Dissertation Discussion: Lily-Evelina

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.

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.