Orry George Kelly (1897-1964)

Orry George Kelly

Orry George Kelly was an Australian who, under the name Orry-Kelly, became famous as a top costume designer for many Hollywood actresses during Hollywood's golden age. He was the chief costume designer for Warner Bros. Studios for 12 years from 1932 after which he freelanced for all the major studios.

In total, Orry designed the clothes for almost 300 films, in all genres, ranging from Bette Davis romances to Marilyn Monroe comedies and extravagant Busby Berkeley musicals. He was nominated four times for the Best Costume Design Academy Award and won the Oscar three times.


He was born Orry George Kelly on 31 December 1897 in the coastal town of Kiama, south of Sidney in New South Wales, Australia. His father, who originally hailed from the Isle of Man, had a tailoring business in Sidney and the family were comfortably off. The unusual name, "Orry" was the name of one of the old kings of the Isle of Man.

Orry was interested in the theater from a young age and made puppets and scenery for his own toy theater as a young boy. His father disapproved and wanted his son to pursue a sensible banking career and when his schooling finished they sent him to Sidney to study banking and finance. Orry was a determined young man and he quickly transferred his attentions to the world of theater, getting a job in a Sidney Music Hall with the ambition of becoming an actor. He spent several years in Sidney, during which time he developed the love of alcohol which would eventually kill him. At times he was on the breadline and had to pawn his suits to live.

America 1921

In 1921 Orry-Kelly moved to New York, still attempting to pursue an acting career, and quickly found work as an artist painting murals in nightclubs and speakeasies. His work was high quality and led to his being employed by the Fox Film Corporation in New York as an illustrator of movie titles. He also did early design work for several Broadway shows including 'George White's Scandals' and various Revues at the Shubert Theater. He was gaining a reputation and worked from his own studio in Greenwich Village. For a short time he ran his own speakeasy but, during the era of Prohibition, he fell foul of the New York Mafia's protection racket and decided it would be expedient to move quickly to the East Coast.

Hollywood 1932

In Hollywood Orry-Kelly's creativity and flair were quickly apparent when he was employed by the Warner Bros. studio as a costume designer. It was at this time that he added a hyphen to his name. He worked for the studio for 12 years from 1932 and created costumes for some of Hollywood's most famous stars and best-remembered movies.

When he started with Warner Bros. Hollywood cinema was still in a learning phase. Orry-Kelly realised very early on that the camera puts a magnifying glass on human defects as well as strengths, and that his main task was to disguise and conceal or, as he put it, to "design for distraction". He learned quickly how to compensate with his designs for body shape problems such as big bottoms (Marilyn Monroe), broad shoulders (Bette Davis), and flat chest (Lauren Bacall and Natalie Wood ). He was able to disguise Betty Grable's pregnancy with swirling colored hoops and he was the creator of Ingrid Bergman's classic outfits in 'Casablanca' in 1942. He even gave gave Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon the "wow" factor when he dressed them as women for 'Some Like It Hot' in 1959.

As well as 'Casablanca' Orry-Kelly worked on many other classic films such as '42nd Street' in 1933, 'The Maltese Falcon' in 1941, 'Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944, 'Oklahoma!' in 1955, and 'Some Like It Hot' in 1959. He designed for all the great actresses of the day, including Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck.


Orry-Kelly was a homosexual and would not hide his sexuality with a fake marriage although the conventions of the time forced him to keep a low public profile. He had an alcohol dependency which caused him to be discharged from the United States Army Air Corps when he joined during World War II.
Cary Grant
Shortly after moving to New York, in 1925, Orry-Kelly met a struggling young English actor called Archie Leach. He would change his name to Cary Grant in 1931. They began living together and remained a couple for several years. When Orry-Kelly moved to Hollywood in 1932, Grant moved with him. Grant later lived for several years with Randolph Scott.

Orry-Kelly wrote an autobiography, "Women I've Undressed: A Memoir" which,after being lost for decades, was finally published in 2015.

Orry-Kelly was working on the film Kiss Me, Stupid when he died, of liver failure on 27 February 1964. Cary Grant was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

Orry-Kelly Academy Awards

The Best Costume category was finally included in the Academy Awards ceremony in 1948 Between 1948 and 1967 (apart from 1957 and 1958) Costume Design Oscars were given separately for black and white and for color movies.

Three Wins:
Best Costume Design, Color ... An American in Paris (1951) Shared with:Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff
Best Costume Design ... Les Girls (1957)
Best Costume Design, Black-and-White ... Some Like It Hot (1959) )