Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Style Essentials--Ginger Rogers Steps Up in Style in 1936's SWING TIME

Ginger Rogers is quite simply one of the greatest talents that Hollywood has ever seen.  She was an actress and singer and dancer--a triple threat before people even really knew what that meant.  Not only could she do it all, she did it all so well...the result of a strong work ethic and sheer raw talent.  As an actress, she had tremendous range; she was a natural with comedy, but she could also bring a tear to your eye as she did in dramas like her Oscar-winning performance in Kitty Foyle (1940).  And as a singer, she recorded several songs that were hits at the time and continue to be standards today.  But it is for her grace as a dancer that she is perhaps best known, especially for her 10 movies with Fred Astaire.  It is important to remember she had already made a name for herself on the stage and in 20 films before their first one together, but their coupling created an image so iconic they are still known all over the world.

Though much is made of her partnership with Astaire, the success of Ginger's career is really owed to another person entirely--her tenacious mother Lela Rogers.  Lela mostly raised young Ginger on her own and even rescued her when she was abducted--not once, but twice--by her estranged father.  Lela's strong work ethic was part of who she was, and something Ginger admired and emulated throughout her life.  Her mother would tackle any task, and became particularly astute in entertainment.  She rose in the industry in many roles--journalist, critic, story writer, manager, acting coach.  In a world of men, Lela did business with the best of them and was well respected.  Her greatest role, though, was helping craft her daughter's career.  

Ginger started her long life in entertainment in her early teens when vaudeville star Eddie Foy came to her town of Fort Worth, Texas.  With Lela's position at the time as a reviewer for the city paper, she and Ginger already knew many people in the theater, including Jack Benny, George Burns, and Foy.  An opportunity came when one of his dancers fell ill and he needed someone to step in.  Ginger knew the routine and the audience went wild for the "local girl" and her natural ability as a dancer.  After that, she only dreamt of doing more.  She and her mother then began criss-crossing the country on the theater circuit--from Texas to Chicago to New York City and the Great White Way of Broadway.  Her big break came in 1930 when she was asked to star in the stage production of Girl Crazy.  After several years of hard work, Ginger Rogers became a success 'overnight' at the age of 19.

Not only did Girl Crazy make Ginger a star, but it was there where she first met a dancer named Fred Astaire.  At that point, Fred was not as well known and only called in to help fix a few dance steps in the production.  But he was quickly making a name for himself on the stage with his sister Adele after many years dancing together.  Once Fred and Ginger were both on Broadway, they soon got to know one another much better.  According to her autobiography, they once even dated; they dined, and danced, and shared a steamy goodnight kiss.  She surmised they might have gone on dating had she not moved out to Hollywood to be in the movies.  But once she did, Ginger wouldn't see Fred again until he joined her at RKO and they made their first film together--Flying Down to Rio (1933).  Though he was now married and all about business--so much so that he resisted kissing co-stars onscreen--their chemistry was still strong and captivated audiences.  Their supporting parts in Rio would turn into leading roles for 9 more pictures together, including 1935's Top Hat

Though Top Hat is often the film of theirs that is most remembered, Swing Time is the one that actually seemed to be the greater success.  It broke box office records at the time, blasting past the enormously popular Top Hat two years earlier.  It is also the one that is called out time and time again by film critics for the movie's difficult dance numbers, particularly "Waltz in Swing Time" and "Never Gonna Dance."  The songs for the film, too, are some of the greatest of all time and include the Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight."  Swing Time also happens to be Ginger's favorite of any film she ever did, with reasons ranging from the "incredible sensitivity" of director George Stevens (Woman of the Year, A Place in the Sun) to the glorious costumes by Bernard Newman.

I often speak of how much the areas of fashion and costume design dovetail one another, and one of the greatest examples of this is Bernard Newman.  Newman started at Bergdorf Goodman in New York as a window dresser and worked his way up to be the store's head designer.  There he built a celebrity clientele who bought and wore his clothing, such as 1930s style star Kay Francis who loved his signature slinky designs.  Newman remained in New York until 1933 when he was called to Hollywood to become RKO's head costume designer.  He would stay with RKO until 1937--working with actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball in addition to Ginger--and then went back to his post at Bergdorf Goodman.  Though he would still do films now and then for Columbia and Warner Brothers into the 1940s, his full-time career was once again with the fashion industry.  Thus, though a giant of film costume design, Newman both began and ended his career in fashion.

Bernard Newman and his signature slinky bias cut on actress Lily Pons (above)
and Newman (below, second from left) with some of the greatest costume designers of all time--
(l-r-) Orry-Kelly, Travis Banton, Edith Head, Adrian, and Irene

Newman and Ginger had a great working that was completely collaborative.  He always began a film asking her what she wanted and together they fleshed out the design.  He valued her opinion and knew she was the expert for what would work on the dance floor.  He also knew that making Ginger feel her most beautiful would translate in her performance.  It wasn't hard to do.  She had a phenomenal figure--just under 5'5" with measurements of 34-24-35--that many miss since she didn't really capitalize on it like others such as Lana Turner who had nearly the same measurements.  All dresses were fit to her tiny figure by Newman's trusted cutter Marie Ree (who happens to be my friend Christian Esquevin's great aunt) and built for serious movement.  As a result, the costumes look just as lovely while completely still as they are in motion.

