Blog Archive

18 April 2018

Fred Astaire, Radical

Radical fashion iconoclast, that is.

Teenage Fred in suit, with straw hat, gloves, and stick

It's hard to write about Fred Astaire, just because he was so great that superlatives don't seem adequate. How can you describe the originality, the grace, the precision, the line? You really can't. You can only say the world is a much better place for our being able to see those things, that a life working hard to create loveliness only he could create was a boon to us all. He kept his public persona low-key, but he never let anyone talk him into doing anything vulgar, cheap, or ugly. He makes us proud to be human beings. 

But on a lighter note, besides being probably the greatest dancer who ever lived, a choreographer of stunning originality, a subtle, intelligent, and influential singer, entrepreneur (Fred Astaire Dance Studios), and champion racehorse owner, Fred Astaire was a men's fashion icon.

From his earliest days as a musical comedy star, partnering his sister Adele, Fred was an elegant dresser. His slight figure -- I don't think he ever weighed more than 135 pounds in his life -- was perfect to carry off men's high fashion of the times. As young adults, the Astaires were extremely popular in London, and took their hit shows to West End theaters, residing in Britain for several months out of the year. During this time Fred became a devotee of the best British tailoring, usually found in the shopping district known as Burlington Arcade. There he could stock up on fine wool suits, tweed jackets, silk ties and ascots, and (of course) custom made shirts. But that was just step one; once he had the materials, it was how he combined the basic elements that made him a fashion leader.

At the studio:

Astaire wears a 3-piece suit, suede shoes, with a gold collar pin and watchchain

Casual at home:

Off screen, tweed jacket, gray flannel slacks, yellow sweater vest, and brown suede shoes

In those days -- and indeed up until the 1960's -- men's high fashion was subtler than women's. In fact, subtlety was an important value; brashness and sharp changes of silhouette were frowned on. Unlike the swings from narrow long skirts to exaggerated padded shoulders to full, multi-petticoat skirts that marked women's fashion from 1933 to 1960, the changes in the basic shape of menswear were less obvious. Since the long ago days of Beau Brummell, elegance for men had to be unobtrusive, only seen by those who looked for it. Today this seems odd -- in fact it seems downright weird -- but keep in mind that a prominent mystery writer in the 1930's had her detective determine that a character was insane because he wore a very loud waistcoat.*

In the 1940's, a chalk striped double breasted suit, coordinated tie and handkerchief, fedora hat

The hallmark of Fred Astaire's creativity as a fashion icon, like his choreography and his singing, was refinement, a combination of extreme attention to detail, flair, and excellence in performance. Astaire never really enjoyed his signature top hat, white tie, and tails, and I think at least part of the reason was that the requirements for formal evening dress were so rigid that little self-expression was possible. Except in one respect; if you look closely, you'll see a set of beautiful diamond and ruby studs on his pristine white shirtfront when he wears formal dress. He had these studs custom made in London in the 1920's, by a jeweler recommended to him by the Prince of Wales.

At the racetrack -- notice the striped suit, striped shirt, and striped tie -- very daring!

When he arrived in Hollywood he was already established (for those who noticed such things) as exceptionally stylish. It's a little known fact that, unless a film had a historic or fantastic setting, male stars usually provided their own wardrobe, coordinated with the overall design scheme by consultation with the costume designer. So most of the incredibly snazzy clothes you see Astaire wearing are his. In publicity photos and scenes from his films, you can see the careful combinations of suit, shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief, hat, shoes, and even socks. Some of his innovations were knit vests and two-tone or suede shoes. Again, these seem trivial today, but they were positive statements of free-spiritedness. His more striking touches can be seen in casual and rehearsal clothes, such as his wearing a silk tie or ascot as a belt -- a truly radical move!

Rehearsal clothes -- notice the silk scarf instead of a belt

One of my favorite examples of Astaire's attention to detail is this scene from The Band Wagon, 1953, where he sings "I'll Go My Way by Myself" on the railroad platform, wearing a light grey double breasted suit, light blue shirt, and light blue tie, with his dark red and navy pocket handkerchief coordinated with his hatband! (All of his clothes in The Band Wagon are sheer poetry.) Thirty years later, in the celebration of Hollywood musicals called That's Entertainment, Astaire appeared on the same railroad platform set -- wearing a coordinated outfit.

The Band Wagon, 1953

On the set of The Band Wagon, 30 years later

Of course, it's difficult to tear your attention away from the dancing, but if you do you see yet another demonstration of Fred Astaire's superlative attention to detail, grace, and style, in almost any film of his you watch.

Astaire kept his interest in style all his life and our last memories of him are of an extremely natty gentleman, always. I'm sure that's how he wanted it.

Still looking good in his later years

* This happens in Death of a Ghost, by Margery Allingham, published in 1934.