Thursday, August 9, 2007

Astaire vs. Grant By G. Bruce Boyer

Astaire vs. Grant


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.

Astaire Style on


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  1. Lucy

    August 9, 2007 at 9:34 am

    this is WONDERFUL! Just how many people these days have ever thought about Fred Astaire as a style hero?

    How I love this blog – if there is better, more thoughtful, imaginative, inspirational fashion/style thinking online OR offline I would be very surprised

  2. whyioughtta

    August 9, 2007 at 9:41 am

    Beautifully expressed.

  3. Flint

    August 9, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Frankly, this is a much better argument than the previous one in support of Cary Grant. Besides being a more solid and well thought out argument, it is far superior in its use of the language, a better written piece that doesn’t stoop to the mean spirited denigrating of the other character to make its point. Both men dressed very well and thoughtfully and were immensely talented at what they did. I thought it in bad form that Richard Torregrossa felt the need to denigrate Astaire a “one dimensional talent” who “made corny musicals.” Fine writing Mr. Boyer, and a bit of class to go with it.

  4. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 10:02 am

    Very well written.
    2 major statements in dis essay!
    A)”Astaire had the talent to construct a new model for men based on the democratic ideal of the classless aristocrat.”
    b)”a studied casualness that hides itself in purposeful eccentricity”

    Any major Dandy(Sans Noblesse) should have both of the aforementioned attributes.

    Brillant essay!

  5. Lachipie

    August 9, 2007 at 10:07 am

    I’m completely convinced. Very interesting debate though!

  6. Alice Olive

    August 9, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Love this. Love the description of Grant’s deconstructed style.

  7. Nora

    August 9, 2007 at 10:45 am

    I second flint’s assessment of the two pieces. And I love the idea of “intensified feeling of nonchalance.”

  8. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 10:49 am

    An excellent analysis–Boyer carefully considers the specifics of each man’s style. Astaire’s style really expressed his buoyant personality. Even in his eighties,he dressed with the same flair. I remember seeing him interviewed in the ’80s,wearing a snappy red silk scarf knotted at his neck.

  9. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 11:14 am

    Lovely. And you managed the whole thing without a single jibe at Grant. I don’t now mind what conclusion people come to about the relative values of either man, you’ve deftly outlined the strengths of both, but in the battle of their champions you win!

    Thank you.


  10. MacGuffin

    August 9, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Marvelously written and in true gentlemanly style. Both Astaire and Grant would’ve warmly approved. Bravo!

  11. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Wow. This blog has added value to my life. A whole new area of play has opened up to me. It’s OK to like clothes!

  12. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    Definitely the better of the two pieces, more generous, less degrading. It gets my vote.

  13. positively the same dame

    August 9, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Bruce Boyer writes like Fred Astaire danced. He would have loved this essay, I think. I know he would have loved the jazz analogy — he was crazy, crazy for jazz and you can see in how he danced: loose, unpredictable, inside the music, between the beats. Risky business. Master the fundamentals and then let ‘er rip! Or, as a wise man once sang, “Let yourself go!”

    There are two films in which fred plays the drums while dancing. In both cases he looks like he’s on the verge of losing control, just on the edge. Of course he never does, and the effect is so spectacularly, well, jazzy, and so damned musical.

    I think that’s how he dressed, and how he lived. It’s why he loved going to the track. the organized, but barely controlled frenzy and graceful athleticism of the horses was jazz, the way he walked was jazz, and certainly, the way he dressed was jazz.

  14. il capocanoniere

    August 9, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    A fascinating debate that, although raising strong opinions, has not descended into the abuse-hurling frenzy that one sometimes observes in blogs.
    My personal view is that Cary Grant did look very comfortable in his clothes. The essence of the man was not just in the handsomeness of his face, rather in his entire presence. His clothes did not draw attention to themselves, but they did not need to; they were of the highest quality in terms of cloth and tailoring and quality always speaks for itself. Many of us can never match him. So what? At least we know that such standards exist and we can at least try to reach them.
    Fred Astaire was a fine dresser who made the most of what he had. However, he did appear to employ certain idiosyncrasies. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, Cary Grant didn’t need to resort to such. There does appear to be more sympathy for Fred Astaire, being a kind of ‘everyman’ who created something beautiful out of less than promising material. However, for me, Cary Grant sets the standard in so many attributes.

  15. Butch

    August 9, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Understood that one might take up Astaire and Grant in a kind of dress-off, as both were the greatest star-sartorialists of their day.

    Still, at bottom, there’s no comparison–literally. Each did his thing in his own wonderful way, neither better nor worse than the other.

    That is, I don’t see that exploring the style of one versus that of the other particularly explicates either.

  16. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    “Sprezzatura!” What a goal!


  17. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Bravo. Well said. I still think they are sartorial equals however. Just different ends of the style spectrum for practical reasons – height, weight, build, facial shape etc. Such is the beauty of their styles. Neither could really have worn the other’s clothing, could they? I still give the nod to Astaire in regards to your original question, but barely. Both, in my mind, represent the ultimate in style.
    PJ O’Connor

  18. oldog/oldtrix

    August 9, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    I think it noteworthy that the sniping tone of Mr. Torregrossa’s article, in contrast to Mr. Boyer’s gentlemanly prose, has drawn the attention of several readers. From everything I’ve seen and read about Mr. Grant, especially Mr. Torregrossa’s own excellent volume, it seems Mr. Grant would have been the last person to engage in the kind of petty backbiting that Mr. Torregrossa now thinks necessary to make his case that Mr. Grant’s style was superior to Mr. Astaire’s. No one was more self-deprecating than Cary Grant (“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant, even I want to be Cary Grant,” said Grant).

