Grace under no pressure at all: Lessons from the truly stylish


Grace under no pressure at all: Lessons from the truly stylish

Grace Kelly’s effortless style is more relevant than ever

Lisa Armstrong

You don’t have to dig deep to find catwalk (and high street) nods to Grace Kelly. Dior is forever referencing her, as well they might, given that she patronised the house from her early 20s to her death. Even in the early days, when she didn’t always wear the real thing, she wore “tributes” rustled up by studio costume designers.
She was never an official muse, but so perfectly did her aesthetic overlap with Dior’s, it’s hard to know who inspired whom.
After Dior’s death in 1957, Grace struck up a fruitful working relationship with Marc Bohan, the underrated creative director whose reign over three decades there lasted longer than anyone else’s, including its founder’s.
Not surprisingly, Dior is mounting an exhibition of Grace’s Dior clothes and accessories (taken from her personal collection which has been diligently preserved by her son, Prince Albert) at the Dior museum in the designer’s birthplace in northern France.
Why is her style and taste so enduring when other, equally lustrous stars from her Hollywood days – Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, Cyd Charisse – seem marooned in their time? The more we’re exposed to Grace, the more permanent her place in the ether.
There’s a reason for the ubiquity. Like that other lodestar of 20th-century elegance, Audrey Hepburn, Grace was a natural fashion plate with innate style. True, she was cultivated by two legendary and terrifying style visionaries, costume designer Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock. But she wasn’t the exclusive invention of her Svengalis.
Photos of early Grace ooze poise and reveal an instinctive inclination towards simplicity, which always ages better than complexity and fussiness. Or they do currently. You only have to look at the exhibits in Notes on Camp, the latest fashion exhibition at the Met Museum in New York, to see where extremes and convolutions get you – relegated to a fashion curiosity at best, a joke at worst.
Like Hepburn, Grace emerged after two world wars, and while the women had different body shapes, neither had the harsh, brittle look of pre-war stars. Audrey became the gamine precursor of Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Kate Moss. Grace – soft, tastefully curvaceous – remains the template for the red carpet.
The late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, whose chic simple uniform of shirts, sweaters, fitted skirts and minimalist dresses inspired many a fashionista from the 1990s onwards (including Meghan Markle), had clearly studied the spirit, if not the letter, of Grace’s modus stylisti.
Codifying Grace’s style – both during her Hollywood career and the regal Monaco years – isn’t difficult, another reason it has lasted. It was unpretentious, unapologetically feminine without ever being overly sexualised. She was consistent and clear: crisp shirts and shirt dresses, neat suits, discreetly expensive accessories, cat’s eye sunglasses, gently waved hair, always hovering around the chin or just above the shoulder ... but she also moved with the times.
As the decades wound on and her body changed, the stiff, unforgiving fabrics of the 1950s and early 1960s – the taffetas, moirés and wools – gave way to softer chiffons and jerseys. The glasses grew larger and more square-shaped. The hair remained immaculate but acquired root lift and volume and darkened a little (the opposite direction of colour travel for most women as they get older, but in the early 1970s the platinum blondes of the 1950s would have seemed very dated).
Nor was she afraid of being playful. Feathers, turbans, embellished caftans and extravagant jewellery were all features of Later Grace. Maybe she’d become aware of her own status as a fashion icon, which opened her up to being a camp figure and had decided to have some fun with this.
If she hadn’t died at 52, would she have become a fully-fledged camp standard-bearer or pulled back? Probably the latter. She was too respectful of her rank as a princess in one of Europe’s oldest monarchies to play fast and loose with its signs and symbols. As the child of successful Irish immigrants, she learnt the importance of upwardly mobile dressing early on and never stopped using clothing to buttress her rank and, by extension, that of the small principality she served.
There are style lessons here aplenty. Soft shirt dresses, deconstructed trouser suits, shirts – perhaps a bit of asymmetry rather than shirts tied at the waist. She’d still opt for clear, bright pastels over dark colours. There’d be caftans galore, the shorter ones worn over slim trousers. It would be much easier to maintain those well-defined eyebrows of hers (if she needed to, she’d probably have gone in for a spot of microblading).
She’d still go easy on the pattern (nothing ages an outfit more definitively than a print, which anchors it to a specific year as closely as the rings on a tree), cultivate her wardrobe of belts to shape her silhouette as it became more fluid, and have a field day with all the turbans and hairbands around at the moment. She’d be enjoying clothes, and definitely still shopping at Dior. She inspired so much of it, after all.• The Princess Grace exhibition is on at the Christian Dior Museum, Granville, France until November 17.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited [2019]

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