In my last Fashion in Film post, I talked about how costumes can reveal a lot about what a character is like and what they’re feeling. Now let’s move to the other end of the spectrum where the costumes might not be as insightful, but perfectly represent what the movie was supposed to be. Top Hat is one of the greatest musicals to come out during the Great Depression and one of the finest pairings of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Depression era musicals were all about escapism and fantasy and Top Hat definitely has plenty of that.
Fred Astaire spends a lot of this movie wearing his signature formal attire. If anyone else put on a tuxedo and started tap dancing around in sand from an ash tray, they’d look crazy. But when Fred Astaire does it, he manages to make it look elegant.
And this is how we’re introduced to Ginger Rogers’ character Dale, while she is wearing this very fancy nightgown. The fantasy element of musicals like Top Hat doesn’t just apply to the things that happen in the movie or the ultra glamorous clothes the actors wear, some of these movies apparently take place in a world where the most minor inconveniences simply don’t happen. Dale has just been woken up, but not a hair is out of place on her head and there’s not a wrinkle to be seen on that nightgown.
The next time Jerry and Dale really spend time together is when they’re in the park and get caught in the rain. In this scene, both of them are dressed much more informally than they had been before. Even though they liked each other before, this is the scene where they really begin to fall in love with each other. Dale lets down her guard a little bit and enjoys her time with Jerry here so it’s appropriate that she be in a more casual outfit for this scene. And there’s another instance of minor real life problems just not existing in this movie. Dale has been horseback riding, but once again, her hair is flawless and even though she and Jerry get rained on, we don’t see a spot of rain on their clothes when they dance together.
When Dale begins to think that Jerry is actually her friend Madge’s husband, she slaps him in the middle of the hotel lobby. As if slapping someone in the busy lobby of a swanky hotel weren’t attention-grabbing enough, she does it in a somewhat gaudy dress that absolutely screams “spectacle.”
We finally meet Madge when Dale gets to Venice. Despite being friends, these are clearly two very different women. Ginger comes dressed in some rather sophisticated resort wear and Madge looks more laid back. There are a few different messages this sends. It shows right off that one is an older, married woman, no longer as concerned about impressing men as her younger, single friend is. It also reflects one having a more relaxed attitude toward potential infidelities than the other.
When I first saw this dress, I thought it almost looked like Dale is in mourning. She was upset and the dress most certainly conveys that, but then she goes to see Jerry…
…And we see the two of them are essentially dressed alike: black, white, and even wearing flowers on the same side. Clearly, Jerry is the one she’s supposed to be with. Sure, the audience already knew that, but their outfits in this scene really hammer the point home.
Ah, the infamous “feathers” dress from the Cheek to Cheek number. When you’re designing costumes for a musical, you have to consider how a costume is going to look in motion. Personally, I’m not a big fan of this dress when I see it sitting still. The feathers are just too much for my liking. But as soon as they start dancing, I love it. That dress may have been the bane of Fred Astarie’s existence, but it’s hard to deny that all those feathers look fantastic as she twirls around.
Now we come to the part where Dale settles for Beddini. Not only does she settle for Beddini, she settles her whole wardrobe as well. Compared to how she’s dressed for the rest of the movie, this doesn’t look like her at all. She looks like she’s wearing Madge’s clothes.
At last, Jerry and Dale are together again and ready to dance off into the sunset! We all knew that Ginger Rogers had to wind up with Fred Astaire in the end, but Ginger’s dress definitely shows that now she’s with the person she’s meant to be with. She can be herself again now. She’s dressing like her glamorous old self, not an older married woman.