Fred Astaire - Interview from GQ, 1957
"I know that once in awhile I’ve been on lists of best-dressed men," says Fred Astaire, the famous star of stage and screen, "but it always comes as a surprise to me. I never think of myself as spic and span or all duded out—just as someone who wants to be comfortable and satisfy his own taste."
Sitting his cool living-room above Beverly Hills, surrounded by its muted shades of green and gray, Astaire looks the part. He is dressed in a light pink shirt, tieless, with tan cotton slacks, gray-figured wool socks and dark brow suede shoes. A small gold “bit” pin holds the throat of his shirt together.”
"Of course," he says, "in my business you have to dress for the role. At home, I dress for myself."
Astaire likes to think of himself as a conservative, inconspicuous dresser. He has his own ideas on what men should wear. He always has suits custom-tailored. Once he had it done in London, but now nearly all of them are worked up in a Beverly Hills shop at about $250 a copy. “As a kid,” he recalled, “I used to abide by the judgment of Brooks Brothers in New York. I think I’m away from that now.”
Roughly reckoned, his wardrobe consists of two dress suits (rarely sued except in movies), a couple of dinner jackets, both double-breasted (with a single-breasted on “on the way”), and about 20 other suits. “I gave away about a half dozen the other day,” he says. “I hate to see them hanging in the closet, unused.” Added to this he has perhaps a dozen sport coats and a variety of gay flannel trousers and cotton slacks—”a couple of dozen leisure combinations.”
"I’m fairly careful about the tailoring," he says, "I usually take my suits back to the shop at least half a dozen times—too much shoulder or too loose or too tight. What I dislike is wearing a lot of material." He meditates for a moment. "I don’t see any reason to carry all that extra cloth about," he adds.
If has any preferences for a cloth, Astaire says that it is for a light silky cashmere of vicuna. “There’s nothing that makes me feel quite as well as a light overcoat of dark blue vicuna,” he says.
His standard of taste in dressing is simple. “I just don’t like a suit to stand out. I don’t want someone looking twice at me and saying in an incredulous tone: ‘What was that?’”
Astaire does not care for the new Ivy League look. “I simply don’t understand it,” he says. “It may look well on some people, young ones, but it’s terrible on me.” He believes that his measure of male dress is basically British. “You have to give them credit. They have been very stable in their designing and tailoring. They hardly ever change.”
One of the present-day fashions that roils him is the prejudice against the double-breasted suit. “It’s incredible how they have maligned that garment,” Astaire declares. “Abroad, you will see three or four double-breasted suits to one single-breasted.” For instance, he points out, he prefers the double-breasted dinner jacket—”for one thing, you don’t have to wear a vest or that hideous invention, the cummerbund. And I can’t comprehend red evening ties or fluffy shirt fronts or that sort of thing.”
In suitings, he prefers the sober colors such as dark blue, dark gray, and dark brown—”the only light color I like is light gray.” He is also partial to stripes but he wants them at least an inch or an inch-and-a-half apart. “That’s distinctly British,” he says. “We go away from or toward them in styles, but we always seem to basically revolve around their ideas.”
Astaire is willing to confess that the East and the West are twain in fashion and have difficulty meeting on a common ground. “In Hollywood,” he says, “you have big hats, long coats, brighter colors, insane combinations, and shirts that stick out over the pants. This has spread to the East but not yet, thank God, to the British.”
One of his horrors is the present condition of the male suit coat. He feels that this is the outstanding mistake that most men make in their appearance. “The coat should be just long enough to cover the rear,” he states. “The way most of them are today, they nearly reach the knees. I put on one belonging to a friend about my size the other day and I swear it came down to my knees.”
Astaire admits that he has been told he has a good figure for fitting. He is inclined to be doubtful about it. “I don’t think I look too well in suits,” he says. “I’m really quite sloppy—casual, you know. I dress for myself and to feel relaxed.” To this end, he possesses a couple of tweed coats in a small pattern of herringbone and one coat with a small gray-and-red plaid.
On tailoring, he feels that all coats should have the British side-vents—”quite deep, about seven inches.” He favors two-button jackets, although he used to be an addict of three-buttoners at the age of 20. “I only button one,” he says, “and I think it looks better that way.” His trousers are cuffed and inclined to be a little shorter than most—”I don’t want them slopping over onto my shoes.
Astaire often returns to his outspoken dislike of the present rage for “Ivy League” tailoring. “The unpadded shoulders, the three-buttoned long and boxy coat, the too-short, thin pants, and the thin ties with striped buttoned shirts in dark colors—well, I suppose this may go very well with some personalities but it’s not for me. To me, all such look like TV producers. Maybe they want to.” It seems amusing to Astaire to recall that when he was young such “outlandish” getups would have dubbed the wearers as “sissies”—but today the most extreme rigs of clothes are worn by the toughest gangs.
As for his shirts—they cost him from $12 to $25—he sometimes has them custom-made but usually picks them up from the counter. Except for full dress, he likes a soft shirt front, and light colors in the pink, blue, and tan range. “Once in a long while I’ll buy a striped shirt,” he adds.
