A look at the classic Hollywood style of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
When WORN held its redesign Indiegogo fundraiser last fall, the top perk for support was a film supercut of the bidder’s choosing. One of the supercuts was snapped up by Nathalie Atkinson, Style editor and culture columnist at the National Post. Atkinson’s choice was a supercut of every single outfit Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers wore when they appeared together on-screen in their ten musical pairings. Here, she explains why.
My taste—and to a degree, what I do for a living—was shaped in my teens, by whatever TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies host Elwy Yost felt like watching every weekend.
Elwy loved old movies and particularly the RKO musicals of the ’30s, and as a consequence so do I. I love the costumes in many of his favourite Silver Screen classics—Rosalind Russell’s striped topcoat and hat from His Girl Friday, everything Myrna Loy wears in The Thin Man, by costumer Dolly Tree, the pre-Code bias satins and boas of Dinner at Eight. But the grace, elegance, and wit of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ costumes in their musical comedy pairings remain my favourite. Their panache not only affected dance: it popularized the American songbook (Berlin, the Gershwin) not to mention a fantasy world of stark black and white Art Deco interiors and beautiful evening attire. “The Continental” from The Gay Divorcée won the very first Academy Award for best original song.
The legendary dance duo spent eight hours a day for six weeks rehearsing and perfecting choreography with Hermes Pan prior to shooting a film (which they did, in long takes, on perilously glossy floors). Note that as a 1982 “Frank & Ernest” newspaper comic strip by Bob Thaves later coined, Ginger did everything Fred did, only backwards. And in high heels.
They were the perfect complement for both banter and ballroom: Fred’s dancing is debonair and classy; Ginger’s is graceful but sassy (or as Katharine Hepburn put it: he gave her class; she gave him sex appeal.) Did they or didn’t they? Reading Rogers’ 1991 autobiography, Ginger: My Story, you’ll learn that while both were performing in separate Broadway shows before she was lured to Hollywood (when they made their first picture together, it was her 21st and only his 2nd), she and Fred had been more than a little warmly acquainted. They’d been on a few dates and even shared a real clinch or two (which is more than they ever did on film, given the newly cordial and reserved relationship with Astaire, by then married and, according to Ginger at least, his wife Adele was jealous and possessive).
Fred is known for the white tie, black tie, and tails, and Ginger’s loveliest bias-cut ballgown costumes are those made in collaboration with Howard Greer, a fashion and costume designer who stayed on in France after the Great War to work at Molyneux, Lucile, and Poiret before returning to Hollywood. (Fun fashion fact: Rogers didn’t make her first trip to France until 1952, but she made up for lost time. In Paris she stayed at Le Meurice, where Earl Blackwell squired her to a fashion show and later, numerous private fittings with designer Elsa Schiaparelli. And in the 1970s, Ginger collaborated on a capsule collection for J.C. Penney!)
Carefree’s “The Yam” dress by Howard Greer is one Rogers describes as “chiffon panels of red flame and steel gray.” In this film she also wears a bold original dress design of appliquéd arrows piercing a heart by costume designer Howard Greer and Edward Stevenson (you may recognize it from its recent contemporary copycat: a few years ago New Zealand designer Karen Walker did a very, very similar frock she called “Cupid”). There’s “Change Partners,” also by Greer: “a beautiful black marquisette gown, with a picoted bodice with silver threads, which caused a slight glimmer of reflected light as I danced around the floor.” The dress for “Color Blind” made her feel “like the fairy godmother in Cinderella.” For The Barkleys of Broadway, the first number in the film was the “Swing Trot” and costumer Irene made her a gold lamé dress to contrast with the purple chorus gowns. “My dress had a very full skirt and when I whirled, it filled with air because of the way it was sewn—balloon-style at the hem.”
It’s in 1949′s The Barkleys of Broadway, their final film together—in Technicolour—that you see the beginnings of Astaire’s more casual personal style, later recognizable in films such as The Band Wagon and Funny Face: the necktie as belt, the kerchief, the brightly coloured shirts paired with shortened trousers that showed off his intricate footwork (which inspired Michael Jackson to crop his trousers the same way). Here, the menswear is by MGM costumer J. Arlington Valles.
The Fred and Ginger movies follow a loose formula—a meet-cute dance number, a solo, a casual one, a romantic seduction dance (such as “Cheek to Cheek”), and one grand production number to close. And while they’re elegant, my favourites of their 1930′s costumes aren’t the formal suits and gowns but their more playful, casual attire. Fred was daring, for his day and American audience, because he emulated the English tweed sport jackets and Savile Row suiting style of the Prince of Wales (he traveled to London himself to be fitted by purveyors Hawes & Curtis or Anderson & Sheppard). Ginger wore witty, sometimes goofy costumes like satin sailor suits (Follow the Fleet), like jodhpurs and roller-skating skirts, in the looser numbers. There is also, of course, some dish about the infamous costume at the heart of the legendary fight she had on Top Hat with Astaire and their longtime director Mark Sandrich, the director on five of their nine RKO musicals together (their 10th was in colour, at MGM). Rogers had specifically asked for a pale blue dress with front and back neckline trimmed in long ostrich feathers. Fred didn’t care for it, especially since with every movement and quiver, it shed feathers—all over his tuxedo, for example.
She got her way and the dress—and all its feathers—floats languidly and sensually through the number; it now resides in the Smithsonian, along with her glittering dress from The Piccolino. The dance partners reconciled and from then on, his nickname for her was ‘Feathers.’
And if you look closely, around the 50-second mark you’ll see the high-gloss dance floor littered with the ostrich feathers that have slowly drifted over the course of their dance.
text // Nathalie Atkinson
video // Daniel Reis
Every one of the costumes they wore on-camera together during their partnership, in chronological order:
Flying Down to Rio
The Gay Divorcee
Follow the Fleet
Shall We Dance
The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle
The Barkleys of Broadway
further reading >
Astaire & Rogers by Edward Gallafent
Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein
Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire & the Fine Art of Panache by Peter J. Levinson
Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers
Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk by Sarah Giles
The Astaires by Kathleen Riley