Grace & Royalty (2006)
By Thom Nickels
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is recalling the heyday of a royal wedding with local ties — an image that lingers all these years later.
The museum just celebrated the opening of an exhibition highlighting the acquisition of a bridesmaid’s dress and petticoat that are on display with the wedding gown worn by the late Grace Kelly, the Philadelphia socialite and Oscar-winning actress whose comfortable life took a royal turn when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco 50 years ago. The dress was worn by Maree Rambo when she was a bridesmaid in Kelly’s fairy-tale wedding on April 19, 1956. Rambo (then Maree Frisby Pamp) was a lifelong friend of Kelly’s, a camaraderie that started when they attended school together in Germantown. Their wedding apparel is the centerpiece of Fit For a Princess: Grace Kelly’s Wedding Dress, an exhibit that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the royal wedding and continues at the art museum through May 21. In fact, it is the first time that the gown — a gift to the museum from the hometown princess — has been displayed since a 1997 exhibit devoted to 250 years of fashion.
Maree Rambo’s bridesmaid dress, constructed of silk organza over silk taffeta and organdy, is clearly of much humbler design than Grace Kelly’s royal gown. Bridesmaids’ dresses, of course, are traditionally designed not to outshine the bride’s, and Rambo’s dress clearly conjures the image of a maid or a second-tier attendant in a highly stylized garment.
The Joseph Hong-designed hat, made of stitched synthetic horsehair and silk organza, also called to mind the look of a scullery maid or a well-dressed French peasant on holiday.
•• Throughout her life, Princess Grace, who was just 52 when she suffered a stroke while driving and died of injuries in the September 1982 car crash, was noted for her fierce loyalty to old friends, her years as an actress in Hollywood notwithstanding. Her Monaco bridesmaids consisted of friends from New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts, one of her sisters (the other was pregnant and unable to take part) and Maree Rambo. During a recent tea at the museum to celebrate the exhibition, Rambo was in attendance but not a featured speaker (she explained later that she was offered the opportunity but opted to stay in the background).
Grace Kelly, who grew up in the city’s East Falls section, the daughter of a millionaire brick contractor, blossomed as one of America’s top actresses of the 1950s. She made fewer than a dozen films. But her big break — as the rigid Quaker wife opposite Gary Cooper in High Noon — was followed by Mogambo (Clark Gable and Ava Gardner) and a supporting-actress Oscar.
It earned Grace Kelly more attention in Hollywood, but a flurry of films in the mid-’50s — the Alfred Hitchcock thrillers Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, along with The Country Girl (she won a best-actress Oscar at 26), To Catch a Thief, High Society and The Swan — particularly cemented her stature in films that have evolved into classics today. That remarkable streak — and, of course, her beauty didn’t hurt — elevated Grace Kelly to American darling. Her elegant manner of dress — hats, pearls and white gloves — became the order of the day.Women’s Wear Daily and Time magazine featured her on their covers in the 1950s.
But Grace Kelly ultimately chose a different path when she and Prince Rainier, a wealthy bachelor, met at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1955. Their courtship led to the altar in less than a year, and in 1956, Princess Grace of Monaco, shortly after the wedding, donated her gown to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
She retired from Hollywood at 27 and never made another film. But her royal life brought a new fame as a Monaco ambassador, as she turned to charitable endeavors and eventually had three children, and her gift of the wedding gown was marked with a celebratory soiree at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A 1956 photograph of that event in a museum publication, Grace Kelly, Icon of Style to Royal Bride, shows many women in pearls, hats and mink stoles.
•• Most Philadelphians of a certain age can remember going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and seeing the famed wedding dress in a department store display case drowned in bright lights. Unfortunately, the heat of those lights gradually started to break down the delicate fabric; conservators decided to put the dress away for safekeeping and display it only on special occasions.
And this big anniversary is one of those occasions. The gown, along with Maree Rambo’s bridesmaid attire, is on exhibit in a small section of the first-floor Costumes and Textiles wing of the museum. The regal gown — its classic ivory color, the many frontal buttons and bell shape, ivory lace down the back and its long sleeves and high collar — puts to shame the dresses that pass for wedding gowns today. In the 1950s, the idea was to expose only the bride’s back, not outline old appendectomy scars. Of course, Grace Kelly had money and the power of celebrity to ensure that she wore a gown for the ages. But this elegant creation — complemented by shoes, headpiece and a net veil designed to show her face — was a wedding gift to Grace Kelly from Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios.
The task of designing it went to Helen Rose, an Oscar-winning designer who created Kelly’s costumes for two of her films. About 35 members of the wardrobe department worked on the dress in MGM Studios for six weeks.
Photographs of the period depict matronly types in wire-rim glasses hard at work on the gown — and laboring under top-secret conditions. Outsiders were forbidden to see the dress; security was so tight that the gown’s blueprint was locked up at night. In those days, Grace Kelly was so popular and beloved that everybody following the barrage of pre-wedding news wanted her dress to be a masterpiece. Two days before the ceremony, details of the gown were released. Almost immediately, copies were made, and on the day of the wedding women could buy a version of the dress in New York.
MGM supervised production of every part of the bridal ensemble, including the headpiece, the veil, the lace-and-pearl-encrusted bridal prayer book, even the shoes with two-and-a-half-inch heels. These items are also on display in the Costume and Textiles wing. The shoes, in fact, call to mind the emerald slippers of Dorothy, since they actually did whisk away a Philadelphian to become "Her Serene Highness Grace Patricia of Monaco."
•• The curator of the current exhibit, Kristina H. Haugland, explained how she had heard that Grace had a copper penny encased in the base of one of the shoes. Haugland said she’d felt the base of the bridal shoes, hoping to detect the buried penny, but when she felt nothing it occurred to her that she worked for a prestigious museum with a sophisticated conservation department, so Haugland had the shoes x-rayed.
Sure enough, a copper penny was concealed along the metal shank of the left shoe. (Rumors had abounded in 1956 that Grace Kelly wore flats during the ceremony so that Prince Rainier would not look like a shrimp. Those are the two-and-a-half-inch heels.) Prince Rainer did not want the wedding Mass to be held in Philadelphia (in the bride’s parish church, St. Bridget’s in East Falls) for fear that the event would become a circus. By all accounts, the royal couple embarked on a happy life in Monaco — a union unexpectedly broken by the tragic crash in ’82.
It was just a year ago — April 6, 2005 — that Prince Rainier died at 81 after a period of deteriorating health. He was laid to rest in a marble tomb in Monaco, next to his wife, the former Grace Kelly of Philadelphia. ••