The Enduring Style of Fred Astaire

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Perhaps no one else in the history of cinema is quite as well-known or beloved for their “top hat and white tie and tails” than Fred Astaire, the dancer extraordinaire, who graced the silver screen for more than six decades. Astaire was born on this day in 1899, and in developing his career, also became a sartorial icon.

What’s funny is that though Astaire became recognized for the tuxedos he wore on screen while executing his sleek, spry movements alongside the likes of Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, and Rita Hayworth, he actually favored more casual wear offscreen. “In my business you have to dress for the role,” he said in 1957. “At home, I dress for myself.“

In the early days of his career, when he was dancing live with his sister Adele in the great theaters and private homes of European aristocracy, Astaire first encountered Edward VIII, Prince of Wales (who later became the Duke of Windsor after famously abdicating the throne to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson), and became fascinated with the royal’s tailored, sophisticated dress. Astaire began to frequent stores like famed Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard and other historic luxury retailers in London’s chic Mayfair neighborhood, adopting the look for himself.

Astaire’s polished visage in and out of films quickly became beloved by men across the U.S. when the actor’s cinema career took off in the 1930s. It was an era darkened by the Great Depression’s ruin and yearning. The actor’s charm and grace, blossoming in films heralding luxurious lifestyles, mesmerized audiences looking to escape dour circumstances. Men in particular found an accessible simplicity and elegance in Astaire’s image they could latch onto, tweed jackets, fine sweaters, tailored slacks, and all.

Watching his films now, it’s remarkable that the way Astaire moves with such ease allows one to forget he’s wearing a suit at all. But this is not just attributable to his style, but his talent: Astaire was once called by ballet legend George Balanchine “the greatest dancer in the world.” Upon meeting him, even celebrated choreographer/director Bob Fosse could hardly form words.

Throughout his career, Astaire remained quite particular about his clothing choices, always preferring inconspicuousness to flash. „I just don’t like a suit to stand out,” he said. “I don’t want someone looking twice at me and saying in an incredulous tone: ‚What was that?’“ In particular, he chose suits with small arm holes because they provided a greater range of motion for dancing. And his suits were always neutrals, custom-tailored. He had a penchant for silk handkerchiefs as belts, which allowed him to make his pants fit better when he lost weight while dancing; dark blue vicuna overcoats; shirts in light colors with buttoned cuffs; and full ties with Windsor knots. He also, at one point, had over 50 pairs of dance shoes and 20 pairs of standard-wear shoes. Astaire even rehearsed in style, choosing slacks and sweaters to develop and practice his work. He acted into his 80s, and only stopped dancing in his early 70s, so his impeccable dress was never far from cultural memory in his lifetime.

Astaire was and is still considered one of the best-dressed American actors ever. So even in an age where streetwear is king and the idea of a true “movie star” is all but nonexistent, Astaire’s fashion legacy lives on. People will always need fine suits, after all, a concept not lost on Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci, Hugo Boss’s Ingo Wilts, or Dior’s Kim Jones. Whether Astaire is dressed for rehearsal in the 1951 film Royal Wedding—the famous scene where he partner dances with a hat rack—or covering a magazine in a smart suit (pocket square, tie bar, and all), his finesse continues to inspire.

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