In our continuing coverage of Gentlemen of Style, today we bring you the Hollywood fashion icon Fred Astaire, who, by many measures, was an unlikely recipient of fame.
Fred Astaire – The Person
Frederick Austerlitz, more charmingly known by his stage name Fred Astaire, spent nearly the whole of his life singing, dancing, and acting for an audience. His early critics were vocal about his faults: he was a slightly built man, of average height, with thinning hair, weak presence and a high voice. He was decidedly the antithesis of the American movie hero, and yet few actors have left such a long standing impression of genuine charisma, style, and panache as Mr. Astaire. Despite his early challenges, Fred Astaire’s meteoric rise in Hollywood and subsequent legacy should be attributed as much to his sheer tenacity as to his sartorial and performing brilliance.
Born in Nebraska in 1899, young Fred began performing at the tender age of 5. At the time, Vaudeville was the height of entertainment, and so Fred and his sister Adele formed a highly sought-after brother and sister team. Surprisingly, Fred initially refused dance lessons, but this soon proved to be unnecessary as he easily mimicked his talented sister. Recognizing the talent of his children, Fred’s father moved them to New York City and eventually launched them into successful vaudeville careers. Fred and Adele worked together until 1932, when she married Lord Charles Cavendish of England. It was crucial inflection point in Fred’s career; it was at this time that Fred began down the path that would establish his stardom and his unique style.
Fred reached Hollywood just as the Depression was reaching a new low, and yet 60 to 70 million Americans still flocked to the movie theater each week. In a time of suffering, Fred Astaire’s singing and dancing talents provided downtrodden audiences with a much-needed escape. Fred was one of the rare few actors who successfully made the transition from the Vaudeville/silent film era to the new genre of talkies. His obvious talents and on-screen charm quickly overshadowed his less-than-desirable physique, and more importantly, his characters rang true with the particular needs of the depression-era audience. At the time, Fred’s film characters took on a certain personification that would define his social appeal for years to come: he broke through the old standard of ideal male characters as being wealthy, titled, and formal. Instead, Astaire’s characters (as well as the man behind them) embodied the idealized American man: self-made, ambitious, self-taught, tenacious… In essence, Fred gave his audiences a reason to believe that they were not doomed to remain in their position, but much rather that they could pick themselves up, set their mind to something, and achieve it, all without the help of wealth or high birth. As the New Deal was implemented, Fred and the New Man were taking their attitude and style to remarkable new heights.
Fred Astaire’s Clothes & Style
Much like his film characters, Fred’s style was distinctly American. Unlike today, a dancer or actor would wear his own clothes to dance in, and Fred was no exception. Some of his most famous roles depict him in white or black tie, and it’s remarkable that he was able to blend a certain degree of casualness into what might otherwise be stiff dress. Admittedly though, his tailcoats by Anderson & Sheppard were cut specifically for him with high armholes and sleeves set in a way so he could dance in them. The tailcoat was certainly his trademark, though as Fred admitted in his autobiography Astaire, Steps in Time: “At the risk of disillusionment, I must admit that I don’t like top hats, white ties and tails.”
G. Bruce Boyer, the notable author of Fred Astaire Style from Assouline press, calls Astaire the “master of casual elegance,” in which he combines classic pieces with a less formal, modern twist. And yet, here is a man you’d never see wearing sneakers. Much of the “casual” side of the combination can be attributed to his profession, in which his performance-ready clothes needed to be properly fitted yet comfortable. Paired with a soft-collared shirt, Fred clearly favored high-waisted, pleated and cuffed trousers. Such a cut provided him with the necessary combination of classic tailoring and ease of movement. In addition, the high waist elongates his legs, making him seem taller and drawing attention to his always-in-step feet. Fred’s style is often considered to be influenced by the 20’s and 30’s American collegiate prep style, and his use of a scarf or an old tie as a substitute for a belt reflects this. Long after his youth, Astaire can still be seen in photographs proudly bearing this quirky accent.
Shoes were the workhorses of Astaire’s wardrobe. Often said to go through dozens of pairs rehearsing for a show, he particularly favored two-toned spectators, and white buckskin or brown suede oxfords. Some of his earlier pictures show him in full morning dress, down to his white spats. Not surprisingly, if you take a closer look at Fred’s shoes in any given photograph, they will bear the deep creases of an active wearer. Apart from the degree of wear, his signature shoe seems to be the white buckskin oxfords. In photos, he can be seen wearing them with dark, patterned hose, regardless of the color of his trousers.
Clearly, Astaire had an eye for detail that went beyond his drive for dancing perfection. His outfits are notably accessorized with colorful silk pocket squares, knit ties, collar pins, scarves, or ascots. For a boutonniere, he favors a large white carnation. If he’s not wearing one, a jacket or sportscoat is never far away. Like any man of the era, Fred wears a wide range of hats.
He’s incredibly memorable in a top hat, and classically cool in a felt snap brim. In my opinion, he seems most at home – if not a bit smug – in a boater hat with a fantastic range of brightly striped grosgrain ribbons.
This much is clear about Fred Astaire: he created a unique style blend of functionality and flair, and due to his classic-first and quirky-second leaning, his style really stands the test of time.
As G. Bruce Boyer put it, if anyone saw Fred on the street today, he would still be considered a well turned-out man. For more information about Fred’s style, Fred Astaire Style by G. Bruce Boyer and Astaire, Steps in Time are a highly recommended read!