There once was a small town Aussie boy who used to dream about Hollywood. He would also dream of Singer sewing machines, of spools of vibrant silk threads, of feather boas, sequins and glitter. And he turned these dreams into his reality, and became one of the best costumes designers the world has ever seen. For years he has been relatively unknown to those outside the industry, but slowly the rest of the fashion world is starting to learn about the Australian rascal who was Orry – Kelly. He became a Hollywood legend, won three Oscars, dressed all the stars, and had a cheeky Aussie way of living. Through his memoirs that have been discovered in recent years, we have finally been let inside the world of this flamboyant designer, and it’s been a joy to learn all about Orry –Kelly and the legacy he has left behind. This blog is a small insight to the colourful life he led, the fine dames he dressed and some if his inside secrets. I hope you find delight in reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it!
Much of my research for this blog has come from Kelly’s memoirs that were published in 2015. “Woman I’ve Undressed”, is an eye opening read into the vivacity of Kelly and those who came and went from his life. Born in the New South Wales coastal town of Kiama, Australia on New Year ’s Eve 1897, Orry George Kelly was the son of a tailor. As a young boy living in rural Australia, it was much frowned upon that his interests lay with dolls, clothing and his Lady Companion, a sewing machine that Kelly saw in a shop window and begged his mother to buy for him. Kelly once recalls his father destroying all the things he loved, and throwing him outside to do some manual labour, something a young boy should be doing instead of playing dress ups. At age seventeen, Kelly was sent to Sydney to study finance and banking, and it was here in the big smoke that his love for theatre, art and nightlife flourished.
During his time in Sydney, Kelly lived a tough life. Having no to minimal money, he begged and borrowed to make ends meet. He was a regular on the nightclub scene in Kings Cross, where he associated with Sydney’s underworld. His love for the theatre was ever present, and taking a chance, Kelly found his way to New York. Chasing his dreams, Kelly once again found himself dabbling with many of Hollywood’s more sinister clientele. Bootleggers, prostitutes and gamblers where just some of the company that Kelly kept. Renting a small apartment in New York, Kelly was making and painting silk ties during the day, and partying all night long in seedy Speakeasy’s. One night, while Kelly was still at home, a chance meeting occurred between Kelly and budding actor Archie Leach. The two became friends, with Leach moving in to help with the rent and also assisted Kelly with his tie business. Kelly’s talent for painting was soon noticed, and he went from painting ties, to painting murals on the walls of nightclubs. Some of his most famous murals involved monkeys getting up to mischief, much the same as what Kelly did himself!
After a brief stint running a Speakeasy himself, Kelly and Leach moved to Hollywood in 1931 where they could both pursue their dreams. Archie Leach struck success first, being cast in small motion picture rolls before the big time came calling. This was when Leach left Archie behind and became known as Cary Grant. Along the way, the two friends had become somewhat close, engaging in a relationship that was on and off for years. It’s reported thought that Grant decided he had outgrown his friend, and the two drifted apart. Kelly continued on his path of art and design, and had been producing stage sets for theatre productions. With an armful of sketches, Kelly was hired by Warner Brother’s in 1932 as a costume designer, and remained there as head of the department until 1944.
During his time at Warner Brother’s, Kelly quickly became known as one of the best in the industry. Later his work was also seen in productions by 20th Century Fox, MGM and Universal. In a career that spanned over 30 years, Kelly had earned the credit for 295 films! Some of the biggest stars of Hollywood at the time were dressed by Kelly, including Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda and Marilyn Monroe. Kelly’s work was known to ‘design for distraction’, meaning he used his skills to disguise women’s figures that were not entirely what the director of the film was after. Throughout his career, Kelly won three Academy Awards for his work on the films An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1958) and Some Like it Hot (1959), where he so convincingly dressed Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as women, that they went unrecognised when entering the female bathrooms! Other notable films in which Kelly worked on were Casablanca (1942), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Oklahoma! (1955).
During his time in Hollywood, Kelly was committed to a brief stint in the American Army at the time of the Second World War. Not being an American citizen at the time, Kelly was confided to local duties. He managed to bide his time here by spending much of it intoxicated, and was soon released on medical grounds as being unfit to continue on. Kelly also became known for his fashion column which he wrote for a local newspaper. “Hollywood Fashion Parade” was published in the International News Service, and provided women with hope and inspiration during the war years.
In 1964, after a long and sometimes infamous career in Hollywood, Orry-Kelly died from liver cancer. It is believed that his many years of partying hard and drinking till dawn led to his passing. But one thing is for sure, Orry-Kelly would not have wanted to live any other way! At his funeral service in Los Angeles, his pallbearers included Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, and directors Billy Wilder and George Cukor. His eulogy was read by Jack Warner. A life that was never dull, Orry-Kelly certainly left his mark on the world of costume and film design in Hollywood. A true legend now, the boy from Kiama never let anyone sway his determination or extinguish his very bright and colourful spark. Thank you Orry-Kelly, for showing me and the world that you can achieve your dreams if you only just believe!
Love Always, Anastacia Rose xx