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Orry-Kelly: The Boy From Oz

posted by Amanda Hallay, Assistant Clinical Professor, Fashion Merchandising

Prof. Amanda Hallay Discusses Legendary Hollywood Designer Orry-Kelly.

O-K__Costume_pic.jpgWhen we think of costumer designers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the first names that spring to mind are inevitably Edith Head, Irene Sharaff, Walter Plunkett, and (for those in the know) Adrian. These are the names we remember, yet I would argue that the costumes we remember the best were the products of a designer who (in my opinion) trumps Sharaff, Adrian, and even Edith Head in his absolute understanding of how costume contributes to character; Orry-Kelly.

The tiny town of Kiama in New South Wales may seem an unlikely birthplace for Hollywood’s ultimate glamourist, yet it was here that Orry George Kelly was born at the end of the last decade of the 19th Century. Although his father was a tailor, the Kelly family felt that banking would be a more suitable pursuit for their son, and young Orry was sent to Sydney to study finance. 

A talented painter, the disinterested banker soon fell in with the city’s artsy and theatrical crowd. Realizing that a life in finance wasn’t for him, he set sail for Jazz Age New York where he tried his hand at acting and dancing, designed a few stage costumes, and shared an apartment with another young expat who harbored The American Dream; Archibald Leach, the handsome young Englishman who would soon turn into Cary Grant, and with whom Orry-Kelly allegedly had a romantic connection.

Arriving in Hollywood in 1932, he was hired by Warner Brothers (his love-hate relationship and ongoing feuds with Jack Warner are the stuff of legend), changed his name to the flashier Orry-Kelly (because he thought it sounded "more French"!), and got himself noticed by being the first designer ever to put a likeness of the actor he was dressing on his costume sketches.

The rest truly is Hollywood history.

O-K_with_Monroe.pngYou may not know his name, but I guarantee you know his costumes. Although he costumed hundreds of movies, his work on "42nd Street," "Casablanca," "An American In Paris," and "Some Like It Hot" (who can forget Marilyn’s barely-there beaded dress?) is perhaps his most celebrated. 

My personal favorite Orry-Kelly wardrobe belongs to the Bette Davis drama, "Now, Voyager" (1942), where through his incredible understanding of how costume conveys character, clothing is used to communicate "Charlotte Vales’s" psychological journey from frumpy, introverted spinster to strong, sophisticated woman living life on her own terms…and in really great hats!

Many of my students have asked me which legendary designer I would most like to wear, and it is without hesitation that I answer Orry-Kelly. For not only was he a master of silhouette, he was famous for "designing for distraction,", tailoring to flatter even the most difficult body types. Short actresses would appear tall and statuesque when wearing Orry-Kelly, and heavier stars would suddenly seem small and svelte. He was the favorite designer of Bette Davis (famed for her poor posture and refusal to wear a bra!), who would demand that the Australian work on her movies, maintaining that he was the only designer who understood her body.

O-K_Women_Hes_Undressed.jpgAlthough he won four Academy Awards, Orry lived and worked in an era where homosexuality was not generally accepted, even in Hollywood, and perhaps this is the reason that he battled with alcoholism for much of his life, eventually dying from liver cancer in 1964.

From a one-horse town in 19th Century Australia to a leading light of Hollywood’s Golden Age, last year saw the first film biography of Orry-Kelly. "Women He’s Undressed" (directed by Gillian Armstrong and currently streaming on Netflix) is part documentary, part "fantasy fiction,", with the role of Orry-Kelly played by Australian actor Gilshenan, whom some of you may know as the adorably annoying uncle in the comedy series, "The Moonys.".  Although the movie focusses too much on the alleged relationship with Cary Grant, it is nevertheless a heartfelt and genuine attempt to disinter the life and work of – not only one of Australia’s most talented people – but one of America’s, too.

Amanda Hallay is a full-time faculty member at LIM College, teaching courses in Fashion History, Cultural History, and Music History.

Topics: Orry-Kelly, costume designer, Jazz Age