Having dressed screen icons like Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly, costume designer Helen Rose lives on through the garments she left behind.
What you probably remember the most about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the vision of Elizabeth Taylor clad in that dress, a white v-necked confection that makes her look like a goddess. What you probably don’t remember is the woman who created that dress: Academy Award-winning costume designer Helen Rose, who, besides outfitting some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, also got to dress royalty. Here, we commemorate her legacy of accomplishments on both the screen and the runway.
A distinguished career
Helen Rose entered the entertainment industry in the 1920s when she started designing costumes for vaudeville shows in Chicago. She chose to work with chiffon because of its, according to author Christian Esquevin, “‘twirly’ quality.” She moved to Los Angeles in 1929 and, after a period of difficulty finding work, began designing for the Ice Follies, an ice show, and 20th Century Fox.
Around 1943, Louis B. Mayer, a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) who had been impressed with her work, hired her for his studio, where she would stay until the sixties. Upon getting hired at MGM, Rose would, after waiting for a long time, get to work on her first assignment, the movie Ziegfeld Follies—the first of many impressive undertakings that included Harvey Girls (1946), where she created Judy Garland’s costumes, A Date with Judy (1948) and Father of the Bride (1950), the last two being movies Elizabeth Taylor starred in. Perhaps during their time working together, Helen Rose made an impression on Taylor, for the latter selected Rose to design her dresses for her weddings to Conrad Hilton and, later, Michael Wilding.
Rose formed friendships with the leading ladies she dressed. Her collaborations with the stars would earn her eight Academy Award nominations and two wins for costume design, one for 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful (with Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner) and 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow (with Susan Hayward)—a feat, considering that she won for black and white films when color film soared into popularity, says the Los Angeles Times.
A dress for royalty
Among her dazzling array of works, perhaps her masterpiece, and certainly the one she would be most well-known for, would be the dress Grace Kelly wore at her religious wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 (the couple had an intimate civil ceremony beforehand). Rose, who had previously clothed Kelly for several movies, had a trusting relationship with her. She conceptualized the dress to, according to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (a museum in Kelly’s hometown, which has the dress on display), set off Kelly’s refinement as a person and her “fairy-princess image.”
MGM had given the dress as a present to Kelly, with Rose’s costume division putting the dress together. Kept top-secret from the public throughout its construction, the design was shown only on April 17th, two days before the religious wedding.
A marvel of design, the dress features a high neckline, a rose point lace bodice with long sleeves, and a silk-faille skirt. To complete her bridal look, Kelly wore a rose point lace Juliet cap embellished with pearls and wax flowers and 2.5-inch David Evins heels, also ornamented with pearls. The veil she wore had only one layer so that the public would be able to see her face in full view.
Life after Hollywood
After a career crafting dresses for the screen, Rose retired in 1966 and put up a clothing store. She began the “Helen Rose Show,” which exhibited many of the costumes she had made, whose proceeds went to charity.
In addition, she ventured into writing, completing two autobiographical books—Just Make Them Beautiful: The Many Worlds of a Designing Woman, published in 1976 and called after what Louis B. Mayer told Rose when she was new to MGM, and The Glamorous World of Helen Rose, which came out in 1983. She also regularly wrote about fashion as a columnist for a newspaper.
As a designer who has enthralled both us and her contemporaries, we should remember Helen Rose as an artist whose creations have endured beyond her lifetime. Whether we are looking to Grace Kelly for wedding dress inspiration or gasping in amazement at one of Helen Rose’s Hollywood designs, we should remember this: Rose has touched all our lives, and for that we are grateful.
Banner photo via The Movie Database.