G. Bruce Boyer
Funnily enough, my guess would be that Astaire is more a model for most men than Cary Grant. Most men would of course say they?d like to look like Cary Grant. But that?s not really achievable for most of us, which brings me to Astaire. He did in fact create a model for those of us in need of some perfecting.
Unlike Cary Grant, who was tall, dark, and handsome, Fred Astaire had few of the attributes we associate with a romantic hero, on or off the screen. He was almost emaciatingly slight of build (with a 35? chest, and 29? waist on a 5?8? frame), balding, with pronounced ears and a reedy voice. The writer Graham Greene compared him to Mickey Mouse, and another contemporary critic thought his face looked like an inverted Bartlett pear.
But Astaire?s was the triumph of pure style. And more than symbolize an ideal of physical handsomeness and sophisticated charm, he came to embody the idea of the New Democratic Man of the Twentieth Century, the American Century. Simply put, Astaire had the talent to construct a new model for men based on the democratic ideal of the classless aristocrat. He was a hero whose weapon was style, and that style was a distinctive casualness.
Astaire and Grant are, in a sense, at opposite ends of the style spectrum when it comes to dress. Grant came more and more to simplify his approach, to de-accesorize and remove color and pattern from his wardrobe. He came to rely on pristine cut, with no exaggeration to achieve his effect: simple grey suits, white shirts with straight-point collars, silvery neckwear, black plain oxfords. It was a performance of deconstruction in which all the elements blended together in a seamless whole. Nothing was emphasized, everything faded into a consistently harmonized column meant to move the eye quickly to the real focal point: Grant?s incredibly handsome face.
For Astaire, it was something of the opposite: the blending of the formal and the casual, and the studied use of accessories are meant to draw attention, not to the face, but to the nature of the assemblage itself, and thus the personality behind it: the soft button-down shirt (often worn purposefully but unself-consciously with a more formal d-b suit), the repp-striped tie and tie bar set at a jaunty angle, paisley silk pocket square, the bright hosiery and suede shoes, the porkpie felt fedora, the easy-fitting tweed jackets, the gray flannels and scarf worn as a belt. All of this bespeaks a man who knows that style is the endeavor to adjust nature. The trick is to make that adjustment seem effortless. That was Astaire?s gift.
Around 1947, shortly after The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer , Grant arrived at a sartorially monochromatic conclusion about his wardrobe. Although he would still occasionally don a tweed jacket (in Crisis and Monkey Business, for instance), more and more his outfit of choice was a business suit in a neutral shade of grey. Astaire, on the other hand, was fond of yellow cashmere sweater vests, bright blue socks, bold glen plaid tweed sports jackets, red silk handkerchiefs. His style was an idiosyncratic blend of Savile Row and Princeton circa 1938, the first Mid-Atlantic approach to dress. Even when he wore a formal suit, it was liable to be a chalk-striped d-b flannel in navy blue or dove gray. His style was light, comfortable, and nonchalant.
There is more a sense of studied nonchalance about Astaire. Grant looked elegant in white tie and tails, but Astaire looked elegant and comfortable. He wore them like they were pajamas and a tux as though it were a part of his everyday routine, rather than borrowed from some Prussian general. It wasn?t supposed to look perfect, it was supposed to look thrown together in a perfectly natural way. Of course, it wasn?t anything of the sort. It?s what Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier defined as ?sprezzatura?, a studied casualness that hides itself in purposeful eccentricity. Astaire knew perfectly well what he was about in his dress and his music. And speaking of music, critic and novelist Stanley Crouch once defined jazz as an intensified feeling of nonchalance. It?s a good way to sum up Astaire. The intensity comes from both a sense of perfection, and from a sheer love of clothes as a medium of expression, the way a writer loves wit and the medium of words, as the 18th Century poet Alexander Pope noted:
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne?er so well expressed.