    True, Mr. Grant effectively employed his athleticism in several of his roles, all while remaining impeccably groomed. But to suggest that Astaire somehow “cheated” in his use of wardrobe to aid his dance movements is just silly. Was it cheating when Grant had several of the same famous grey suit made and used them to maintain his appearance during the crop duster chase in North by Northwest. And why is it “pretentious” for Astaire to use a scarf as a belt to appear more comfortable, but not equally so for Grant to wear his collars high-buttoned and turned up to appear less thick-necked. Astaire thought his hands too large and so devised ways of holding them while dancing to disguise their size. Grant was likewise concerned with what to do with his hands on screen and, so, practiced and mastered the hand in pocket gesture to appear more graceful. The men, though differing in scale, were far more alike than different in their approach to physicality on screen.

    I, like Mr. Torregrossa, thoroughly appreciate Grant’s apparently seamless use of his acrobatic tumbling ability in his roles. It is not, however, necessary, in order to make that point, to claim that Astaire was “straining for precision” in his dancing. And the claim is false. No less an authority that Mikhail Baryshnikov said of his and other dancers’ reactions to Astaire, “He gives us complexes, because he’s too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity that’s hard to face.” That bit of admiring hyperbole puts the lie to Mr. Torregrossa’s thesis.

    As to the point, at least I thought it was the point, of this discourse, the sartorial contributions of both Grant and Astaire cannot be diminished. When I get dressed in my grey mini-glen plaid or sharkskin suit, black silk knit tie, white French cuffed shirt, and trim black cap toe balmorals, I can’t help but think of Cary Grant; just as when I don a tweed sport coat and grey flannels or a navy double breasted chalk stripe suit, with a soft roll or pin collared shirt, paisley or rep striped tie and brown suede semi-brogues I pay my respects to Fred Astaire. And I suspect there are many others like me. Of course I don’t speak for any of those others, but if I had to limit myself to one influence, it would be Astaire. Fortunately, I am not so limited.

  19. jkh

    August 9, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    now also having had a glimpse into astaire’s wiki-biography it really makes me smile…

    astaire was born a “rampensau” as we say in german – he grew up on the stage. – and in fact he never overcame this – he never grew out of these clothes. – his clothes always looked like a costume and they served him – at least on stage and screen – as a dancer’s tricot.
    he was the bajazzo, the clown, the dancer, the actor and he stayed it for life. – straight, grounded.. maybe … but his sense of style was educated by the theatre and he never seemed to feel uncomfortable with this in the slightest.

    but this was not for grant. for grant the theatre or the screen had never been home nor destination of personal identity.

    i think there is this wonderful CG quote where he says: ” i want to be cary grant too…” and this says it all. — it also tells us how much cary grant was a creation of mr archibald leach.
    take this fact, combine it with his curvy childhood and his possibly not all that straight personality… and then look at the totally effortless result of bright and naturally shining gravity.
    all self creation with out the slightest trace of it.

    astaire – born into the stage that he then never really left. — grant – born into a disaster, swung himself into our hearts as if he had lived there forever.

    astaire vs. grant…
    costume vs creation so perfect that it has long become the real thing

    astaire vs. grant…

    may the jury decide!

  20. Anonymous

    August 9, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Thank you! Very nice and the author did not seek to belittle the “opponant” as it were.

    It is so hard to pick sides in this contest – I myself cannot as both subjects are too different and distinct. The perfect male style most likely lies in between the two.

    Although I would say that perhaps Mr. Astaire should win some points for being dashing while dancing, take after take after take. I myself love hearing tories about his drive and perfectionism from Ginger etc….To work so hard and to seem so efortlessly graceful.Now that is something.


  21. momo

    August 10, 2007 at 1:25 am

    Wonderful writing. This really captures the particular charms of each man.

  22. MJ

    August 10, 2007 at 4:40 am

    ItÂŽs impossible to compare the friendliness&elegance&agility of F. Astaire and the artfulness&provocation&clumsiness of C. Grant

  23. Anonymous

    August 10, 2007 at 10:56 am

    Wonderful piece. Or rather, wonderful series of pieces. The additon of descriptive text is a great enhancement to all the beautiful photographs.

  24. Anonymous

    August 10, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    How would both authors like to tackle that other male fashion icon…Gary Cooper?

  25. djg

    August 12, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    What I find curious, is that most of the comparisons and arguments made in this thought string are based upon the clothes that both of these men wore in their movies/performances. While I’m sure they had some degree of input, I would suggest that the costume designer and the nature of the role had at least 50% of the influence on the clothes and style being compared herein. I think that the true comparison of their styles would be in looking at their non-work wardrobes and how they carried themselves off of the screen and stage. I personally don’t have much insight into this aspect of the two men, but maybe some of you out there do and would be kind enough to share.

  26. ambika

    August 17, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    I’ve always adored Fred Astaire since I first saw ‘Gay Divorcee’ on AMC more than 15 years ago. Grant was good-looking but never came across as savvy. Love the write up and would love to see more of these.

  27. Guilia

    January 21, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Fred Astaire is my hero. I have never seen so many people love him as much as I do. His style is so clean and fresh and crisp.

  28. Jessica

    July 29, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Wow. I love this.

  29. Julie Y

    April 23, 2015 at 10:36 am

    I told a friend of mine about this debate, and I just had to share her comment: “The whole point of putting Cary Grant into a tailcoat is to get him adorably rumpled. But when Fred Astaire wears a tailcoat, he’s just untouchable!” (Meaning that nothing can ruffle him or cause him to get a hair out of place.)

    Great series of articles! I very much enjoyed reading them, and the comments.

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