He prefers a well-made buttoned cuff to French cuffs. In fact he never uses cufflinks except for formal dress, when he generally wears ruby-and-diamond studs and links or sapphire-and-diamond combinations. His daily jewelry is severely limited to a single gold-seal ring and the simples tie accessories.
He has what seems to him to be a “thousand ties” but in reality only between 50 and 100. He likes a full tie, not the narrow ones. “I always like to use the Windsor knot,” he says. As for the collars, he dislikes the tab and prefers the button-down and the wide-spread collar— braced by staves. “Once I used to wear bow ties,” he says somewhat wistfully, “with polka-dots, too, and enjoyed it, but I’ve got away from that.” He explains his aversion for the narrow tie with a smile: “I’m narrow enough myself, too narrow.” He points out that thinness seems to destroy an essential quality of dress, its style, by misuse in ties or lapels. “Look at the thin rolled lapels with the double-breasted suits—they are atrocities.”
In his own ties, he prefers a dark color and a very small pattern. He has only a couple of striped ties, emblematic of the clubs to which he belongs.
In the shoe department, Astaire possesses perhaps 50 pairs of professional dancing shoes and more than 20 pairs of his own. “It’s really very economical to have that many,” he asserts. “I have shoes today that are as good as when I bought them 20 years ago—and I assure you I have worn them many times.” A few pairs are slightly large for his feet and Astaire wears two pairs of wool socks with them when he goes walking. All his shoes are custom-made in London.
As for style and color, he prefers suede as a material and the loafer design. Most of his shoes, exclusive of the formal ones, are dark brown. “I don’t have any evening pumps any more,” he says. “I used to wear them ‘way back. Now they’re out of style. They were fun to wear but I don’t see any chance of them coming back.”
"It’s rather hard for me to judge the way I look," Astaire sighs. He has been critical of his appearance on the screen for so long—"I think my pants were a bit too short in my last picture"—that he thinks he has little standing in the clique of clothes vanity. For instance, he denies the canard that he blocks his own hats—"but I do stretch them a little." He has a stretcher at home and, often finding that a size seven hat fits him better than the usual 7 1/8, he buys it and stretches it. "I suppose I really take a size 7 and 1/6," he remarks.
In hats, Astaire regrets the fact that he cannot wear a homburg. “I’ve always wanted to but never could,” he asserts. He likes low crowns and fairly narrow brims (about 2 1/8 inches because “an eighth of an inch can make a lot of difference in a brim”). The hat band should be of normal width—”no wide ones, no high crowns, no wide brims.” He wears them with an ordinary crease and abhors such developments as porkpies.
Handkerchiefs should be flipped out and folded into the pocket with an appearance of casualness, Astaire thinks. He does not like the square or folded style, nor the puff type that he describes “like a range of the Andes.” Once, on a TV show, Ed Sullivan came to him and begged him to put his coat kerchief in properly. Astaire obliged. “I think it set a new standard for Ed,” he said. “At least he was still wearing it that way when he appeared weeks later on the show.’
In the way of belts, Astaire likes to use silk handkerchiefs—purely for utilitarian purposes rather than theatrical. He has a 31-inch waist and loses pounds when he is dancing. The resilient silk allows him to draw his pants right. “I used to use old neckties for the same purpose but the handkerchiefs are better.” At home he will use a belt, usually shoving the buckle to one side, “simply to get it out of the way.”
In all these items, Astaire sticks rigidly to his formula of inconspicuous color and exquisite cut.
In his socks, Astaire allows himself a little leeway. He likes wool in preference to silk and cotton and never wears garters except, of course, when he is working in pictures. He is not too taken with synthetic fabrics of any kind. He is fond of some sort of pattern on his socks, based on a subdued background.
He dislikes shorts of any kind in publics. He prefers double-breasted overcoats. He thinks that his fondness for not wearing ties may have been a sin in the past—”once I was tossed out of a place, I think on Catalina, for not wearing a tie. Nowadays they furnish you some hideous one to appease the other diners.”
Although he has several fur overcoats he never wears them—and he abhors fur trim of any kind. As for mohair or silk for dinner jackets, bright-colored or metallic-threaded coats—”good God, no! It hurts me to think about them.” He points out that the trend to velvet cuffs and collars is a reprise of Edwardian styles and that he believes it will be ephemeral. He sees fancy vests in a short revival but believes they will subside and go away if no one looks. On the other hand, he is very fond of cardigan sweaters of all types.
Asked about the so-called Calypso influence in sportswear, Astaire replied cheerily: “I sincerely trust that there is none whatsoever.” As to the clothes in which he spends most of his time, Astaire pointed out that possibly these were his “sweat clothes,” the slacks and sweaters in which he originates, practices, rehearses, and teaches his dances. “I must have dozens of these combinations,” he adds, “but this is purely a necessary professional dress.”
His own preference for wear would be the ageless, conservative suiting, fabric, and color, complemented with shirt and tie each in its own distinctive small pattern or low-keyed color. The Astaire creed of dress is: “Be yourself—but don’t be conspicuous.”