Life On The Job

Famous or Historic People

Orry George ‘Jack’ Kelly (1897-1964) Costume Designer

Orry Kelly
Orry Kelly in 1931 (aged 34)
(Source: Daily Telegraph)

While few Australians have heard of the costume designer Orry-Kelly, he won three Oscars in the 1950s - for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot - and was nominated for Gypsy.

He also worked on such classic movies as Casablanca, Oklahoma!, The Maltese Falcon and Arsenic and Old Lace, designing dresses for the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner.

Growing up in Kiama as ''Jack'' Kelly, the budding actor adopted a more stylish single name when he sailed to the United States and became a designer, firstly on Broadway then in Hollywood in the 1930s.

His career was so successful that the pallbearers at his 1964 funeral were Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and directors Billy Wilder and George Cukor. The eulogy was read by studio boss Jack Warner. (Source: SMH)

Introduction & Education:

Orry George Kelly (1897-1964), dress designer, was born on 31 December 1897 at Kiama, New South Wales, son of William Kelly, a tailor from the Isle of Man, and his Sydney-born wife Florence Evaleen, née Purdue.

Orry attended Kiama Public and Wollongong District schools.

Orry was well-remembered at his local school for doing drawings on top of chocolate boxes (Kiama Primary School Centenary 1961) and the Kiama Pilot’s Cottage museum have an original pic of him where he was eight, in a sailor suit in a dramatic production. (Source: Kiama Local History)

1905 Orry Kelly at Sunday School (aged 8)
Kiama Local History)

His distinctive first name (later hyphenated with his surname for professional use) was derived from a variety of carnation in his mother's garden and from that of an ancient Manx king.  (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)

He saw a Dick Whittington pantomime at the age of seven, and was hooked on theatre, costume, performance and art. (Source: SMH)

After working briefly in a Sydney bank, Kelly was attracted to the stage. He studied art, acting, dancing and voice, and became a protégé of Eleanor Weston. Moving to New York in 1921, he found employment first as a tailor's assistant, then as a painter of murals for nightclubs and department stores. He also formed a friendship with a young Englishman Archibald Leach, later known as Cary Grant, sharing living quarters with him and another Australian expatriate Charles ('Spangles') Phelps, a former ship's steward. (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Did You Know?

Orry Kelly was also a painter.

Here is a painting that Lucille Ball [an actress in the '60s] used to own.


Experiences & Opportunities:

Kelly's murals soon led to employment as a title designer for silent films for the Fox Film Corporation, and to designing stage sets and costumes for players like Katharine Hepburn, Ethel Barrymore and Jeanette MacDonald. In 1931 he moved to Hollywood where Grant helped him to gain entry into First National Pictures Inc. Between 1932 and 1944 Orry-Kelly was chief costume designer at Warner Bros, working on hundreds of films and forming—with 'Adrian' at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Travis Banton at Paramount Pictures Inc.—a triumvirate of the leading men in his profession.

Kelly dressed many major stars, but his most distinguished work was done for Bette Davis, whose 'red' ball gown in the black-and-white film, Jezebel (1938), was probably his best-known single creation. (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Bette Davis in red gown
Bette Davis in the red ball gown created by Orry-Kelly


An uneasy relationship with studio chief Jack L. Warner, caused chiefly by Kelly's alcoholism, came to a head in 1944 when Warner discharged him. Orry-Kelly subsequently secured a three-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation to dress Betty Grable. From 1950 he freelanced with several studios and established private workrooms. Despite declining health and mounting personal problems, he maintained his professional status, designing for Rosalind Russell, Leslie Caron, Kay Kendall, Shirley MacLaine and Natalie Wood among others. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him three Oscars for best costume design for An American in Paris (1951, shared with two others), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959). 

Some like it hotZ
Costume designer Orry-Kelly with Tony Curtis [actor] on Some Like It Hot

some like it hot
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon dressed by Orry-Kelly in Some Like It Hot

A quarrelsome, hot-tempered man of slightly less than middle height, with brown hair and large blue eyes, Kelly was brilliant but difficult, a versatile perfectionist who used only the finest hand-finished fabrics. His period costumes were noted for their richness and authenticity; those he designed for Davis helped to define her strongly individualized screen characters. His style was marked by its felicitous balance of realism and artifice, and achieved glamour without vulgarity. A talented amateur oil-painter, he also designed ties, cushions and shawls. He enjoyed contract bridge and watching prizefights. Witty, popular and gregarious when not affected by alcohol, Kelly was known to his intimates as 'Jack'. He never married. Leaving an unfinished memoir, 'Women I've Undressed', he died of cancer on 26 February 1964 at Los Angeles and was cremated. (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)


Did You Know?

