In early July a new exhibition opened at Paris’s Musée Bourdelle: “Back Side/Fashion From Behind,” as its name implies, explores artful clothing design, from the 18th century to the present day, from a back view. This beautiful exhibition put me in mind of memorable classic-film costumes that likewise offer breathtaking back details; here are three favorites — all, coincidentally, designed by Orry-Kelly:
Jewel Robbery, 1932: Any 1930s film starring Kay Francis is certain to include terrific costumes — Francis was considered one of the most stylish women in cinema, and Depression-era audiences expected to see her in glamorous gowns. In Jewel Robbery, Francis plays a married baroness opposite frequent co-star William Powell, who plays a charming thief seeking to relieve her of several pricey jewels in her collection (in the end, of course, they fall in love and he reforms). Throughout the film Francis is seen in some pretty luscious gowns by Orry-Kelly, but one in particular, an off-the-shoulder design that looks to be crafted of velvet with a fur trim, practically defies gravity with its backless styling. Boning inside the bodice? Probably. Francis likely considered her back to be one of her most alluring features, because evening gowns in many of her films seem to emphasize backless styling. Once you get into her films, you’re sure to notice.
Auntie Mame, 1958: Orry-Kelly’s costumes for Rosalind Russell as the iconic Mame Dennis are all pretty sumptuous as they balance the passage of time with Mame’s changing tastes, but one in particular makes a wonderful statement about her character while also standing on its own as a beautiful design.
The widowed Mame enters her Beekman Place apartment in full mourning, and while there’s no doubt she deeply loved her late husband — Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside — Mame’s style can’t resist shining through. That’s evident after she’s removed her coat and her hat with black veiling, and as Mame is pondering the flirtations of novelist Brian O’Bannion (hired to help write her memoir), Russell ends the scene with her back to the camera, where the audience sees that her “mourning dress” is actually backless, with a bouquet of silk violets adorning her posterior. Costumes often serve the purpose of transcending mere dress to communicate ideas about the character, and this design is a great example.
Some Like It Hot, 1959: Before Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce embraced the naked dress for the red carpet, there was Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. As singer Sugar Kane, Monroe is quite the bombshell, an idea enhanced the costumes Orry-Kelly created for her performances with the all-girl band (which of course includes an incognito Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon). Covering Monroe in little more than sheer tulle and strategically placed beading, Orry-Kelly’s designs were exceedingly daring for the time. One sleeveless dress in black with bugle beading features a sheer back that descends as low as it can go, with a corsage of beaded flowers providing the necessary bit of coverage so the Hollywood censors wouldn’t lose their minds. This celebration of Monroe’s curves offers the added benefit of enhancing the joke that Curtis and Lemmon are passing for women, with Monroe remarking to Lemmon’s “Daphne” in one early scene, “You're so flat-chested. Clothes hang so much better on you than they do on me.”
If you’re in Paris anytime soon, “Back Side/Fashion From Behind” runs through Nov. 17th at the Musée Bourdelle, which is standing in for the Palais Galliera, the city’s fashion museum, while it undergoes renovations.