Exploring Ginger Rogers’ Costumes in Top Hat (1935)

In anticipation of discussing interwar fashion and film as part of the MA course this semester, I marathoned the movie partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers over winter break. Their highest grossing film, Top Hat (1935), remains well known today both for the pair’s fancy footwork and the spectacular outfits worn by Ginger Rogers. Her costumes were designed by Bernard Newman, former head designer at Bergdorf Goodman who had initially been contracted by RKO to make costumes for Roberta, another Astaire-Rogers film. Newman would go on to dress Rogers in Swing Time (1936) and Follow the Fleet (1936). His imaginative designs for Top Hat assured Rogers’ place as the ultimate fashionista of 1930s musical film.

Dale’s nightgown and robe in stills from Top Hat (1935)

In the film, Ginger Rogers’ character Dale Tremont is a model for the fictional designer Alberto Beddini, and she wears ‘his’ high-fashion clothing throughout the film. Dale encounters Astaire’s Jerry Travers days before a trip to Italy to meet her friend Madge Hardwick, awoken by his tap-dancing in the hotel room above. Her nightgown, cut in the fashionable slim silhouette of the 1930s, is designed with short sleeves and a v-neckline accentuated with a bow at the bust. When she confronts Jerry, Dale covers up her previously exposed skin with a silk robe: her low neckline is replaced with a high, flared collar and her arms covered with long bell sleeves.

Dale’s riding outfit in stills from Top Hat (1935)

Despite her icy response to his dancing, Jerry attempts to woo Dale the next day at the stables. Her riding outfit is practical and fashionable, with activity-appropriate jodhpurs, a checked blazer, and an ascot accentuated with a glittering pin. Jerry entices Dale to tap dance with him and she soon returns his affections.

Dale’s afternoon dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

A mix-up with Jerry’s employer Horace Hardwick leads Dale to believe she accidentally fell for Madge’s husband. During the ensuing trip to Italy, Dale tries to explain the situation to a comically indifferent Madge. In an attempt to catch Jerry (who Dale believes is Horace) in the act of lying, she confronts him wearing a tantalizing low-back afternoon resort dress, its sheer sleeves and spray of flowers at the collar accentuating her femininity. She tells Jerry of a fictional time they spent together in Paris only to become angry with him when he starts to play along with a story he knows is false.

The iconic ostrich feather dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

That evening Madge invites Horace, Dale, and Jerry to dinner. Horace is, of course, unable to attend. Madge encourages Dale and Jerry to dance (having intended to introduce them during the Italy trip), and Dale reluctantly agrees. The following dance sequence, “Cheek to Cheek,” is perhaps their most well-known. Though the scene looks effortlessly beautiful, Rogers’ ostrich feather dress was a source of contention on the set. As it shed feathers during each take, director Mark Sandrich and Astaire demanded Rogers change. She, along with her manager, rejected their criticisms and the now iconic dress remained in the film.

The Piccolino Dress in stills from Top Hat (1935)

After yet more mix ups, Dale finally uncovers Jerry’s real identity. They end the film joyously dancing “The Piccolino,” with Rogers’ glittering dress echoing the celebratory mood. The Piccolino dress epitomizes how, despite being in black and white, Newman’s costumes in Top Hat are a feast for the eyes and rightly remembered as some of the best in Astaire-Rogers history.

If You Can’t be Pretty, be Interesting!

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Don’t be afraid to be different. 
Don’t be afraid to grow up. 
Stop mentally walking the Atlantic 
City boardwalk in a beauty parade. 
Make capital of your defects. 
Cultivate a color sense. 
Learn restraint in dress. 
Understand the value of simplicity. 
And dress to be interesting! 

With these words, Hollywood designer Gilbert Adrian – known simply as Adrian to his public – speaks to the readers of Motion Picture Magazine, guiding them to rethink their attitudes towards dress and beauty, and to embrace their possibilities, rather than feeling quelled by contemporary ideals.

Published in the 3 May 1926 edition, Adrian’s words are imbued with the designer’s understanding of the ways actors’ images could be sculpted by artful costuming.  The magazine describes him as a ‘youthful genius’, at the time he was head of wardrobe at the De Mille Studio, and he went on to work at MGM, where he designed costumes for stars including, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, during the 1930s and 1940s.

For readers of a fan magazine, he represented a tangible link to their favourite actors and a means to learn the kind of skills in cosmetics and dress that were evolving as cinema boomed in the 1920s.  Like fashion magazines of the period, film journals appealed to women’s desire to emulate their idols – whether society women, fashion models, or stars.  While publications such as Vogue targeted a slightly older, more elite woman, fan magazines attracted young women eager to make the most of readymade fashions that now brought style to a wider group than ever before.

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The article seeks to manage expectations – while it is clearly designed to guide women’s approach to their appearance, Adrian addresses his audience with both authority and empathy, aware they cannot look exactly like their favourite screen star, but counseling them to be confident and strategic in their choices.  For example, he complains that too many women seem to believe only in two age groups-16 or 60- with many therefore dressing too young or too old, and warns: ‘…beware of making yourself ridiculous by clinging to flapperdom too long!’  Instead, women should embrace a sophisticated style, and remember that ‘All pretty women can’t be interesting, but an interesting woman can outshine all pretty ones.’

And how to cultivate being interesting? Adrian assures his readers that this is attainable: ‘ It can be developed, since it is a quality of mind, and it will last and increase while beauty and youth fade and decay.’  Such girlish terms as ‘cute’ should be abandoned, women should ignore men’s interest in frivolous examples of femininity such as the Ziegfeld Follies, and ‘Instead of trying unsuccessfully to hide what you consider your defects make capital of them!’ Don’t, therefore, copy a trend simply to follow the herd, or mistakenly try to ape film costumes designed for an exotic narrative.  He advocates ‘individual dressing’ focused on a small number of well-made and carefully chosen garments that highlight one’s personality.  Advice that is still being given in magazines now…

Sources: 

http://mediahistoryproject.org/