FOR next month's Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition, Bendigo Art Gallery director Karen Quinlan wanted most to conjure the woman ''to get a clear view of this ordinary person''. Quinlan knew the refined, chaste elegance of Kelly's dresses and suits, sunglasses, shoes, handbags and gloves on the way to the gallery from London's Victoria and Albert Museum would convey volumes about her public persona but Quinlan wanted even more intimacy for her visitors. She wanted more ''food for thought about this amazing woman who pre-dates all we know about celebrity today''.
Quinlan saw Kelly's absence (Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco died in a car crash in 1982 at the age of 52) like a pressing item on her ''to do'' list, a vacuum that had to be filled.
Bendigo's tribute to Kelly consequently has more photos and filmed fragments from her public persona and private life, more evidence of her real body language and the way she looked when she thought no one was looking. There are more triggers, in other words, to nut out just how the language of Kelly's wardrobe worked for her and in its wider social, historic and cultural contexts.
''It's usually the hardest thing about displaying fashion: that absence,'' Quinlan says. ''And remember here, we're dealing with the absence of a very special, real person.''
Most of the mannequins to be dressed in about 40 of Kelly's gowns and outfits - which date from 1954 to the year before her death - for the Bendigo exhibition are headless to minimise distraction, to enable a kind of Brechtian ''suspension of disbelief''. We can mentally conjure Kelly in that suit or this gown on that day without a replica of her head adding to our sensory confusion. Or, so the theory goes.
''You'll be looking at those garments and you'll be imagining her there,'' Quinlan says.
Beyond the whimsical spectre of Kelly herself, there is also a doctorate's worth of data to deduce from her clothes. The exhibition traces her sartorial timeline from lean teen collegiate to elegant royal matron in garments from American and Parisian high-fashion collections including some by Madame Gres, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Chanel, Hermes and Oleg Cassini.
On the simplest level, her clothes epitomise good taste and illustrate Kelly's almost scholarly approach to flattering her most feminine assets: swan-like neck, dainty clavicles, slim waist, well-turned ankles.
''She knew from an early age exactly what worked for her,'' Quinlan says. ''She knew she didn't need elaborate garments to look beautiful.''
Kelly also carefully avoided clothes that would exaggerate her breasts and hips, though their low-key beauty was still undeniably evident and her cool sensuality often mentioned. The va-va-voom hourglass figure of the 1950s, which could be exaggerated to cartoonish proportions with girdles and torpedo brassieres, she left to her counter-icon, Marilyn Monroe.
Author Kristina Haugland, who wrote Grace Kelly Style, a marvellous book published by the V&A to accompany the exhibition, also notes that although Kelly's figure might have had bombshell potential, she cleverly manipulated her wardrobe to achieve the opposite aesthetic.
''Her necklines might have been low but they're not plunging,'' Haugland says from London. ''She was always tasteful, appropriate, ladylike, and while the starlets and sweater girls went out of their way to show off their assets, she maintained this reserve.''
Jenny Lister, curator of the V&A London exhibition, says this reserve - this ''good-girl'' persona - won Kelly a nation of admirers of both sexes. ''She represented these old-fashioned values at a time of great change,'' she says. ''She was an intriguing mix: a well-brought-up girl with a sensual side, an American modernity.''
Kelly's quick rise to iconic status happened as millions of women, liberated by the absence of men during World War II, were still readapting to both luxury and subordinate social roles. Christian Dior's tightly corseted ''New Look'' of 1947 had kick-started their transition from drab war workers to fashionable glamazons (to the horror of feminist thinkers, including Coco Chanel) and its waspish waist, sculpted bust and hip-enhancing skirts were embraced with gusto for another decade. The look was high glamour, sky-high fashion, a visual signpost of ''The Now'' and it underpinned Kelly's wardrobe for most of the five years of her short Hollywood career, from Fourteen Hours of 1951, to her last film, High Society, in 1956. Kelly's close friendship with Edith Head, an impossibly chic costume designer with Paramount, also positioned her in the ''cool set''.
Her intuitive ability to accessorise - a gift that separates the well dressed from the fashionably turned out, even today - gave her an even more enviable edge. She converted many of her signature shirtwaist dresses and skirt suits from the 1950s from simply pretty to arrestingly different with strategically pinned brooches, those ever-present gloves, a hair clasp, jewelled band, or cocktail crescent fastened into her moonlight-blonde bob, or a sliver of silk pleated into her neckline.
Many of the outfits in Bendigo Art Gallery's exhibition - such as the sea-foam green silk satin gown she wore to accept her Oscar for The Country Girl in 1955 - are breathtakingly glamorous alone but the real miracle of Grace will be understood in tandem with its footage and photographs of the girl, woman, actor between takes, friend, wife, mother and princess.