Grace Kelly: Fashion Princess

Guarded with the same ferocity as "plans for a fifteen-hundred-mile ballistic missile," the design called for white, poured like a healthy slug of milk into an "elegant, feminine, ladylike" silhouette. Thirty-five tailors, like Cinderella's woodland creatures, spent six frenzied weeks stitching together the 125-year-old Brussels lace. The finished confection—American-designed, American-assembled, American-worn—was supposed to advertise that the wearer hailed from "a country with dress designers of great distinction, equal to any in the world." And immediately after it was worn, the piece was sent to roost its downy, white-lace feathers in the rafters of a museum, where it would drape for eternity.

That may sound like Michelle Obama's top-secret inauguration gown, and her ethereal white Jason Wu dress was indeed installed at the Smithsonian last month. But those making the feverish descriptions aren't bloggers—they're 1950s fashion columnists, describing Grace Kelly's big, fat, chic wedding frock. Like Obama's off-the-shoulder ensemble, Kelly's royal bridal gown was a sartorial divider page: the end of a blushing political preamble, the beginning of world-stage wifehood. It was also a cue for the media to deepen and sharpen their obsession with first-lady (or Her Royal Highness) fashion. Jackie Kennedy is the historical face of stylish, modern political spouses, and Princess Di may be the only woman to have eclipsed her legacy. But Kelly—married to Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956, a union the press would christen the "wedding of the century"—came first, and to unprecedented fanfare. By the time Jackie first appeared on the best-dressed list, in 1960, Kelly was already in its hall of fame. This week Kelly is being inducted into another hallowed hall: 50 of her outfits are on display at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, in a show called Grace Kelly: Style Icon.

Outside of the fashion world, the worthiness of such exhibitions is regularly debated. Fashion blockbusters are the cute cheerleaders in the museum cafeteria—hated because they're beautiful, empty, and popular. Sometimes their bad rap is justified: the Guggenheim's mocked 2000 Giorgio Armani show was uneasily cozy with industry; in the V&A's permanent collection, a hot-pink Juicy Couture velour tracksuit, acquired to define a period in sportswear, looks awfully silly next to sixth-century Coptic textiles. But in the case of Kelly's trousseau it's praise, not smug disdain, that's warranted. While the swooning over the actress's frothy Hitchcock gowns has never fully abated, her coronation as a princess brought a fresh barrage of media attention to her daytime attire, now considered her primary style legacy. Even as a European monarch, Kelly had a quintessential American aesthetic in her daywear—the "college-girl look" that traded on unfussy lines, precise tailoring, and exceptional grooming. Her style was defined mostly by what she didn't wear—"too-blatant curves, too-tight dresses, too-lavish furs, or jewellery noteworthy only for its abundance," as Women's Wear Daily put it in 1955. By the time she'd become royalty, her rigorous fashion restraint frequently sent the newsprint world into a tizzy. When she wore a plain green wool dress to the White House in 1961, it was headline news, the headline being THE GODDESSES MEET.

That the headline could have come from today—from, say, Michelle Obama (in deep blue Narciso Rodriguez) meeting with the first lady of Greece—is what makes Kelly's fashion fossil worth exhuming. Like their columnist forebears, blogs such as Mrs. O (subhead: "The Face of Fashion Democracy") and New York Magazine's The Michelle Obama Look Book parse whether Obama's schoolgirl cardigan is acceptable for meeting the queen, or how her Thakoon floral stacks up against Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's Dior. "The freedom of the press works in such a way that there is not much freedom from it," Kelly archly said of all the attention—attention that survived her death in 1982. The first lady, for her part, seems nonplused by the scrutiny of her style. Last month, while delivering remarks at the Smithsonian dedication, she confessed that the whole ordeal left her "a little embarrassed by all the fuss." As she put it, news cameras rolling: "I'm not used to people wanting to put things I've worn on display." Now, is that any way for a fashion goddess to talk?