Director Anne d’Harnoncourt said: “The life of Grace Kelly is one of Philadelphia’s great stories, and her wedding dress has come to embody a cherished moment in the life of the city. Not only is it one of the most popular stars of our costume collection, it also demonstrates how one single object--like so many others in the Museum's collection--can evoke so much about a particular time and place."
“Grace Kelly’s bridal dress is fascinating on many levels, and her 50th wedding anniversary offers a wonderful opportunity to exhibit the dress and to explore all that it represents,” said Kristina Haugland, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles.
Fit for a Princess: Grace Kelly’s Wedding Dress will include the bridal dress, headdress, veil and shoes, along with the lace-and-pearl encrusted prayer book which the bride carried down the aisle. The dressed of a bridesmaid and flower girl from the ceremony, also in the Museum’s collection, will be on view as well. The exhibition is supported by a generous gift from Carol Ware Gates in honor of Marian S. Ware. The accompanying publication is also supported by the Laura and William C. Buck Endowment for Special Publications and The Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Grace Kelly was twenty-six years old, an established film star and an influential fashion icon, when her engagement to Prince Rainier of Monaco was announced in January 1956. They had met in May of the previous year, when the actress was in France for the Cannes Film Festival. Newspapers across the United States and Europe splashed the betrothal across their front pages, and interest in the “fairy-tale” romance and royal wedding was fanned by continued media references throughout the months before the wedding.
The bride-to-be was besieged with offers from American and European designers, stores, and couturiers to design her wedding dress, but the honor ultimately went to costume designer Helen Rose of MGM studios, which offered the bride the dress as a gift. A Chicago native, Rose became a costume designer for vaudeville, the Ice Follies, and films. She was hired by MGM in 1943; by 1956, she had designed clothes for top stars in more than ninety films and was a frequent nominee and two-time winner of the Academy Award for her work. Helen Rose's elegant, understated but up-to-date designs suited Grace Kelly well. She designed the clothes for four of Miss Kelly's films (Mogambo, Green Fire, The Swan, and High Society) and said of the actress: "She has a great eye and great style; you know she will wear anything beautifully."
The making of Grace Kelly’s formal wedding gown took six weeks and involved thirty-five MGM craftspeople, including the most expert seamstresses, milliners, beaders, embroiderers, and dyers. According to the designer, Miss Kelly had greatly endeared herself to the studio’s wardrobe department, and they all wanted her dress to be a masterpiece. The assembled team labored for weeks under top-secret conditions on the wedding gown, headpiece, veil, and prayer book, as well as a dress for the civil marriage ceremony (a requirement of the Monégasque civil code).
Helen Rose thought the formal gown should reflect the actress' personality—"simple but elegant, feminine, ladylike but not necessarily regal," and that Miss Kelly's dress should "not overpower her beauty." The two women exchanged design ideas and used one of the ball gowns from High Society as a starting point for the design, although the bride requested the addition of a long train for her cathedral wedding. Miss Kelly wanted the dress to be traditional, with long sleeves and a high neckline. The resulting lace, pearl, and silk bridal ensemble—from the delicate cap and tulle veil to the prayer book and pumps—suited the beautiful and stylish star and was the ultimate expression of Grace Kelly's trademark elegance.
"Helen Rose's design for the dress and accessories is perfectly in keeping with the classic simplicity for which Grace Kelly was known, and which inspired the 'Grace Kelly Look'," Haugland said. "The soft ivory silk is accented with delicate lace that provides detailing, and the effect created enhances rather than overwhelms the beautiful bride. The dress has truly become the standard for bridal elegance."
Its long-sleeved bodice was constructed by re-assembling motifs from an old piece of rose point lace and re-embroidering them over thin silk gauze so no seams would be visible. The "bell-shaped" silk faille skirt has no folds in front, but is heavily pleated in back; three petticoats and a 14-inch long skirt support ensure the dress has its proper shape. The headpiece was also made of rose point lace and decorated with a wreath of delicate wax orange blossoms, leaves fashioned from tiny pearls, and wired lace motifs. The circular veil, intended to keep the bride's face on view, was also embellished with rose point lace motifs, including two tiny lovebirds, and accented with seed pearls.
Details and sketches of the dress had been released by MGM two days before the ceremony, and within 24 hours fashion firms in New York were busy copying the royal gown. The day after the wedding, photographs of the royal bride in her much-anticipated gown made the front page of newspapers around the world, and critics' reactions were largely glowing. "Grace was gorgeous, her attire setting off to perfection her classic blonde features and lithe figure," wrote the Associated Press.
Miss Kelly had agreed to give her dress to her hometown Museum in mid-March, even before the ceremony took place; it was formally presented to the institution by her parents in June 1956, and immediately proved to be a great public attraction. In the following months and years, thousands visited the Museum to see the famous bridal gown on display, first on a special platform inside the Museum’s West Entrance, then as the finale of a display of two centuries of dress in the Fashion Wing, and later in special displays and exhibitions.
The five decades after the marriage ceremony in Monaco have confirmed Grace Kelly’s wedding dress as one of the most popular and beloved objects in the Museum’s collection as well as one of the most elegant and best-remembered bridal gowns of all time.