Everyone knows the fairy tale about a girl swept away by a handsome prince. On this day in 1956, the bar was raised even higher when beloved, beautiful actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in what was dubbed “The Wedding of the Century.” As with another certain royal wedding, the media hype had been unrelenting since the couple announced their engagement a few months earlier. The fervor was fueled by the announcement that MGM’s Academy Award–winning costume designer Helen Rose would design the wedding dress. It didn’t help matters that Rose remained tight-lipped about Kelly’s look. When the big day arrived on April 19, 1956, more than 30 million people turned on their newfangled television sets just to see the dress the movie star–turned-princess was wearing.
The courtship had begun a year earlier after Kelly posed in a brief photo shoot with Prince Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi at the Canne Film Festival. Apparently, the couple clicked, because the prince traveled to the U.S. the following December to meet Kelly’s family and formally pop the question. That same month, Women’s Wear Daily cemented Kelly’s status as a fashion icon when it began to push “The Grace Kelly Look,” an uncluttered, ladylike style epitomized by the actress. The look wasn’t new—it was previously known as the “American look” popular with college girls—but now a bona-fide movie star and future princess was its mascot. Despite the Kelly family’s foresight to place an ad in WWD warning legal action against any attempts to profit from the wedding, several merchandisers tied themselves to the event anyway. Willys de Mond of Hollywood falsely claimed to provide pearl-trimmed hosiery, Max Factor announced the production of a special cosmetic to match the wedding dress and Philadelphia’s After Six Company, which provided the Kelly men with their wedding suits, advertised a new style of lapel dubbed “The Monaco.”
As expected, the bride-to-be was besieged with offers from designers to create her special dress, but Kelly accepted MGM’s offer. At the time it wasn’t uncommon for studios to supply their stars’ wedding dresses. Doing so was good publicity, and the bride earned the luxury of working with one of the famous costume designers who had already dressed them beautifully for the camera. Helen Rose had created Kelly’s costumes for four films—including the Swan, in which Kelly plays a princess who must marry—and had designed wedding dresses for other MGM leading ladies, including Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor. The bride and the designer agreed to use a ball gown from High Society, the Oscar-nominated film the pair had just worked on together, as a model, and embellished it with Kelly’s additional ideas: long sleeves, a high neckline and long train. Rose and three dozen of MGM’s best seamstresses, milliners, beaders, embroiderers and dyers worked on the dress for six weeks under top-secret conditions.
Kelly embarked on a sea voyage to Monaco accompanied by her family and dogs and more than 80 pieces of luggage containing a trousseau of designer styles. At a civil ceremony on April 18, Kelly’s blush-colored Alençon lace suit and matching cap hinted to what she would wear the following day. When the wedding dress was finally revealed on TV sets around the world, it was a show-stopper. The ivory lace bodice was constructed of 125-year-old Brussels rose-point lace embroidered over silk gauze, and a bell-shaped, silk faille skirt attached to the bodice beneath a pleated taffeta cummerbund. Rose believed the back of a dress should be as interesting as its front, and so the skirt’s backside featured heavy pleating and a lace train insert. A circular chapel-length veil utilized the remainder of the 450 yards of lace and attached to a Juliet cap adorned with delicate wax orange blossoms and leaves created of tiny seed pearls. As a testament to its complexity, the dress arrived in four separate pieces with assembly instructions. Alongside her lilies-of-the-valley bouquet, the bride carried a small prayer book Rose and her workshop had also covered in lace.
The ceremony was solemn and formal, but once Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco left the church, she presented a smile for the cameras before riding through the streets of Monte Carlo. Monégasques fell in love with their new princess, and Kelly ostensibly felt the same, giving up her successful film career after making just 11 pictures. The Grace Kelly Look thrived thereafter, and wedding-dress knock-offs appeared in stores days after the event. Kelly presented the original as a gift to her hometown of Philadelphia. It remains a showcase piece in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, keeping alive the fantasies of starry-eyed girls everywhere. —Rachel Chambers