Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Fred Astaire.

Whenever scribes specializing in dandyism set digit to keyboard, invariably they generate semi-turgid prose on some cravatted unfortunate who may or may not have fluttered witticisms at dinnah and/or some impecunious syphilitic Gaul who may have jotted down some impenetrable paragraphs on being a dandy.

However, to focus on these two types is equivalent of an art historian devoting his full attention to the first painter to use a paintbrush in lieu of digits or some impecunious syphilitic Gaul (now dead as a consequence of being too impoverished to lavish medical care on the crise au genitaux which vexed him) who wrote impenetrable essays on what it was like to be among the first painters to disdain the use of digits, opting instead for some pig hair on a stick.
If Beau Brummel is the James Watt of menswear, then Fred Astaire is, unarguably, its Enzo Ferrari. Many people will murmur that I am slighting the Prince of Wales/Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor in this regard. Well, maybe. But let's look at the thing more clearly. What DID Ed Windsor actually do? Popularized the glen plaid suit, paired off pretty much anything with chocolate brown suede brogues and...and...oh, yeah, that bulbuous tie knot.

The glen plaid was hardly his invention, and the chocolate brown suede brogues with EVERYTHING was an unfortunate styling tic of the 1930s, adopted not because it was revelatorily wonderful, but because it was official that the then-PoW was a trendsetter and if he showed up with these shoes in that suit, why, it must be teddibly smaht to do so. That bulbous tie knot was another fancy with less acceptance but greater longevity; not having as many initial adherents, it has taken longer to burn itself out. So, examined under the cold light of reason, Ed Windsor is hardly singular. It has been trumpeted that he was, but popular acceptance of a mythology is hardly truth, innit? After all, if he'd been Ed Windsor, heir to the largest chain of bangers & mash stands in London, he would have only been some rich guy in brown shoes and a tie knot that looked more like a silk fist throttling him than anything else.
Yes, he did open up men's eyes to the possibilities of menswear and gave "cover" to Apparel Arts and Esquire to cover the subject. He was also alegged to have been an Axis sympathizer; and there is no argument he abdicated the throne in order to -- get this -- marry Wallis Warfield Simpson. Given his free choice of helpmeet, one wonders at his judgment choice in tie knots and footwear.
Others may point out to Cary Grant as the original modern emblem of sophisticated menswear. Certainly a far stronger case could be made for him. After all, he married women whom one could tell were attractive -- several, in fact, as if to underscore the point -- and gave up nothing in the process, and he was English. He was also fastidious in his choice of apparel and was pretty much the only menswear icon to be unarguably handsome. But his sense of style was subtle, perhaps too subtle. He played with proportions, but his world was pretty monochromatic. This all served to minimize his (few) weaknesses and highlight his (manifold) strengths. Given that his weaknesses were few and his strenghts manifold, this doesn't leave much room for improvisation. However, I shan't quibble with you if your personal sartorial lodestar is Cary Grant.
This really leaves only Fred Astaire as the guy who took style and became an auteur. As the blurb in G. Bruce Boyer's very highly recommended tome Fred Astaire Style says, after the advent of Fred Astaire: "Nonchalance, natural charm and effortlessness would now replace the pomp and circumstance of men’s style that preceded it."
When you think about, say, Beau Brummel, your mind may wander back to episodes such as his taking hours to tie his cravatte, trying over and over again until he got the desired effect. This, people, ain't style. It's OCD. Fred Astaire had better things to do with his neckwear than tie it eleventy gazillion times...he wrapped it around his waist as a belt. It is a testament to his style that this was clearly admired but, while somewhat emulated, never became the fad that brown suede shoes would be.
In the popular imagination Fred Astaire is a guy in white or black tie. He is probably the first person who springs to mind when you say "white tie and tails." But he didn't wander around in formal raiments at all hours. He wore suits and sports jackets and odd trousers. He was able to harmonize stripes and plaids and dots, making them work. People didn't think that was "just the way Fred Astaire" dressed, they realized this looked good and also realized it wasn't easy to have come up with this look that, er, looked so good.
Like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire was very choosy about his apparel. Probably more so, since he had, um, less raw material to work with than Grant and was primarily a dancer. That is, his clothes didn't just have to look good on a handsome man standing still on his mark, they had to look good on a short, skinny guy with a funny hairline and a pointy face who jumped and twirled and stomped around a lot of the time. He was a loyal client of Anderson & Sheppard of Savile Row and would take dance steps during the fittings, to see where the collar or sleeve would wind up. And you thought you were quite the rake for getting a jacket cut to within 1/4".
One of my fave pictures of Fred Astaire underscores for me his exacting attitude about clothes, his "dandy street cred" if you will: He is in a dressing room, tying his tie and you can see his shirt's monogram. On his elbow. The pleasure of having "FA" wasn't in having it where people could see it -- only a rube puts a monogram on his shirt cuff -- because people already know who he was, but in having a manogram and only he knew he had one.

This, coupled with an elegance conjoined with peerless nonchalance, made him the real starting point for the modern man of apparel.

-J.

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