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 Davis, Merle 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A couple years ago, Orry-Kelly’s unpublished memoirs surfaced and became, not just a book, but the subject of a documentary by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (best-known for her 1994 adaption of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.
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.
Madame Du Barry (1934)
Sweet Adeline (1934)
The Sisters (1938)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
The Sea Hawk (1940)
All This, and Heaven Too (1940)
The Little Foxes (1941)
Mr. Skeffington (1944)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Auntie Mame (1958)
What’s your favorite Orry-Kelly historical costume movie?
Some of my absolute faves right there [and I now have some inspiration for an amazing piece of grey silk moiré faille that I was given]
Oh, that color still from The Little Foxes! Bette Davis looks like a living John Singer Sargent portrait.
Yes! My thought too! A bit of Madame X
Oh yes! That’s exactly the portrait I was trying to think of – thank you!
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.
Orry-Kelly sure did excess well!
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!
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!
All of the Bette Davis films.
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!
Period accuracy be damned! I would happily put every one of Russell’s Auntie Mame costumes into my wardrobe.
Amen and high fives!
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.
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.
Great documentary. Cary Grant Wikipedia entry still claims there is no evidence of homosexuality. Lol!