Designers honor Grace Kelly's cool, classic style

In a scene from 1956's "High Society," Grace Kelly wears a white halter swimsuit and pushes a model sailboat into a swimming pool, her head cocked to the side, eyes shining.

It's a serene moment and one that captures the patrician beauty of the Oscar-winning actress-turned-princess, who married Prince Rainier III of Monaco that year and left Hollywood to become Princess Grace of Monaco.

With her swept-back blond waves, splash of lipstick, model-perfect face and demure stature, Kelly was a muse to couture houses such as Dior and Givenchy. Kelly died in 1982 at age 52, yet 27 years later she continues to inspire designers with her elegant style.

"She has always been on my mind, whether I do ball gowns or wedding dresses. Beauty, but always with a modern twist," said eveningwear designer Reem Acra. "I'm sure, if she was in my era, or her in mine, I could have dressed her. She would have been my muse."

Kelly was honored this fall with the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award in Beverly Hills, along with French jeweler Cartier. They joined past honorees including Manolo Blahnik, Tom Ford, Donatella Versace and Giorgio Armani.

Tommy Hilfiger, who wrote the forward to 2007's tribute book "Grace Kelly: A Life in Pictures" (Pavilion), noted how Kelly's look in "High Society" broke her out from the pack, exemplified by a cinched-in white wedding dress with sheer, blouse sleeves.

It was her last film role before exiting Hollywood to raise her family as a princess, but she had star turns in '50s Hitchcock movies "To Catch a Thief," "Rear Window," and "Dial M for Murder." She won a best actress Oscar for "Country Girl" in 1954.

"She really epitomized American beauty," said Hilfiger. "Her swimwear was amazing, but her dresses became iconic. She was not only royalty, but she was a mother, down-to-earth, athletic. She loved the outdoors. She had a lot of qualities women aspire to today."

She sometimes showed a hint of attitude, too, added Acra, particularly in a three-quarter sleeve, off-white dress from "Rear Window." She wore it with a fur cape and black bag.

"Most of what she wore consisted of timeless classics. That's what we look at for inspiration throughout the years," said Hilfiger. "Many looks keep coming back to the runway. Her coat dresses, the way she wore prints, the way she wore ball gowns. Even her casual sportswear, wearing gingham, her country club looks."

Hilfiger's spring 2007 collection channeled Kelly with shift dresses paired with scarves.

Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Zac Posen, Michael Kors, Vera Wang and Ralph Lauren are among the others to cite her as a fashion icon.

Acra, who boasts red-carpet credits on Angelina Jolie and Eva Longoria, among others, said she is working on a new Kelly-influenced collection, with dresses and gowns made out of tulle and organza in blush colors and ivory, accessorized by ribbons in green or taupe.

Janie Bryant, costume designer for Emmy-winning AMC television show "Mad Men," gushed about Kelly's tea-length wedding gown in "High Society," and a later photo of her wearing a boucle suit, standing and watching her children at a swing set.

"It's so simply beautiful and haunting, in a way," said Bryant. "She does possess containment, but it's also propriety. . . . It's also about the image of perfection and happiness. People look at her, and see that, whether it's true and not."

With the show set in the early '60s, Kelly was the primary influence for the character of Betty Draper, another lithe blonde with impeccably fitted garments.

- Solvej Schou, The Associated Press