Dissertation Discussion: Lily

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat. Costume design by Bernard Newman. RKO Pictures, 1935.

What is the working title of your dissertation?

My dissertation is as yet untitled, but it’s on the subject of costume and dance in Top Hat (1935). The consensus in film studies is that musicals unfold in terms of oppositions, and I am exploring this theory as it plays out in the costuming of Top Hat‘s numbers. Through an analysis of the visual and tactile pleasures offered by costume in motion, I suggest that a costume plot exists in the film which represents a split between the film’s dominant ideology and what Robin Wood calls ‘certain fundamental drives and needs that are not ideological but universal’, such as delight in bodily movement. The tensions arising from this split are discussed in relation to gender, pleasure, and power at a specific historical moment but also more generally, with particular focus on the spectacle and spaces of costume within the numbers.

What led you to choose this subject?

My interest in the intricacies of costume plots stems from my own experience of devising them as a film student. Seminars on dress and movement at the Courtauld then led me to develop an interest in the similarities between dress, dance, and film as mediums. I wanted to further explore their interplay, and chose the Hollywood musical as a starting point because of the way in which it combines all three mediums. I then explored the Astaire-Rogers musicals as films especially well-known for their wedding of dance and costume, before choosing to focus on Top Hat as the quintessential Astaire-Rogers musical in this respect.

Ginger Rogers by Horst P. Horst, 1936.

Favourite book/article you’ve read for your dissertation so far and why?

A 1935 Women’s Wear Daily article on Top Hat which, very usefully, lists all of the fabrics and materials used to construct Ginger Rogers’ costumes.

Favourite object/image in your dissertation and why?

Horst P. Horst’s photographs of Ginger Rogers. Used in a 1936 advertisement for the Muriel King dress worn by Rogers, I like the images for the way in which they capture what the advertisement describes as ‘rhythm in chiffon’.

Favourite place to work?

The Courtauld common room.

Reference

Robin Wood. (1981 [1975]). Art and Ideology: Notes on Silk Stockings. In: Rick Altman, ed. Genre: The Musical. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul/British Film Institute, pp. 57-69.