Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood is a free exhibition currently showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. It looks at the life and works of Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly who did very well in Hollywood, dressing stars for famous films from the early 1930s onward.
Here, Cream chats with the curator of Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood, Ulanda Blair.
Interview by Antonino Tati.
Hi Ulanda. First of all could you give us a few sentences about your history as an exhibition curator?
Sure! I have been at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) since 2011. In this time I have worked on solo exhibitions by contemporary artists and I also helped deliver Hollywood Costume in 2013, which is how I first learned about Orry-Kelly. My curatorial background is in contemporary art, and I began my curatorial career at Gertrude Contemporary, a gallery and studio complex in Fitzroy, Melbourne.
What is it that you love most about your job?
Oh, there’s so much! I love the research component, particularly talking to artists, filmmakers, costume designers, animators and others about their work – people who are passionate about what they do make great company. Listening to and learning from my collaborators is always very gratifying, and I enjoy synthesising this information to help tell a story.
How have you found working with two such aesthetically-pleasing fields such as fashion and film in the current Orry-Kelly exhibition?
I have adored this project. I feel very lucky to be working at ACMI where I could ‘accidentally’ discover this new interest/obsession in costume design for film. While there are a lot of museums currently presenting fashion exhibitions, Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood is focused squarely on costume design, and on the role of clothing in character development and storytelling in film. I find it impossible to watch a film these days without fixating on the characters’ costumes; this project has completely changed the way I watch films.
Orry-Kelly was born in a small town in NSW but made it big as a costumer in Hollywood cinema. How difficult would it have been back in the early 1930s to break into such a ruthless industry?
Orry was a workhorse. He was also resourceful, resilient and proud. At the peak of his career he was designing 60 films a year; that’s more than one a week! However, it took him a long time to find fame as a Hollywood costume designer and he lived an impoverished life for many years. Orry mixed with people from all walks of life, and he navigated rigid class structures with ease. He loved people, and he drew upon his own life experiences and friendships for design inspiration. In some ways I think his small-town upbringing was a blessing – it forced him to look outward and actively seek an abundant, textured life. Orry’s intimate experience of Sydney’s seedy underworld as a youth almost certainly inspired his costume designs for Auntie Mame, Irma Da Louce and Gypsy.
Not only was it astonishing that Orry broke into the international big league, but his costume designs were often risque. Did he cop a lot of flak from conservative folk in the beginning?
One thing I’ve tried to do with the exhibition is give a sense of the social context in which Orry worked. Between 1934 and 1954, the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code, stipulated what acceptable, and unacceptable screen content was. Depictions of criminality, sex, murder, nudity – even pregnancy – were outlawed. But Orry was crafty! On Some Like it Hot, the film that delivered him his third and final Oscar, he dressed Marilyn Monroe in an extremely revealing ‘nude souffle’ dress. This silk chiffon number was flesh-coloured and featured strategic appliques on her nipples. Technically Marilyn was covered up – even if the fabric was transparent – which meant that the dress bypassed the strict Production Code. Never has there been a more naked woman on the screen! ACMI showed this dress as part of Hollywood Costume in 2013 and so for this exhibition we are displaying Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon’s band dresses instead.
To have dressed the iconic likes of Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe would be a dream of any fashionista. Do you know if Orry ever felt overwhelmed by one of his subjects’ celebrity? Or did he always just “get on with the job”?
I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Orry’s autobiography, Women I’ve Undressed, which he wrote just before his death in 1964. This manuscript had been missing up until last year when the Sydney filmmaker Gillian Armstrong found it in the care of Orry’s grand-niece. In the memoir he fails to even mention his three Oscar wins, which is testament to his grounded nature.
Orry was not easily star struck. He was definitely headstrong and he had many heated arguments with various screen sirens about their costumes – Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe among them – but at the end of the day he had a great respect for talented actors and actresses, he wasn’t interested in celebrity and stardom. In his autobiography he writes very affectionately about Ingrid Bergman, Kay Francis, Marion Davies, Ethel Barrymore, Bebe Daniels and Rosalind Russell, all of whom were actresses whose talents he greatly respected. He is quite disparaging of Betty Grable, whose celebrity arguably eclipsed her acting talent. And there was definitely no love lost between Marilyn and Orry!
In curating an exhibition such as this, did you want to familiarise yourself with much of the product; that is watch a lot of the films to see what context the costumes/dress were worn in?
Orry worked on 285 films in his lifetime, and so I have still really only scratched the surface of his back catalogue. I’ve probably watched about 50 of his films. Before curating this exhibition I wasn’t at all familiar with Bette Davis’ work, which is almost criminal! Bette was Orry’s muse, and their creative partnership lasted 21 years. She was a powerhouse character actress who completely disappeared into her roles. Orry was a very character-centric designer who never let his personal taste compromise his work. His designs always conveyed very specific meanings about the characters he was helping bring to life, and so in this way he was vital to Bette’s career success. Orry’s clothes helped Bette ‘find’ her characters, and I have absolutely relished watching her in classic films like Now, Voyager; Jezebel; Dark Victory; The Little Foxes and The Letter.
Of course not all of the exhibition is frocks and shoes. Much of it consists of literature, clippings, paintings and other sources of inspiration for the designer. Was it a daunting task collating all these objects, papers, archival footage, and so on?
Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood is the first exhibition I have curated about somebody who is no longer living. I have basically taken on the role of detective for this project, tracking down objects around the world that help illustrate Orry’s design talents and life journey. It has been a very fun treasure hunt! There are [industry] letters, oil paintings and costume sketches, all of which are being displayed for the very first time. Also, the international costume collecting community is surprisingly tight-knit, and I’ve had various collectors generously introduce me to their peers around the world. Finally, I am absolutely indebted to director Gillian Armstrong and her team of researchers on the wonderful documentary Women He’s Undressed (2015). The filmmakers thoroughly researched all aspects of Orry’s life which meant that all I had to do was find the costumes and objects to help tell my version of the story.
‘Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood’ is a free exhibition showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image until January 17, 2016. For more information, visit www.acmi.net.au/exhibitions. Available to read is the impressive tome ‘Women I’ve Undressed’ by Orry-Kelly, published through Penguin Random House Books, RRP $39.99 in hardcover.
Image credits, from top of story:
Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Taina Elg in ‘Les Girls’ (1957).
Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, and Taina Elg in ‘Les Girls’ (1957).
Orry-Kelly and Tony Curtis, behind the scenes in ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959). Image courtesy United Artists-Photofest.
Bette Davis costume sketch (1930s). Image courtesy of Barbara Warner Howard.
Mitzi Gaynor in ‘Les Girls’ (1957).