Backwards In High Heels: A Fred & Ginger Supercut

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
Top Hat
Follow the Fleet
Swing Time
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

I’ve Got Somethin’ To Say!

Jerri Blank is a fashion plate extraordinaire

“I was a user, loser and a boozer…” And so begins Strangers With Candy, the raunchy, satirical post-modern twist on after school specials. It’s like if Degrassi took place in The Twilight Zone; an anywhere-USA alternate universe where issues like teen pregnancy are dealt with in health class by students being given a real baby to care for for a week.

Inspired by a very real PSA from the ’60s called “The Trip Back,” creators Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, and Amy Sedaris crafted a brightly-hued psycho sitcom universe around the bawdy, incorrigible Jerri Blank. The show follows Jerri, who is just another 46 year old, ex-junkie whore trying to get through high school.

Let me explain.

Blank was a teenage runaway and is picking up right where she left off: Grade 9. The brilliance of the show is that everyone treats her like another high-school student despite the crows feet and love handles. The rest of the cast includes her revisionist history teacher Mr. Noblet (Stephen Colbert), her flaky-hack of an art teacher Mr. Jellineck (Paul Dinello), her megalomaniac principal Onyx Blackman (Gregory Holliman), her evil stepmother, her brutish half-brother, and the revolving denizens of Flatpoint High.

Flatpoint is like a twisted fun-house version of Archie Comics’ Riverdale. The highschool is cartoonishly bright with immersive set dressing that can only ber appreciated through multiple viewings. Every classroom is dressed to the nines with “student work,” hand-drawn club posters and the omnipresent image of Principal Blackman.

It’s Jerri’s closet, however, that steals the show. For those who know Sedaris as Carrie Bradshaw’s publisher on Sex in the City, or from her recent career turn into hospitality and crafting, it’s a little jarring to see the petite blonde who is usually decked out in vintage party-dresses transform into her junkie ex-con alter ego with such ease. With a seemingly endless supply of synthetic knits, turtlenecks, mom jeans, garish animal prints, spandex, rhinestones, and leather in all its possible iterations, veteran costumer Vicki Farrell crafted thrift shop nightmares for Jerri to wreak havoc in episode after episode. She even created sagging “bosoms” out of sweet potatoes for Sedaris to wear under a swim suit in one scene. Sedaris mentions in the DVD commentary that she [Vicki] was “always putting little things on me…she hid little animals and things that the audience couldn’t see. But it was so important for her,” and its this detailed work that makes Jerri’s world that much more grounded despite her ineptitude as a human being.

Squirrel print blouses, unseemly camel-toes, and occasional cult robes aside, Sedaris also wore a custom fat-suit she had made in real life (any fan of her brother’s work has likely heard the story). Her wigs add the final punch in Jerri’s ex-con chic, as they evolve over the three seasons to eventually “defy gravity” in the third, as noted by Colbert in the DVD commentary.

Strangers With Candy sometimes feels like it could be a companion piece to John Waters’s work; it’s brash, it’s campy, and it’s hilarious. But at the show’s heart, it’s about someone trying to do the right thing—just in the worst way possible.

text //Cayley James

Of Makeup and X-Men: The Mystique of Gordon Smith

Sixty year old Gordon Smith looks like an ordinary aging man; he is tall and thin, his hair and beard long since faded to white. Yet anyone who knows superheroes, or makeup for that matter, knows Smith is so much more than he appears to be. A Canadian legend, Gordon Smith is the makeup master that brought the fictional characters of X-men to life.

The X-men Master: Gordon Smith exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox takes up the near-impossible task of doing Smith’s special effects makeup justice. The exhibit showcases designs from seven X-men characters, “making of”-style videos and legendary items from Smith’s personal collection.

Entering the exhibition centre, a small room filled with glass cases and sketch-lined walls, the most visible piece is, of course, Smith’s famed makeup chair. A minty green leather, with stains, rips, and creases. This is the legendary chair in which Rebecca Romijn became Mystique after 10 hours of labour and makeup. It is the chair that held Hugh Jackman and Tyler Mane as they became bigger, hairier, and scarier; when they finally stood up, they were transformed from men into Wolverine and Sabretooth. Celebrities sat down in it one by one, and almost magically, they became more than just actors; they became living, breathing comic book characters.
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Worn Cinema Society: Unzipped and Seamless

When Unzipped, Douglas Keeve’s documentary about designer Isaac Mizrahi, came out in 1995, audiences had never been given such a personalized peek into the world of fashion. Before films like The Devil Wears Prada, documentaries like The September Issue, and a slew of reality TV shows like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, designers were seen as aloof and unknowable, the industry a walled garden. Sure, many designers displayed themselves as the personifications of their lines, allowing their likenesses to grace magazine articles and ads, but no one had opened themselves up to the cameras the way Mizrahi did.

The film, which follows the creation of his fall 1994 collection, is bursting with Mizrahi’s talk, from his style maxims (“It’s really impossible to be chic without the right dogs”), to his reciting campy quotes from old movies, to his moaning about the stresses of staging a runway show. Most upsetting is the discovery that Jean-Paul Gaultier had also mined Inuit culture (what Mizrahi problematically calls ‘Eskimo-chic’) for his collection and, as his assistant reminds him, “they show before us!” Canadian supermodel Shalom Harlow informs Mizrahi that ‘eskimo’ is a slur meaning ‘raw fish eater,’ to which Mizrahi shoots back, “If there’s a word for gefilte fish eater, that’d be me!”

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