Orry-Kelly: Australia’s Forgotten Genius

A mini season dedicated to Hollywood Costume designer, Orry-Kelly – who has won more Oscars (three in total) than any other Australian – is currently dressing up the Australian Perspectives’ screen. We take a look at the man, the costumes and just how the trailblazing designer set the path for future costume designers (and Australians) in Hollywood.

Scene from 'Gypsy'

Scene from ‘Gypsy’

All About Orry

Costume designer Orry George Kelly (known as ‘Orry-Kelly’) was born on 31 December 1897 in Kiama, NSW. In 1931 he travelled to Hollywood, where close friend Cary Grant helped him secure a foothold in the film industry.

Between 1932 and 1944 Orry-Kelly was chief costume designer at Warner Bros. He worked on hundreds of films and formed – alongside Adrian at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Travis Banton at Paramount Pictures Inc. – a triumvirate of the leading men in his profession.

Orry-Kelly was the favourite designer of Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. During his career he dressed such stars as Katherine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, Natalie Wood, Ingrid Bergman, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Caron, Ava Gardner and Shirley MacLaine among others.

He was also responsible for shaping the look of male stars, such as Humphrey Bogart – Casablanca (1942), James Cagney – Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Cary Grant – Arsenic and Old Lace (1944); and James Stewart – Harvey (1950).

Scene from Casablanca

Scene from ‘Casablanca’

A characteristic about Orry-Kelly was his great versatility. He created the gritty, realist look for Warner’s 1930s gangster/prison films such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Baby Face (1933). Yet he was also an acclaimed designer of both flamboyant musicals and intense dramas.

Prior to 1957, a separate Costume Oscar was awarded for Black & White and Colour films. In ‘57, the two Costume Oscars were combined and Orry-Kelly was the first designer to win this Oscar for Les Girls (1957). He also won Oscars for best costume design for An American in Paris (1951) and Some Like It Hot (1959) – more than any other Australian.

Orry-Kelly was brought in to design the costumes for Auntie Mame (1958) after legendary 1930s designer Travis Banton fell ill and died during production. One of his last films was The Chapman Report (1962) in which he dressed a young Jane Fonda, one of Hollywood’s new burgeoning generation of actors.

Scene from Auntie Mame

Scene from ‘Auntie Mame’

Leaving an unfinished memoir, Women I’ve Undressed, he died of cancer in 1964. His pallbearers included Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder and George Cukor and his eulogy was read by Jack Warner.

‘Les Girls’ post screening Q&A with Katherine Thomson, Anna Borghesi, Margot Anderson and Rochelle Siemienowicz.

‘Les Girls’ post screening Q&A with Katherine Thomson, Anna Borghesi, Margot Anderson and Rochelle Siemienowicz.

To celebrate the Orry-Kelly mini-season launch in May, a Q&A focussing on all things Orry followed a screening of the 1957 hit Les Girls. The evening was facilitated by film journalist, Rochelle Siemienowicz and featured writer Katherine Thomson, costume designer Anna Borghesi and curator Margot Anderson.

– James Nolen, Film Programmer, ACMI

Missed the talk? Catch up with the podcast:



Katherine Thomson is a multi-award winning playwright and screenwriter currently  working on a feature documentary with Gillian Armstrong about Orry-Kelly entitled ‘Women He’s Undressed’.

Margot Anderson is Curator of Dance and Opera with Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection.

Anna Borghesi is an acclaimed Australian costume designer. 

The Orry-Kelly mini-season screens in Australian Perspectives, until Sat 13 July 2013.

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Orry-Kelly: Australia’s Forgotten Genius”

  1. Luke Joseph Murphy 07. May, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

    It’s good that someone here is giving the Aussies some historical-Hollywood recognition. Cause we usually only give to the Canucks! (When it comes to other commonwealth realms that is!0


  1. Famous Name: Orry | Waltzing More Than Matilda - 11. Dec, 2013

    […] this year, Orry-Kelly featured as part of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) Hollywood Costume exhibition in Melbourne, together with a programme of classic films featuring his costumes. Director Gillian […]

Leave a Reply