ACMI Presents: Orry-Kelly Dressing Hollywood

Orry-Kelly dressing Tony Curtis for Some Like It Hot (1959), directed by Billy Wilder. Image credit United Artists.

Do you know about Orry-Kelly? Have you even heard his name mentioned before in film or fashion circles? Having completed a double major in cinema history at Melbourne University, which encompassed Hollywood films, even I struggled to recount such a distinctive name, albeit an Australian one. And my love for glamorous silver-screen fashion failed to highlight the man that was, Orry-Kelly.

This particular Australian costume designer did more than just ‘wow’ Hollywood with his larrikin charm – he won three Academy Award Oscars and worked with the likes of Bette Davis, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Ava Gardner, Natalie Wood, Mitzi Gaynor and Marilyn Monroe across films such as, 42nd Street (1933), Gypsy (1962), Jezebel (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), One Touch of Venus (1948), Casablanca (1942), Les Girls (1957), An American In Paris (1951) and Some Like It Hot (1959). The latter three films are the ones that Orry-Kelly won his Oscars for Best Costume Design – a magnificent feat!

1. ACMI_Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Taina Elg in Les Girls (1957)_300dpi
Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Taina Elg in Les Girls (1957). Image courtesy of ACMI.

As Chief Costume Designer at Warner bros. studios between 1932 and 1944, followed by subsequent contracts at other major Hollywood studios, Orry-Kelly amassed a staggering 295 film credits in a career that spanned more than three decades!

The exhibition on display at ACMI highlights the journey of Orry-Kelly: his movement into Hollywood (thanks to a very close friend and supposed lover named Archie, later famously known as actor and heartthrob, Cary Grant), collaborations with the actresses, colourful existence and immeasurable creative talent.

6. ACMI_Orry-Kelly and Ava Gardner, behind the scenes in One Touch of Venus (1948). Image credit United Artists-Photofest_300dpi
Orry-Kelly and Ava Gardner behind the scenes in One Touch of Venus (1948). Image credit United Artists.

Gorgeous gowns, outfits, photographs and stills from the movies, alongside sketches and inspiration for the garments he created are on display at the exhibition, as well as Orry-Kelly’s Oscars, lovingly brought back to life and housed under the glamorous lights that they were always meant to enjoy. The mystery revolving Orry-Kelly and his somewhat forgotten legacy is now thankfully seeing the light of day, thanks to many passionate historians, fashion and film lovers like ACMI Director and CEO, Katrina Sedgewick, ACMI Curator, Ulanda Balir, and film director, Gilliam Armstrong (My Brilliant Career and Little Women), who recently created the documentary on Orry-Kelly entitled, Women I’ve Undressed.

The reason this exhibition can take place at all is that an unlabelled box was found in the gigantic vault at the Warner Bros. studio lot in California, a search that was allowed by none other than Barbara Warner Howard herself – Jack Warner’s daughter and an old friend of Orry-Kelly’s. It seemed that fate had stepped in and allowed Orry-Kelly the time in the spotlight that he so rightly deserved, albeit posthumously. We can now go on this journey and rediscover the legacy of one of Australia’s most coveted costume designers.

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Marilyn Monroe in one of Orry-Kelly’s creations.

Discover more about this talented Aussie export and wonder at the magic of Hollywood during that golden era of cinema, where the gowns were statement pieces in their own right and the creativity of those masterful enough to make their dreams a reality were recognised.

The Orry-Kelly exhibition is now open at ACMI and will run until January 17, 2016.

The Orry-Kelly Film Retrospective screens at ACMI from September 5 to November 28, 2015.

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The man himself, Orry-Kelly.
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One of Orry-Kelly’s once forgotten Oscars, now in the spotlight.
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Mitzi Gaynor in Les Girls (1957).
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The infamous eye gown from The Dolly Sisters (1945).
16. ACMI_Orry-Kelly, costume sketch of Natalie Wood for Gypsy (1962). Image courtesy of Barbara Warner Howard_300dpi
Orry-Kelly’s costume sketch of Natalie Wood for Gypsy (1962). Image courtesy of Barbara Warner Howard.
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