Orry-Kelly was born as George Orry Kelly in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia, and was known as Jack Kelly. His father William Kelly was born on the Isle of Man and was a gentleman tailor in Kiama. Orry was a name of an ancient king of the Isle of Man. Orry-Kelly was sent to Sydney at age 17 to study banking, and there he developed his interest in theatre.
Orry-Kelly journeyed to New York to pursue an acting career and shared an apartment there with Charles Phelps (also known as Charlie Spangles) and Cary Grant. A job painting murals in a nightclub led to his employment by Fox East Coast studios illustrating titles. He designed costumes and sets for Broadway's Shubert Revues and George White's Scandals. He served with the United States Army Air Corps during World War II until being discharged for alcohol problems.
After moving to Hollywood in 1932, Orry-Kelly was hired by Warner Bros. as their chief costume designer and he remained there until 1944. Later, his designs were also seen in films at Universal, RKO, 20th Century Fox, and MGM studios. He won three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design
Orry-Kelly worked on many films now considered classics, and he designed for all the great actresses of the day. He was known for his ability to "design for distraction" to compensate for difficult figure shapes. He also had the job of creating clothes for the cross-dressing characters played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot .
In addition to designing, Kelly wrote a column, "Hollywood Fashion Parade", for the International News Service, owned by William Randolph Hearst, during the years of World War II. Kelly's memoirs, entitled Women I've Undressed were discovered in the care of a relative, as a result of publicity surrounding Gillian Armstrong's 2015 documentary on Kelly, Women He's Undressed . The memoir was published for the first time in 2015.
He was an openly gay man in Hollywood when few dared to be out. And he may well have been Cary Grant's boyfriend. Once Grant became a star, he pretty much cut Orry-Kelly out of his life - something the designer resented deeply.
A longtime alcoholic, Orry-Kelly died of liver cancer in Hollywood and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills. His pallbearers included Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder and George Cukor and his eulogy was read by Jack L. Warner. He had no living relatives when he died so his personal effects and Academy Awards were stored by Ann Warner, wife of his friend, Jack.