Director Gillian Armstrong describes walking in to the Orry Kelly exhibition at ACMI as like walking into a jewellery box. Not simply because of the sparkling ornaments, but because of the trinkets one keeps; little mementos and keepsakes which hold no value, yet are more precious than any of the gemstones. This is exactly the experience of the ACMI exhibition, where bits and pieces from Orry Kelly’s life and work are on display.
The exhibition coincides with the recent release of Armstrong’s film Women He’s Undressed, the documentary she has made about Orry Kelly. Kelly was a costume designer during the studio era in Hollywood, a three time Oscar winning Australian from the small town of Kiama in New South Wales. Armstrong’s film has brought to light the story of this remarkable man and his life, a story which has been mostly unknown until recently.
The Dressing Hollywood exhibition is small and intimate; perhaps the intimacy is what is most appealing. There are dresses from Gypsy (1962), Auntie Mame (1958) and Les Girls (1957), to name a few. It is wonderful to see the costumes on display, but what is most intriguing are the documents which accompany them. Telegrams and internal memos to and from Orry Kelly about the costumes he is working on, signed photographs from stars and starlets and sketches with fabric swatches still attached, recreate the working life of Kelly. Photographs and letters document Kelly’s childhood and early life in Australia, prior to his travel to New York and Los Angeles.
Of course, there are Orry Kelly’s Oscars. Three of them, tarnished but still glorious, lit up and displayed with pride. This is the first time the Oscars have been put on display, and about time too. Kelly won for An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like it Hot (1959). The Oscars, along with the exhibition itself, are just a small representation of the mammoth talent Kelly was, and his incredible body of work.
It is more than fitting that the Dressing Hollywood exhibition is on display at ACMI, and to coincide with the screening of Armstrong’s film and the publication of Kelly’s own memoirs. As Armstrong describes, it is like travelling into a jewellery box when seeing the exhibition. It is a true privilege to see the bits and pieces which Orry Kelly collected himself, his drawings and design sketches and notes and letters from his personal collection. The assortments of pieces exhibited are gems of an exceptional sort, of a cherished and private story.
The Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood exhibition can be seen at ACMI from 18th August to 17th January.