Costume Designer Orry-Kelly: The Frock Flicks Guide

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Orry-Kelly (1897–1964) is one of the classics of old Hollywood — he designed gowns for some 300 films between 1930 and 1963, working with actresses such as Bette DavisMerle Oberon, Olivia de Havilland, and films such as Casablanca (1942) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). He was the main costume designer for Warner Bros. Studios from 1932 to 1944, and he won Oscars for his costumes in An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959).

With his extensive resume, of course he created more than a few historical gowns, and while they may owe more to contemporary fashion than historical research, his designs were always flattering to the actress and appealing to the eye. As Orry-Kelly said:

“I have always felt if you give a star what is most becoming, even if the style may be new to her, with tact you can usually win out. Tact, that nice clean four letter word, what an important part it plays in the life of a dress designer.”

A couple years ago, Orry-Kelly’s unpublished memoirs surfaced and became, not just a book, but the subject of a documentary by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (best-known for her 1994 adaption of Little Women). Both book and documentary are titled Women He’s Undressed, and the film is available on Netflix — totally worth watching for loads of golden-age Hollywood dish from one of the few openly gay men in Tinsel Town at the time. It’s a fascinating look at the designer, showing how Orry George Kelly left his small hometown of Kiama, Australia, first for Sydney, and then for New York in 1921. That’s where he roomed with a certain actor named Archie Leach, and the two moved to Hollywood together. Leach would become Cary Grant, while Orry-Kelly turns his art skills into costume design.

Orry-Kelly paintings

Many of Orry-Kelly’s surviving paintings have a historical feel.

Orry-Kelly painting

There’s plenty of costume content in the documentary as well, such as Orry-Kelly commenting on Bette Davis’ bustline and fitting tricks he used to work with her specific shape. In the book, he commented a bit tartly:

“I think of Bette as a period piece, she belongs in costume clothing. Her feminine figure always looked so well in the Victorian period. Quite often her behaviour was Victorian too.”

Bette Davis shows up in quite a few of these highlights of Orry-Kelly’s historical costume work. He did Victorian, Renaissance, 18th century, and more, all with his amazing style.

 

 

Voltaire (1933)

Doris Kenyon, Voltaire (1933)

Doris Kenyon as Mme. Pompadour.

 

Madame Du Barry (1934)

Madame du Barry (1934)

Dolores del Rio gets both frothy ruffles and sexy black in this comedic pre-Code 18th-c. romp.

Madame du Barry (1934)

 

Sweet Adeline (1934)

Irene Dunne, Sweet Adeline (1934)

Irene Dunne stars in this frothy, Edwardian-esque musical.

 

Jezebel (1938)

jezebel 1938 costumes
Bette Davis, Jezebel (1938)

The story turns on Davis’ character wearing this scandalous red dress to a ball. Orry-Kelly had to design a gown that would seem red on black-and-white film.

 

The Sisters (1938)

Bette Davis, Jane Bryan, & Anita Louise, The Sisters (1938)

Bette Davis, Jane Bryan, & Anita Louise are three sisters in a 1900s small town, trying to get suitable marriages.

 

Juarez (1939)

Juarez (1939)

Regal AF!

Juarez (1939)

 

 

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Again, regal AF!!!

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Olivia de Havilland is Essex’s love interest and a pretty pretty princess.

 

The Sea Hawk (1940)

The Sea Hawk (1940)

This Spanish infanta-styled gown is proof that Orry-Kelly could reference a portrait when he wanted to (or had time, perhaps; c’mon, the guy designed 60 movies a year!).

The Sea Hawk (1940)

 

All This, and Heaven Too (1940)

All This, and Heaven Too (1940)

1830s governess realness.

 

The Little Foxes (1941)

Bette Davis, The Little Foxes (1941)
Bette Davis, The Little Foxes (1941)

I don’t care if this isn’t perfectly 1900s, it’s my everything.

 

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington (1944)

This film starts in 1914.

Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington (1944)

And extends to the 1920s, showing Orry-Kelly’s range.

 

Temptation (1946)

Merle Oberon, Temptation (1946)

Merle Oberon in late Victorian by way of 1940s.

 

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Marilyn Monroe, Some Like It Hot (1959)

Marilyn Monroe’s sexy faux-1920s dresses got a lot of acclaim.

Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot (1959)

But the 1920s women’s wardrobe Orry-Kelly designed for Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon was both historically accurate and attractive!

 

Auntie Mame (1958)

Auntie Mame (1958) costume review
Auntie Mame (1958) costume review

Mame’s wardrobe is far more 1950s than 1920s-1940s, but Rosalind Russel is gorgeous and she coordinates with her apartment.

 

Gypsy (1962)

Natalie Wood, Gypsy (1962)

Straight-up ’60s glam, but the movie is supposed to be set in the 1920s-1930s. Still, Natalie Wood looks stunning.

 

What’s your favorite Orry-Kelly historical costume movie?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

15 Responses

  1. A Reader

    Some Like it Hot looks better and more modern every year. I remember being astonished when I saw it as a young adult, because i thought it was an “old” movie and was expecting it to be boring.

    Reply
  2. Frannie Germeshausen

    OMG, Some Like It Hot! Love, love, love. Yes, the boys’ 20s frocks are absolutely perfect. Marilyn, goddess lover her, was the wrong shape . . . for the 20s. Clothes did hang better on Jack Lemmon!

    Reply
  3. Bronwyn Benson

    I haven’t seen many things he did (Some Like It Hot is an all-time favorite though!), but Women He’s Undressed is so good!

    Reply
  4. Lyn Robb

    Yet again you educate me. I’ve always loved O-K’s costumes; I never knew he was from Kiama (15 mins from my family’s home town). And a huge thanks for the reference to Gillian Anderson’s film which I just watched and highly recommend not only for the story but the costume porn!

    Reply
  5. MoHub

    Period accuracy be damned! I would happily put every one of Russell’s Auntie Mame costumes into my wardrobe.

    Reply
  6. Lynelle

    Even though costumes from classic film aren’t always completely historical, I appreciate how everything fits so well. I’m willing to forgive a lot of costume sins if the garment actually fits the actor.

    Reply
  7. Kai Jones

    I went home last night and watched this film based on his memoirs, and WOW I have a much lower opinion of Cary Grant now. What a great story! Thanks for sharing it.

    Reply
  8. revknits

    Great documentary. Cary Grant Wikipedia entry still claims there is no evidence of homosexuality. Lol!

    Reply

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