“The clothes I wore were practical for me and that is the reason I wore them,” explained ragtime social dancer Irene Castle in her memoir and autobiography Castles in the Air. An icon of the Progressive Era, Irene is remembered primarily for her energetic yet graceful steps, which she performed alongside husband and dance partner Vernon. Their work contributed to the rise of the exhibition ballroom dance craze across America, Britain, and France during the 1910s. However, reading her autobiography revealed that, in addition to her role in dance, Irene also introduced significant clothing innovations with her signature flowing silk chiffon gown (seen in this video). Her detailed and expressive writing about dress also suggested that her interest in fashion equalled or even surpassed her love of modern social dancing. Through a closer look at Castles in the Air, we see how autobiography became a tool for documenting Irene Castle’s fashion, and, perhaps more significantly, we gain an understanding of how dress might offer insight into the dancer’s life and identity.
At the beginning of their career, Irene and Vernon struggled financially and, during their debut performance at the Café de Paris – “the finest supper club in Paris” – Irene wore her white crepe de Chine wedding dress, as it was the only evening gown in her possession. Such biographic details allow readers to visualise how the Castles’ rose from meagre middle-class beginnings to deliver a breakthrough performance that ultimately launched their dancing career. Yet, despite the imminent success that awaited her, that evening Irene recalled feeling “out of place… in a room where any woman was wearing a quarter of a million dollars in jewelry”. This more personal rumination demonstrated how Irene initially viewed fashion as a symbol of status and wealth, an aspirational fantasy that, according to theatre historian Marlis Schweitzer, many middle- and working-class women shared during the Progressive Era as the rise of the department store and live mannequin parade made fashionable goods more visible and accessible to a wider group.
After the Café de Paris, the Castles’ numerous appearances in nightclubs, theatrical productions, and films greatly increased the couple’s fame, but Irene continued to wear her iconic chiffon dance frocks, despite the reigning popular fashion for the narrow hobble skirt, favoured by designers such as Paul Poiret. By the summer of 1913, as exhibition ballroom dance became the popular choice in evening entertainment in the urban centres of New York, London, and Paris, the dancer remembered that her “Castle frock [simultaneously] became the vogue” in dress among prominent society women and middle-class working girls who aspired to be modern and fashionable. These comments alluded to the idea that Irene’s dress was imitated internationally. However, despite her role as a fashion icon, the dancer insisted: “I had no idea of influencing anybody else’s fashions when I changed my own clothes… I could not dance in a hobble skirt…, therefore I wore simple flowing gowns that would leave my legs free.” This statement suggested that Irene aimed primarily to fashion herself in her own image, aligning herself with other Progressive Era women who gained independence and freedom of expression from the suffrage movement and growing female educational opportunities.
It is my hope that this brief examination of Castles in the Air will offer insight into Irene Castle’s personal relationship with fashion and lead to a broader understanding of how autobiography can be a useful tool for studying dress history.
To read Irene’s autobiography, click here.
Castle, I. (1980) Castles in the Air, New York: DaCapo Press.
Schweitzer, M. (2011) When Broadway was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Troy, N. J. (2003) Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion, Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.