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Orry Kelly – Master of Form


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Orry Kelly (1897-1964) Australian

Ava Gardner in One Touch of Venus, 1948.

Orry-Kelly was considered one of the top three costume designers in the 1930s alongside Travis Banton and Adrian. Before being hired by Warner Brothers in 1932, he had designed costumes for Broadway actresses. During his career in films, he dressed numerous studio stars such as Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Ingrid Bergman, and Rosalind Russell.

Actress Kay Francis in Orry Kelly.

Born John Orry Kelly, he grew up in Australia with his Irish parents. In 1923, he immigrated to New York hoping to be a Broadway star. He worked a variety of jobs, including a successful stint as a mural painter. He also designed for vaudeville as well and more highbrow theater. Originally hired to design theater sets, he was offered a job at Fox in their New York studio art department.

Actress Dolores Del Rio.

Once in Hollywood, he was hired by First National Films (later owned by Warner Brothers) and soon changed his name to Orry-Kelly. On his first film there, The Rich Are Always With Us (1932) he began his long and successful working relationship with Bette Davis. Orry-Kelly was known as the one designer who could satisfy and flatter her figure and personality. He specially designed corsets and brassieres to mold Davis’ figure for period film roles. However, for modern-set films, she refused to wear these types of supportive garments. Instead, Orry-Kelly relied on cleverly cut, well made garments and when dressed by him, Davis seemed elegant and at ease.

Glenda Farrell in Orry-Kelly, 1933.

Orry-Kelly also took historical accuracy more seriously than most of his peers in the shape and scale of the decorative trimmings he used on his costumes. He bridged the gap between realism and the exaggeration needed in movies.

Bette Davis in Jezebel, 1938.

Before color film, black and white films had to suggest colors by using various shades of gray. In reality, the costumes would sometimes be constructed in bizarre color combinations such as lavender and orange or magenta and lemon yellow in order to represent what was desired on screen. In Jezebel, the famous red dress that Bette Davis wears; when created out of bright red satin actually looked dull on film. The final dress ended up being rust-brown in color to appear “red” when rendered in black and white. Orry-Kelly was known to have said that his color range consisted of “varying shades of muck.”

Bette Davis in Dark Victory, 1939.

He was known for being temperamental and argumentative as a result of his alcoholism. He had been discharged from the Army in 1942 for his drinking. During his time at Warner Brothers he was notorious for arguing with his boss Jack Warner and walking out, returning after a few days. In 1944, he was finally fired from Warner Brothers and worked for 20th Century Fox until 1947 and from 1950-1964 he freelanced for Fox, Metro-Goldman-Mayer, and United Artists.

Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, 1959.

His films: Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), Casablanca (1942), Now Voyager (1942), Some Like it Hot (1959), Baby Face (1931), Auntie Mame (1958), Irma La Douce (1963), and An American in Paris (1950), and Oklahoma (1955).

His style, innovations, and influence on fashion:

  • Former roommate Cary Grant presented his design portfolio to First National Films and won Orry-Kelly the introduction that led to a job offer.
Academy Award winner, Les Girls, 1957.
  • Orry Kelly won three Academy Awards for Les Girls (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959) and An American In Paris (1951), which he shared with Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff.

Rosalind Russell is Auntie Mame, 1958.

  • He designed Rosalind Russell’s fabulous, ever-changing wardrobe for the 1958 screen version of Auntie Mame.
  • Orry-Kelly covered his salon reception room with expensive silver leaf and requested a portable bar on wheels for himself and his guests.

Sources: In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design (1980) W. Robert La Vine; Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label (2008) Christian Esquevin.

Lisa Williams   —  

Comments 12


Isn’t there a home sewing connection for Orry-Kelly? I loved how his style evolved from the 1930s through the 1950s. I think my favorite look here is the Glenda Farrell shot…which looks vaguely something straight from a Hollywood Patterns envelope.


There may have been patterns based on his designs but I couldn’t find any that stated that he designed them or allowed them to put his name on them. However, I did do a post on a movie he costumed, Baby Face, and matched the dresses with similar sewing patterns of the same time. You can see that post here. If you find any, please let me know though.



I think my favorite look is Bette Davis in Dark Victory. Just look at the back!


Thank you so much for these bios and pictures! So informative! (Have I already written that on a different post? Oh well. There it is again.)


What a talent! Gone are the days of old Hollywood glamour. Thanks for sharing!


Wonderful post, thanks so much for gathering this information and sharing with us. I know I’ll be looking at Bette Davis even more closely now!


Beautiful! The dresses on Bette Davis look beautiful!Thanks for the pictures.


hello. i’ve loved orry-kelly’s work for many years & think he’s the greatest hollywood fashion designer EVER.

but here’s a question: can you please tell me what the proper name is for those lovely indoor coats that rosalind russell wore in auntie mame?



I’m not sure exactly which coat you are asking about but she was wearing a hostess gown whenever she wore one with pants. Earlier on she may have also worn dressing gowns in the bedroom scenes. These gowns were never meant to be seen by anyone outside of the immediate family whereas hostess gowns were for entertaining. One day, I hope to have one too, but I want mine to be reversible!


Bette Davis had some fabulous costumes in Now Voyager. The suits were especially fab. You can still tell she wouldn’t wear a bra despite Orry-Kelly’s best efforts. The hats were pretty fab too. FYI, Lisa in that movie was the daughter of the famous Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase.

This is a fabulous blog. Hope you’ll continue to update.

E Brown

Auntie Mame is one of my favorite films not least because of the fabulous costumes. OK was a brilliant designer who epitomizes Hollywood glam!! :-)

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