Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fred Astaire: A sartorial icon for whom?

This almost needs no introduction - almost. Astaire's Puttin' on the Ritz song and dance routine in Blue Skies (1946) looks deceptively easy and effortless but it took five weeks of painstaking preparation and rehearsal according to the dancer in his autobiography. Astaire was known for his total dedication to dancing and his dance partners throughout the years often struggled to keep up. That was not a problem of course in this solo routine.

At first glance, it may appear that Astaire is wearing an evening tailcoat (i.e. white tie) but he's actually wearing formal daywear, i.e. a black morning coat, ascot, wing collar shirt and formal striped trousers.


Much of the commentary about Astaire, particularly his clothes and style, falls under one of two types. One school of commentary says he is one of a kind, sui generis. In other words, he is inimitable but a sartorial standout worthy of admiration and historical study. The other viewpoint says he is a sartorial icon for Everyman. Any fellow wishing to dress well should imitate and study very carefully what Astaire wore, dressed and looked like. The former regards him as purely an historical artifact, the latter as a timeless icon of style transplantable to any era. Both are wrong.

I plan to elaborate further on the precise appeal (and relevance) of Astaire in my book. Here are a few Youtube user comments on the video:

  • "this is so different from Taco's version in the 80's" (Ha, indeed!)
  • "he is the man"
  • "enorme. puissant. geant. genial."

What is the basis for Astaire's enormous appeal, some 60 years after he tapped out his routine for the film? From a style perspective, I would argue this his appeal is not so much the clothing itself (which is exemplary of course) but the way he approached and thought about his clothes - their function and purpose - and his relentless pursuit of what I would call "clothing-unto-dancing."

In other words, his genius lay in the fusion of what he wore with his formidable talents in song and dance. Hence, the key to understanding his style is unlocking the why rather than the what. In fact, Astaire fits into one of several archetypes of style that I have come across in my research thus far.

From a practical standpoint, what is interesting is that Astaire is neither sui generis nor a ubiquitous sartorial model suitable for Everyman. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to providing a more complete explanation of what I mean by this.

6 comments:

Easy and Elegant Life said...

For me. He is one of my style icons. Because his clothes are made to move with him. To make the most of what he does and his physique. Above all, he wears what are now considered "Dress clothes" (i.e. a jacket and tie at the least) as casually as possible. That's a feat that is to be envied. I try and wear suits like I do pyjamas. Both are equally comfortable and that makes for elegance. Perhaps just in my opinion.

I'd love to discuss this more. Let me know via email. You will help solidify my thinking on the subject.

May I have you autograph my copy when you hit print?

Anonymous said...

Well . . . is it really accurate to credit Astaire for his on-screen wardrobe? Isn't that what producers pay costume designers for? And to the extent that Astaire did have some sort of control over what he wore, wouldn't it be at the very least in collaboration with the director, producer, choreographer, and costume designer? He was being sold as a sophisticate, a contrast to the burlier Gene Kelly, and everyone was going to run with that image no matter what Astaire himself would have preferred or chosen.

This is not to take anything away from what he wore off-screen, of course. But then, what he wore off-screen would likely have been informed by what he wore onscreen, since he could hardly have missed the fact that he looked pretty good dressed up.

C.S.

sleevehead said...

Easy & Elegant Life - Thanks, of course I'll be happy to autograph your copy. Of course first things first though, I'll need to finish the book!

Yes, Astaire is an icon for me too without a doubt. It's just that I have been dissatisfied with the commentary around his style which has led me to thinking about the different style icons.

I am tempted to take you up on your offer for further discussion but given my work and travel schedule - which I wish were easy and elegant but they are not - I'm afraid I would disappoint you. Please accept a rain check from me as I will try to have my book answer as many questions as I can.

sleevehead said...

Anonymous - Yes, it is actually accurate to credit Astaire for much of his on-screen wardrobe. Of course, not every male actor, even in the Golden Age of Hollywood, was given such latitude.

But at the top tier of male leads (e.g. Gable, Grant, Astaire), studios knew who the great dressers were and expected them to live up to their public image. In fact, many studios wrote those expectations into the actor's contracts. Interesting, no?

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the opinion that Astaire's look was always impeccable. Have a closer look at the Ritz video: his frock coat is simply too long and in this way emphasizing the fact that Astaire was pretty small.

Secondly, today it looks partly stale and silly, perhaps even slightly kitsch, to appear dancing and singing in a movie. That reduces the impact of the appearance even more (Why does James Bond never dance, tho he definitively is thought to be a sporty character like Astaire?). Probably, every icon's power to shine can diminish, and so do sartorial fashion icons. That's not necessarily bad and does not reduce the historical achievements of a great actor and gentleman.

Best,
JR

sleevehead said...

Anonymous - My guess is that the length of Astaire's morning coat would not be objectionable to many observers. It seems to fall according to the conventional rule for such coats - just at or above the knees.

The musical comedy or drama is indeed no longer as once prevalent as it once was. I agree that context is important in evaluating such things. But we do know that in his time Astaire was considered a stylish dresser and that perception continues today, even after the decline of musicals. The question remains why?