Few names are as equated with style as Grace Kelly. The Oscar-winning actress was one of the most beautiful women in the world and celebrated for her classic ladylike look. Her style is so timeless and influential that it continues to inspire everything from museum exhibitions to movies, magazines, books, and, of course, fashion. Though she had one of the briefest careers in film—starting in 1951 and ending in 1956 when she became the Princess of Monaco—her impact was immediate. Other stylish stars worked for decades in film; contemporary Audrey Hepburn, for example, had a career of over 30 years. Grace built a lasting legacy in only five.
The brevity of Grace’s film career means that everything related to it is that much more valuable. Costumes for her that came from MGM are especially significant as it was her home studio and considered the best of the best. MGM’s costume design department was legendary—a full-scale garment factory with seven buildings and more than 500,000 costumes in stock. The 150 skilled artisans who created those costumes were, as Grace put it, “top-flight and...worked to perfection.” Without question, this perfection and commitment to quality were exemplified by MGM’s head costume designer Helen Rose.
The Swan was filmed in 1955 and, for many reasons, was a very special shoot for both Helen and Grace. After a few years of being loaned out to other studios—including Paramount for Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955)—The Swan was Grace’s homecoming at MGM. It was also finally the opportunity for Helen to create a beautiful wardrobe for her friend from top to bottom. Grace’s early years at MGM consisted largely of rough and rugged costumes, such as those in Green Fire (1954), and gave Helen “little opportunity to design feminine, glamorous outfits.” In contrast, “The Swan was a designer’s dream” and one of their favorite films working together.
Grace played a princess in The Swan, so Helen approached their project with absolute “gusto” and used the finest fabrics she could find. Though this costume for auction looks light as a feather, the lined lace dress is substantial with the most sublime construction. It is also intricately detailed...from the precious pearls in the center of each ‘flower’ of the neckline to the delicate fabric-covered buttons and closures down the back. Grace “adored everything about the clothes” for The Swan, but especially swooned over the ball gown and this equally “exquisite [and] feminine” day dress.
Though Grace spent much of 1955 filming The Swan on the MGM lot, this was also the time when everything seemed to be happening in her life. She accepted her Oscar for The Country Girl. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the title “Gentlemen Prefer Ladies.” She was chosen for multiple “Best Dressed” lists in fashion for her style on and off the screen. In addition, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) ran a feature on the “Grace Kelly Look” and discussed how her films were shaping the American ideal. She seemed to mesmerize popular culture. “So great has been her impact on the public,” declared the Associated Press at the time, “she has started a whole new trend in the standard of beauty and...influenced many of this year’s [fashion] collections.”
One film to do so was The Swan. Set around 1915, the costumes brought about the return of the empire silhouette—a high waistline and straight semi-slim skirt. All of it perfectly fit Grace’s poised 5’6 ½” figure. Reports from the set said that she “looked like an angel” in her narrow dresses and soft hairstyles, so MGM began circulating publicity photos for the film. The most popular picture—Grace and Helen looking at a sketch from The Swan (shown above)—featured her wearing the very dress that’s up for auction now. As a result, this costume immediately began to inspire designers in 1955 and set trends in fashion.
On a deeper level, The Swan also represents the time when Grace was falling in love. In April 1955, she flew to the Cannes Film Festival and met Prince Rainier Grimaldi. They began a private correspondence just as she returned to America to begin filming The Swan and their relationship continued throughout it. Their courtship did not last long—by December, Rainier had proposed. MGM may have had mixed feelings about losing their star, but they were thrilled with the marketing opportunities they saw from the marriage. One of their gifts was the wedding gown itself, which was also designed by Helen Rose and has become iconic. It still wows the world—designer Sarah Burton recently paid homage to it with her wedding gown for Kate Middleton. Not surprisingly, MGM also perfectly timed the premiere of The Swan—the story of a princess betrothed to a prince—with the wedding of Princess Grace to Prince Rainier in April 1956.
This lovely lace dress from The Swan represents so much that’s special to Grace Kelly. It is from one of the few films that she did during her meteoric five-year career and one of her masterpieces from MGM. The great Helen Rose designed the costume with particular inspiration from her star, muse, and friend. The design for this dress, in particular—with its square neckline, empire waist, and narrow skirt—was beloved by Grace and an immediate hit with the public that still influences both fashion and costume design (think of Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996’s Emma). In a way, this dress is also a historical document. Filming for The Swan coincides with much that had to do with her wedding—from meeting Prince Rainier to the proposal to the planning. And so, we know while wearing this dress, Grace Kelly played a princess in film while actually preparing to become one in life.
Film and Costume Design Historian
Reprinted from Christie's POP CULTURE auction catalog (No. 5446)
Reprinted from Christie's POP CULTURE auction catalog (No. 5446)
Full length view of the dress up for auction on the set in 1955
and today for auction at Christie's
Playing around on set in the dress with director Charles Vidor and co-star Alec Guiness
The other beautiful dresses from The Swan all show a similar style to the one up for auction
The Swan has been highly influential in design offscreen and on,
including costume design for Gwyneth Paltrow in 1996's Emma
Around the time of The Swan, Helen Rose also designed Grace Kelly's iconic wedding dress,
which continues to inspire designers such as Sarah Burton and her wedding gown for Kate Middleton
Grace celebrates her birthday on the set of The Swan with cast and crew