Central to his [Orry-Kelly] work was the idea that costume and character should blend together seamlessly in order for either to appear real.

That legacy, and no doubt a touch of his flamboyance, paved the way for a roll call of great Australian costumers, including Janet Patterson (The Piano, The Portrait Of A Lady, Oscar And Lucinda), and Oscar winners Lizzy Gardiner (The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert) and Catherine Martin (Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby).
(Source: The Guardian)

YouTube: Women He's Undressed Trailer


YouTube: Uncovering Orry Kelly



Kiama Local History

Kiama Local History

Great source of information and photos
Australian Dictionary of Biography


Illawarra Mercury 6 June 2015

Illawarra Mercury


A longtime alcoholic, Orry-Kelly died of liver cancer in Hollywood and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills. His pallbearers included Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder and George Cukor and his eulogy was read by Jack L. Warner.

He had no living relatives when he died so his personal effects and Academy Awards were stored by Ann Warner, wife of his friend, Jack. The Oscars were among the items scheduled for exhibition entitled Orry-Kelly: Dressing Hollywood, in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in August 2015.



Create an elegant dress (ideas from Matthew Maher, ACU Education student)
CriticalAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Critical and creative thinking
Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Personal and social capability

1. Today you are going to have your own chance to create an elegant dress, just like Orry-Kelly

The following video can help you through the entire process as well as give some fun tips for exciting ideas that you can use to make your design really stand out!

DIY - How to Make: Tissue Paper Prom Dress - BACK TO SCHOOL - Handmade - Doll - Crafts


You will need:
- A small doll to use as a figure
- Tissue paper
- Ribbon
- Tape
- Rubber bands
- Glue

2. Create some small sketches in an art diary or scrap bits of paper before you begin making your dress, so you have a rough idea of what you would like to create. You can constantly look back to this drawing if you get stuck during the making of your dress.

3. Start by cutting a small piece of tissue paper and fold it back and forth to make pleats.

Place it on the doll and wrap it around, and hold it in place with a rubber band. You can then use a small piece of ribbon tied in a knot to replace the rubber band (It’s a good idea to hold it up just under the dolls arms)
Once you have the basic dress shape, you will need to start your decorating. Some ideas that you may like to consider are:
- Creating small paper flowers to place on the dress
- Creating small bows to sit on the dress
- Decorating with various colours of tissue paper

4. Take a photo of your doll and it's new dress.


Create an Inspiration Board (ideas from Matthew Maher, ACU Education student)

High SchoolSecondary

CriticalAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Critical and creative thinking
Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Personal and social capability

ICT Capability Australian Curriculum General Capability: ICT

1. Today you are going to take the first step at creating your own amazing dress design, but to begin this process you first need to create an inspiration board.

An inspiration board is a collage of pictures, fabric samples and ideas that relate to what you want to make.

For example it could be, styles of skirts or dresses, different offcuts of fabrics or colour schemes or even song lyrics or movie quotes that make you think of a particular outfit!

2. To begin you will need following:

  • A large piece of A3 poster cardboard or alternatively you can create a digital Inspiration board on your laptop or iPad

  • Internet access or access to old magazines

  • Textures and fabric (These can be offcuts that you have lying around)

  • Anything else that inspires you for your item of clothing!

To begin, you might like to identify certain colours that are preferable to you, this could be in the form of pictures of other items of clothing or just paints that you have around.

Mood board
Mood boards from Pinterest

3. Next you will need to narrow down the particular item or style of clothing you would like to make, you will need to find various pictures of this item preferably from different angles, made of different textures and different colours so you get an idea of what your design could look like.

4. Fabric selection is the next choice you will need to explore. You can choose from a range of different materials such as, polyester, cotton, silk etc..
Next you need to select a range of fabric designs; this could be floral, plain, textured or picture design.

5. The next step is to identify any other sources of inspiration, this could be song lyrics that describe colours or clothing or it could just set a scene. You may also like to include movie quotes or anything else that you can draw inspiration from.

6. The final step of the process is to put your inspiration board together. Glue all of your samples and ideas onto the cardboard in a nice collage.

You will then display this in an area that you can clearly see throughout the day. You will then be able to get a better idea of what you might like your item of clothing to look like!
Once you have completed the board and finalised your choices, you may like to begin the design process on paper before you have a go at making your very own dress!

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