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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.