Grace Kelly: Style Icon, V&A, London

The film star's crisp silhouette and little black dresses give way to gaudy Marie Antoinette confections

The pleasure of learning about a person through their possessions lies in the work of imagination required to connect maddeningly mute objects with the life of their owner. The flesh-and-blood reality of a long-dead monarch, for instance, remains elusive, but piecing together the material evidence available to us is all the more fascinating for that.

So what, then, can be gained from examining the personal effects of someone we already know (or think we do) – working backwards, as it were, from a familiar whole to consider the constituent parts? This is the approach that the V&A has plumped for with its current blockbuster Grace Kelly: Style Icon. Split chronologically into three parts – Actress, Bride and Princess – it traces the life, through her clothes and accessories, of the Hitchcock blonde who became European royalty.

It's a strangely frustrating exhibition. Ordinarily, the V&A is unparalleled in its recovery of distant ages, places and characters through costume (The Magnificence of the Tsars in 2008 truly lived up to its promise), but the woman at the heart of this show is somehow rendered more absent than ever by the clusters of headless mannequins which are sporting her dresses.

In part, this can be put down to a problem inherent to the subject. The reason so many adore Grace Kelly, the reason we might want to pore over the fabric of her clothes and inspect the minute scuffs on the Hermès handbag to which she gave her name, is that we fell in love with her physical presence on screen.

In the trio of Hitchcock movies (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief) for which she is probably best known, Kelly's unique allure was her ambiguity – a potent sensuality at odds with the too-perfect-to-touch packaging. The clothes were important, essential even, but they were a foil to their flesh-and-blood wearer – and so, to see them lined up, immobile, and slightly macabre, is an inevitable disappointment.

The let-down is only intensified by the clips from Kelly's films and newsreels documenting her marriage, which intersperse the dresses. Standing before the little black dress that Kelly wears when the action takes a darker turn in Rear Window, or the Grecian number in which she lounges by the pool in High Society, just makes me want to go home and pull out the DVDs. Out of context, these are not spectacular examples of couture – merely well-constructed examples of pretty 1950s fashion.

Admittedly, there is something of the relic about a couple of outfits – the green satin gown she wore to collect her Oscar for The Country Girl, for instance, gave me the faintest ghostly frisson. But such moments will be few and far between – even for ardent fans – because what this exhibition is desperately light on is the apparel that most of us consider to be vintage Kelly. Don't expect to see her wedding dress, for example.

Beyond the handful of film costumes and outfits she wore in the build-up to her wedding, the larger part of the show consists of the French haute couture she favoured as Her Serene Highness – many of which are blowsy, gaudy confections halfway between Marie Antoinette and Little Bo Peep.

In fairness, it was the 1970s by then, and many of them were made for lavish charity balls in Monaco, but it's a reminder that the demure, irreproachably crisp silhouette she favoured as a jobbing actress went out of the window as soon as she got that Monegasque tiara on her head. When your social status is assured, you can wear what you damn well like.

The marked change in her clothing choices also makes me wonder just how strong a grip this "style icon" had on her own sense of style, and indeed on her sense of self. Much is now made of her influence on her costumes in the Hitchcock films, but you only have to look at the brilliantly codified wardrobes of Tippi Hedren in Marnie or Kim Novak in Vertigo to realise that the director could do just fine without Kelly.

On the morning I visited, the exhib -ition was packed, mainly with women exchanging reverent whispers about her innate "class" and the diminutive size of her waist – with the exception of one visitor, bending over a pair of rather well-worn pumps, who exclaimed in horror: "Such big feet!"

I found myself more in the camp of the bored-looking husbands, shuffling around, getting in the way in the woefully cramped gallery space. I wondered whether I ought to point out to them that the V&A has some excellent permanent collections and an outdoor café that is charming at this time of year.

To 26 Sep (020-7942 2000)

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game