Astaire Master

By Nick Willard

Fred Astaire Style
G. Bruce Boyer
Assouline Publishing

The dandy reveals himself by what he wears. His essence is external display. Photographs, therefore, inherently constitute a better medium to communicate the significance of the dandy than do words. Words, however artfully crafted, can only mediate, not exhibit, the effect of the dandy. Photographs, on the other hand, permit us to directly experience the dandy. This jewel box of a book is the very model of what a volume about the dandy should be.

Mr. Boyer has been, for well over two decades, the preeminent writer about men’s clothing. His erudition and taste show. His pithy and perceptive introductory essay deftly assesses Astaire’s sartorial significance in the annals of dandyism. Astaire is the American Dandy, a “classless aristocrat,” the populist exponent of natural elegance. The author then sagaciously steps aside and gives Mr. Astaire center stage: 60 pages of photographs, wisely chosen and many never-before-published, primarily showing Astaire in elegant mufti rather than in his movie costumes. Mr. Boyer unobtrusively annotates the photographs at the end of the book.

Linger over, do not flip through, the photographs. Each one rewards patient study, for each one is a study in elegance and a lesson in taste. Several photos appear as a “flip-book” on Assouline’s site.

Having read the essay and studied the photographs, what is my ultimate judgment on Astaire? All in all, he is second best. This conclusion about one of the all-time consummate dressers may sound condescending, but it is fair. He is second to the Duke of Windsor as an influence on men’s fashion and in promoting “nonchalant elegance,” to use Mr. Boyer’s felicitous phrase. In style, the Duke has a trifle the preference. Compare photographs of Astaire and the Duke: Astaire’s casualness seems, to my eye, a trifle studied or contrived at times. The Duke, on the other hand, while not as overtly casual, seems more natural whatever his attire, from morning clothes to sockless and short-sleeved. Also, Astaire’s peculiar emaciated  frame means that his clothing style is, quite admirably, uniquely suited to him and proves his sartorial acuity. It also means that his style does not easily translate to others and therefore lessens his influence. Astaire also ranks second as the screen’s greatest style icon: second to, of course, the incomparable Cary Grant, a man who transcends clothes, dressing well and even, it must be admitted, dandyism. Astaire was, on the whole, better dressed than Grant, but Grant has that nescio quid. Perhaps it is only that Grant is more conventionally handsome, but everybody wants to be Cary Grant.

Ah, but I quibble: I would gladly settle for being Fred Astaire.

This book is the first in a series on style icons. Mr. Boyer has completed the next one, about “rebel” style icons of the ’50s, such as Brando and Dean. He is currently researching a third about Gary Cooper. He has several more books in the conceptual stage. I had earlier pitched him about an eventual volume on site favorite Rudy Valentino. Mr. Boyer graciously volunteered that, acting upon my advice, he had read the recommended Valentino bio and incorporated some ideas about screen style thus inspired into the “Coop” book. These upcoming volumes should be eagerly anticipated by dandies everywhere.

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