Orry Kelly- Hollywood’s Bad Boy of Costume Design

There were some extremely talented costume designers back in the Golden Era of Hollywood, and Orry Kelly was one of the best. Right up there with Gilbert Adrian and Travis Banton.  He actually was the only person Bette Davis trusted to make costumes to flatter her figure and complement her personality.   And she was one extremely particular diva!  Some of the films he dressed her for  included  The Rich are Always With Us, Fashions of 1934, Now Voyager,  The Little Foxes and Jezebel.

But Orry Kelly designed for many other major stars as well and his costumes appeared in hundreds of films from the early 1930′s into the 1960′s.  He won  academy awards for his costume designs in American in Paris ( 1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like it Hot (1959).

Born  in Australia,  Kelly was creative and artistic from a young age .  In the early 1920s he  moved to New York City  to try his hand at acting.  Once there he worked painting murals and illustrating titles for silent movies. He also ended up designing costumes and scenery for several  stage productions, including Katherine Hepburn’s costumes for Death Takes a Holiday, before he got his big break with Warner Studios in Hollywood.

Orry Kelly was known for using the finest fabrics,  utilizing hand painting, tiny pleating, and crocheted lace to make his glamorous fashions pop on the black and white screen. His period costumes were noted for their authenticity and attention to detail.

But this brilliant, perfectionist  had a dark side.  Though considered witty and charming when sober, Orry Kelly was often difficult to work with, argumentative, tempermental and hot tempered because of his  major drinking problem.  He was notorious for fighting with and walking out on his boss, Jack Warner, then coming back days later.  This naturally led to  him being fired.  But that certainly didn’t put an end to his career, as  he was eventually  hired by  20th Century Fox and also freelanced for MGM, Universal and RKO.

Ginger Rogers publicity shot wearing her famous Orry Kelly “Coin” dress for Gold Diggers of 1933

Ginger Rogers in Orry Kelly Coin dress for Gold Diggers of 1933

Ginger Rogers in Orry Kelly Coin dress for Gold Diggers of 1933

 30s matinee idol Kay Francis in the ultimate Hollywood glamour  gown designed by Orry Kelly.

Worn for her role in Mandalay (1934)

Kay Francis in Mandalay 1934- Orry Kelly Gown

Kay Francis in Mandalay 1934- Orry Kelly Gown

Dolores Del Rio looks hot, hot, hot in fringed Orry Kelly gown for her role in Caliente (1935)

Dolores Del Rio in Fringed Orry Kelly Gown-Caliente 1935

Dolores Del Rio in Fringed Orry Kelly Gown-Caliente 1935

Marion Davis wearing an Orry Kelly white  eyelet embroidered organdy evening gown with fabulous peplum top and lace up belt.

Worn for her role in Cain and Mabel (1936)

Marion Davis in white organdy Orry Kelly gown-Cain and Mabel 1936

Marion Davis in white organdy Orry Kelly gown-Cain and Mabel 1936

The famous ball gowns Orry Kelly designed for Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938)

Orry Kelly gowns-Bette Davis-Jezebel 1938

Orry Kelly gowns-Bette Davis-Jezebel 1938

The costumes Orry Kelly designed for Some Like it Hot in 1959 were considered seriously scandalous at the time.  Some of the dresses created for Marilyn Monroe were basically just sheer, clinging mesh with strategically placed decorations. But he ended up with an Oscar for the designs! And Tony Curtis was originally offended that the studio wanted to pull old outfits out of wardrobe storage for him and Jack Lemmon to wear as the cross dressing males leads.  So he insisted Orry Kelly design their costumes as well.

Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot 1959-Orry Kelly dress

Marilyn Monroe in provocative Orry Kelly dress for Some Like it Hot 1959

Some Orry Kelly Trivia

  • He was a roommate and eventual romantic partner of Cary Grant in the early days of his career.
  • He titled his unpublished memoirs “Women I’ve Undressed.”
  • Famous quote “Hell must be filled with beautiful women with no mirrors.”
  • The red ball gown Bette Davis was supposed to wear in  Jezebel actually was made in brown because black and white film made a true red dress look black!
  • When measuring Marilyn Monroe for a fitting it is rumored he said “Tony (Curtis) has a better looking ass than you do!”

Do you have any favorite classic movies that Orry Kelly designed costumes for?

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