The team's most famous collaboration was the "Cheek to Cheek" feathered gown for Top Hat, but Newman also helped Ginger realize another "dream dress" for this film's "Waltz in Swing Time."  It was made of pink organza with one-inch ruffles on the sleeves and hem that looked like petals forming a rosette.  Another dress from Swing Time--the "Never Gonna Dance" bias cut gown--is perhaps the sexiest dress Ginger ever wore.  She looks so luscious that you would never guess how much strain she was under while wearing it.  "Never Gonna Dance" was the pair's most ambitious number together and one that was plagued with problems; everything seemed to go wrong while shooting, which took more than 48 takes and made Ginger's feet bleed in her shoes.  Yet, without complaint, she powered through and the dress became the film's most influential, inspiring countless copies at the time and many an homage continue to exist in fashion today. "I can never emphasize enough how important clothing was to me," Ginger said, relating to these costumes in her autobiography.  For her, they made the difference between a performance that was good and one that was great.

And so, as today is Ginger's birthday, I wanted to celebrate by highlighting her talent in her favorite film--Swing Time.  In it you can see that she was a natural comedienne and an actress with a gift for effortlessly weaving emotions into her dance numbers.  You could feel what she was thinking, whether it was frustration, amusement, or love of her dance partner.  Because of this, Astaire once remarked that the success of their partnership was due mostly to Ginger.  There was also a little lust, of course, which is shown to great effect in Swing Time.  Her emotions are also captured and communicated by her costumes, which are designed by the equally gifted Bernard Newman.  They, too, worked in concert together to create designs that helped define 1930s style and have continued to be influential in fashion--everyone from Halston in the 1970s to Gucci and Oscar de la Renta today.  This is why Swing Time is one of The Style Essentials on GlamAmor.  See just some of the Cinema Connections below.

"Never Gonna Dance"

This bias cut gown is perhaps the sexiest that Ginger ever wore
and really shows off her fantastic figure

Deceptively simple, this gown was an immediate hit in 1930s fashion
and continues to be copied by designers today

 One of the most beautiful of the Great White Sets from Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark,
who did art direction on other Astaire/Rogers films as well

Even the back of this gorgeous gown is inspirational in design

Of course the movement of any of Ginger's gowns is of the greatest importance
and this one is truly remarkable in all that it can do

Charlize Theron's celebrated Gucci at the 2004 Oscars
is just one of many modern gowns that owe some inspiration to Swing Time

"Pick Yourself Up"

This number is celebrated as one of Ginger's most exuberant
and the pleated skirt perfectly accentuates her every movement in their polka

Ginger, as always, looking luminous
and wearing a dress that captures many of the elements of her signature style

Brands like ASOS (above) and Lavish Alice (below)
borrow inspiration from Ginger's swing dress

"The Way You Look Tonight"

Fred, influential in his own signature style,
sings the song that would go on to win the Oscar

After trying everything from shaving cream to eggs to simulate shampoo, 
Ginger suggested whipped cream and it would go on to inspire ads and commercials to come

Prell is just one brand that took advantage of what Ginger learned from the Swing Time shoot

"Waltz in Swing Time"

The costume first starts covered by a cape,
which is removed to reveal the pink organza gown with 30 self-covered buttons in its bodice

 Ginger's gowns are always stunning coming or going
as shown by another beautiful back on this gown

It should be noted that Ginger's gown took some inspiration from Adrian's famous Letty Lynton (1932) dress

Designers like Oscar de la Renta (shown here in gowns from his 2011 collections)
frequently take inspiration from Swing Time

Thanks to Christian Esquevin for use of Bernard Newman photo


Unknown said...

Swing Time Ah....Heaven. My favourite film of Ginger and Fred's
followed closely by Carefree.

FredandGingerMad said...

Just like to point out that by 1930, Fred and Adele had been performing on Broadway and in London's West End for 13 years. They were certainly not unknowns

Apart from that great article

Christian Esquevin said...

Fabulous post Kimberly - a great tribute to Ginger and to Bernard Newman, he a designer not well known.This was certainly a great movie with wonderful song and dance numbers. I think among others things Fred and Ginger brought to the movies was they made it look like they were having fun(how much fun after four dozen takes?). Thanks for this birthday tribute to Ginger and shoutout to great aunt Marie.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Elaine!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks for your feedback, Fred and Ginger Mad. I appreciate it.

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thanks Christian! I'm so happy you enjoyed it. I loved putting a spotlight on Ginger, Bernard Newman, and your Great Aunt Marie!

I totally agree with you--they always looked like they were having fun, so that makes all of us have fun with them. It's a large part of the feel of their films and why they continue to be so enjoyable to watch. They were great actors in just not showing us how hard it all was!

Beth Ann Gallagher said...

Great tribute to Ginger! I appreciated how detailed you were discussing her life and career and her collaborations with Bernard Newman. I do not know much about him as a costume designer before your post.

Silver Screenings said...

I adore everything about this movie - including the set and costume designs. You've made me want to see it again!

I'm with your previous commenter who said she didn't know much about Bernard Newman before reading your post. I'm going to do more research about his work.

Thanks for another great post! You always give us readers our money's worth. :)

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you, Beth Ann! Yes, Bernard Newman is far too frequently discussed and the entirety of his career is almost NEVER mentioned. I'm very proud to share with you all and thrilled that you find it as interesting as I do!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you, Ruth! I so appreciate that comment and compliment! This is what makes my work so worthwhile--being able to share the lives of these supremely talented and fascinating designers with you all. I love that you love it, too!

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