Some_Like_it_Hot
Type
Article
Category
Culture

Dressing and undressing Hollywood

Orry-Kelly worked on renowned films such as Baby Face (1933), Jezebel (1938), Casablanca (1942), and Some Like It Hot (1959) with Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Marilyn Munroe, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck and Natalie Wood. Yet Orry-Kelly – whose costume designs garnered him three Academy Awards – is, for the most part, unknown in his home country of Australia. The perplexing question is: why?

This question is at the centre of Gillian Armstrong’s film Women He’s Undressed, and the congruent exhibition Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood which opens today at the Australian Centre for Moving Image in Melbourne. Both delve into Orry-Kelly’s largely uninvestigated private life as well as his prolific creative output. They also tell us something about the often tangled connection between place and identity in Australia.

Born in 1897 in Kiama, New South Wales, Orry-Kelly demonstrated an early aptitude for costume design when, at age fifteen, his outfit as Romeo won him first prize at a fancy dress skating carnival. When he moved to Sydney in 1917 to work at a bank, he became immersed in the wild and illicit demimonde of the theatre community. Determined to pursue a career as an actor, in 1922 he departed for New York. After quickly proving unsuccessful on the stage, he moved on to designing sets and costumes. Following another career misstep – establishing a speak-easy – he fled from the Mob to St Louis before settling in Los Angeles. Here, Orry-Kelly had his big break: Jack Warner appointed him to the costume department of Warner Bros Pictures.

Orry-Kelly remains well-known in Hollywood, though not everyone knows he was Australian. This is not surprising. Australia has a complex, messy and inconsistent relationship with those who leave. It’s a love-hate relationship: you can go away, but not for too long. A Sydney Morning Herald article in 1945 noted:

It is of course, flattering to [Australia] as a nation to think that we can give so freely, in so many spheres, to other people. The question to be posed, however, is this: Can we keep on exporting our finest talent and still build up a national culture? The answer is obvious.

This ‘obvious’ answer was, of course, no.

This argument was certainly not new. The problem of expatriation was frequently debated in the early twentieth century. For instance, according to the British Australasian in 1906:

If Australia could have kept all its painters within its own borders it would have assuredly built up by this time a real national school … to become a foreigner and forget your own country is fatal.

This idea of becoming a foreigner is crucial. It is not surprising that Australians travelled –both the Old World and New World offered history, culture and a large array of opportunities. But what happens if your ties to your homeland loosen?

Orry-Kelly was well-known in Australia between the 1920s and 1940s. Updates from letters to his mother regularly appeared in Sydney newspapers. He wrote fashion columns for Australian women, such as advice on the best summer ‘spectator sports clothes’ for the Telegraph, to ‘Star Tips for Tall Brunettes’ in the Australian Women’s Weekly. Orry-Kelly’s success as a designer in Hollywood lent him a deal of respect in Australia. Women who admired costumes in his films – or maybe even just the stars who wore them – were eager to defer to his wisdom.

Orry-Kelly did not forget his homeland. His affirmation of a bond to Australia suggests the link between memory and place. For instance, when he purchased a house in Hollywood in 1936, several Australian newspapers quoted his assertion that ‘Nearly all the trees around it are Australian. Perhaps that was what helped me to make up my mind so quickly!’ Similarly, he revealed to one interviewer for the Adelaide News in 1936 that ‘he had been the means of introducing to Hollywood parties the typical Australian delicacy of “trifle.” Americans are not accustomed to this concoction, but after tasting Mr. Kelly’s recipe for it, the denizens of Hollywood developed quite a craze for it!’ Several years later, he established ‘Orry Kelly Originals’ – handpainted ties with a special series of designs based on Australian orchids and wildflowers.

His personality also seems to have a distinct, perhaps stereotypical, Australianness: he was frank, stubborn and unerringly loyal. Interviews reveal that he often expressed his opinions with a candidness that verged on tactlessness. For instance, on the radio in Los Angeles he announced that most stars looked ‘appalling’ and did not know how to dress themselves.

 A lot of American women try to wear too much at the one time, and they remind me of the amateur chef … The ingredients are good, but the result is like a bad stew.

Orry-Kelly’s commitment to authenticity is also evident in his sexual identity, including his relationship with the English actor Archie Leach, who was to discover fame as Cary Grant. These men were together for nine years, sharing a Greenwich Village apartment. Yet their relationship was never confirmed until a draft of Orry-Kelly’s unpublished memoir was discovered. ‘Orry got [Cary Grant] his first job acting at the St Lewis theatre, and Cary, in one of his interviews about his earlier life, even named another actor – so he completely wiped Orry out of his past,’ Armstrong explains.

Orry-Kelly’s life makes for an interesting study. It resonates with an Australian audience because travel and place is so closely tied to our sense of identity. Going overseas to seek out new and potentially wonderful opportunities certainly is not a new phenomenon; Orry-Kelly’s story provokes us to question what this means.

Australians love the word ‘our’, enthusiastically promoting an ownership of those who achieve success overseas: ‘Our Nic’, ‘Our Hugh, ‘Our Cate’. This proud recognition even extends to those who have been ‘adopted’ into Australia, such as ‘Our Russ’. ‘In cinemas they would even put “costumes by our Orry-Kelly” in a little ad’, Armstrong reveals in Women He’s Undressed. So when did we stop laying claim to Orry-Kelly?

Armstrong proposes:

 There was such a change in cinema just after he died that the golden age of Hollywood was out – Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyk, none of them mattered anymore. …  It was being part of that era that was suddenly so out of fashion.

I think there is also another possibility: that this slow drifting out of the public consciousness occurred because Orry-Kelly’s physical presence in Australia ceased. It seems significant that this started happening after his mother Florence passed away in November 1949. Until then, he had been returning to Australia to visit her regularly. This allowed him to reveal first-hand the enviable glamour of life in Hollywood. After Florence’s death these regular visits stopped.

Maybe you can only go away for so long before Australia forgets.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Kate Robertson has a PhD in Art History & Film Studies and has written about arts and culture for publications like the Atlantic, Vice, Marie Claire, i-D, Junkee and Senses of Cinema.

More by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>