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How Costume Designer Orry-Kelly Went From Rural Australia To Hollywood

How Costume Designer Orry-Kelly Went From Rural Australia To Hollywood

Picture of Annie-Mei Forster
Updated: 21 December 2016
Orry-Kelly holds a unique place in cinema history as the first costume designer to win three Academy Awards. He was also one of the few Australians to thrive within the powerful Hollywood studio system, designing gowns for iconic films, including 42nd Street (1933), Jezebel (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Auntie Mame (1958), and Gypsy (1962), and working with leading ladies such as Marilyn Monroe and Bette Midler.
Orry-Kelly and Tony Curtis, behind the scenes in Some Like it Hot (1959) | © United Artists-Photofest
Orry-Kelly and Tony Curtis, behind the scenes in Some Like it Hot (1959) | © United Artists-Photofest

Orry-Kelly grew up in the small town of Kiama on the NSW coast in Australia. From a young age, he dressed up dolls and put on little shows at home after being inspired from trips to the theatre with his mother. His father disapproved of this and wanted his son to work in a bank, however, Orry-Kelly was destined for greater things. He pursued his dreams of working in the theatre and set sail for America, where he worked on Broadway theatre productions and later Hollywood films. In his lifetime, he won three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design in An American In Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Yet despite his successful career, he is still unknown among many Australians.

ACMI | © Mark Gambino
ACMI | © Mark Gambino

A new exhibition, Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Images) is hoping to change that. It brings the life of this Hollywood legend to the attention of the Australian public in a nostalgic reflection of his colorful and secret personal life. As a homosexual man growing up in the early 20th century, his life was very much shrouded in mystery. But working on a staggering 285 films, he lived a colorful existence, both on and off the set. His unfinished memoirs were discovered in a pillowcase that had long been forgotten about, and today, they are published under the title Women He’s Undressed — available for purchase at the ACMI gift shop. The documentary, of the same name, directed by Gillian Armstrong features interviews with people who knew and worked with Orry-Kelly. Together these projects have cumulated into a well-timed celebration of Orry-Kelly’s life and his legacy.

ACMI | © Mark Gambino
ACMI | © Mark Gambino

Not only was he an extremely talented costume designer but also a great artist. His depiction of dirty speakeasy bars in Sydney is reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of Parisian brothels during the late 19th century. When designing costumes for the theatre or film, Orry-Kelly always included the face of the actress.

At the press conference for the opening of Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood, director Gillian Armstrong also spoke about Orry-Kelly’s ability to create costumes that always suited the actress and her character. In Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman is dressed in simple and classic pieces to show that she is a woman of integrity. In Some Like It Hot, there were raunchier pieces to suit Marilyn Monroe’s character of a nightclub singer.

Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, and Taina Elg in Les Girls (1957) | © ACMI
Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, and Taina Elg in Les Girls (1957) | © ACMI

Many of his famous costumes can be found on display at ACMI, amongst design sketches, production photographs, publicity materials, studio correspondence and film clips, oil paintings, personal photographs and letters. His three Oscar awards are also on display at ACMI; this is the first time they have been on show in Australia. Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood is the first ever exhibition to take a comprehensive look at this immensely talented artist, telling a rags-to-riches story about the legendary Hollywood costume designer and genuine Aussie larrikin.

Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood runs at ACMI until January 17, 2016. Admission is free. Gillian Armstrong’s feature-length documentary, Women He’s Undressed, is screening at ACMI from September to November 2015.