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Story of a Dress: “Top Hat”

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

On Ginger Rogers’s birthday, Screen Chic looks at the iconic feathered dress the dance legend fought to wear in the 1935 musical.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing the “Cheek to Cheek” number in 1935’s “Top Hat."

Hindsight plays a huge role in classic films, and among the most iconic costumes of the 20th century, that idea may never be more compelling than when looking at the blue feathered gown worn by Ginger Rogers in 1935’s Top Hat.

The Mark Sandrich-directed musical showcased the fourth pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and by this time, the actress had fallen in love with the work of costume designer Bernard Newman, who also had designed her gowns for Roberta and Star of Midnight that same year. “With handsome clothes by my favorite designer, Bernard Newman, and beautiful songs to dance to, I had the time of my life playing this role,” she says of filming Roberta in her 1991 autobiography, Ginger Rogers: My Story.

By the time production for Top Hat was underway, Rogers and Newman had formed an easy collaboration, with the costume designer soliciting the actress for her ideas and opinions – which indeed was unusual, she says. “Unlike a lot of designers, Bernie was open to suggestions,” she notes in My Story. “He’d say, ‘Tell me what kind of dress you want and what color you’d like.’ Then he’d show me swatches of all sorts of beautiful materials—lamé, chiffon, velvet, and brocade. I was particularly interested in the ‘Cheek to Cheek’ number and made my preferences known.”

A Bernard Newman costume sketch of the feathered gown worn by Ginger Rogers in “Top Hat."

To pair with the Irving Berlin song, Rogers knew exactly what she wanted – and that’s where the trouble started, though she didn’t know it at the time. Rogers asked Newman to design a blue dress – a pale, pure blue, a hue you might see in a Monet painting, she explained – crafted of satin with ostrich feathers, high in front and low in back. Newman accepted all her ideas and sketched the gown she had envisioned, including the color. “It’s funny to be discussing color when you’re making a black-and-white film, but the tone had to be harmonious,” she says in My Story.

For the effect Rogers desired, Newman reportedly brought in an artisan who specialized in feather work and informed the actress that the ostrich feathers alone would cost roughly $1,500 – that’s equal to $28,765.75 in 2020 dollars. It’s also notable that it was common practice for costume designers to have their sketches reviewed by a film’s producer; in Top Hat’s case that was Pandro S. Berman, who had previously overseen the productions of The Gay Divorcee, Roberta and Star of Midnight.

Fast-forward to the day of shooting, which took place on a massive set that required two RKO soundstages side-by-side to create the look of an elegant, expansive ballroom set along a Venetian canal. (“However beautiful it may have been, it was about as Italian as Pat O’Brien,” Rogers jokes in My Story.) Rogers and Astaire strenuously rehearsed the “Cheek to Cheek” number in their street clothes, as was their practice, and once Sandrich and the pair were happy with the sequence, the director called for a take.

Newman’s blue feather dress was requested to be brought to set from the RKO wardrobe department, and Rogers recalls the change in tone on set as a wardrobe woman was seen carrying the gown, high over her head, to the actress’s dressing room. Moments after Rogers was inside the room to change, there was a knock on the door. Sandrich wanted to speak to her alone. “What was this, I thought?” she says.

Astaire and Rogers in “The Gay Divorcee,” with Rogers wearing the white Walter Plunkett gown that “Top Hat” director Mark Sandrich (and perhaps Astaire as well?) preferred.

The director was there to suggest a substitute dress, a white gown designed by Walter Plunkett that Rogers had worn in The Gay Divorcee. “I think it is a much, much prettier dress than this one,” he told the actress.

In addition to pointing out that fans might recognize the gown from the earlier film, Rogers was understandably disappointed, and says that as Sandrich continued to sell her on the idea of subbing in the white Gay Divorcee gown, an idea became clearer. “He was acting as a spokesman for someone else,” she writes in My Story. “I knew who it was who didn’t like the dress.”

Much has been written over the years about Fred Astaire’s exacting attention to detail in his musical numbers, and Rogers likewise establishes this fact in My Story, earlier writing that her partner had written a three-page letter to Berman before production on Top Hat began, expressing his displeasure with the script. “As this book is supposed to have been written for me with the intention of giving me a chance to do things that are more suited to me—I cannot see that my part embodies any of the necessary elements, except to dance—dance—dance,” he wrote.

That’s the dynamic Rogers was up against as Sandrich announced that he was sending for the Gay Divorcee gown, and then departed her dressing room. Rogers assessed her emotions: “I was stunned, broken-hearted, disappointed, and angry!” But Ginger Rogers also wasn’t a pushover; rather than accepting defeat, she stayed in her dressing room and did the one thing that leaped to her mind: She called her mother.

An only child, the actress was known to be close to her mother, Lela Owens Rogers, a formidable woman who had worked as a journalist, screenwriter and film editor, and also was among the first women to join the Marines during World War I. And when it came to her daughter’s career, she could be just as tough. When Ginger phoned her mother and said she needed her help, Lela came running.

The pair were in quick agreement that the blue feathered gown indeed was gorgeous, though Rogers writes that Sandrich attempted to bring her mother over to his side. “I’m so glad that you are here. You can help me convince Ginger to wear this graceful white dress she wore in The Gay Divorcee instead of this, this, this … feathered thing,” she recalls him saying.

Bernard Newman and Ginger Rogers on the “Top Hat” set as a seamstress works on her costume.

Lela set the director straight, telling him she agreed with her daughter. But Sandrich didn’t let the matter drop – indeed, the conversation escalated, with RKO executives summoned to set. When Rogers opened her dressing-room door, she says she saw 10 men, five from the studio’s front office, waiting until her mind was changed about wearing the blue feathered gown.

Once more Mark Sandrich suggested getting another gown. Rogers says her mother answered with words that sounded “like seven boomerangs: ‘Why don’t you just get another girl!’” And with that, Ginger and Lela were departing the set.

They were outside before being called back by Argyle Nelson, Top Hat’s assistant director, who said Sandrich had suggested one rehearsal in Newman’s blue feathered gown. The women debated the sincerity of the offer, and Rogers says by now she was determined: “It’s either that dress or home I go,” she remembers telling Lela.

Rogers changed into her blue gown and launched into a rehearsal with Astaire. “Our emotions were high-pitched,” she says. “He didn’t like my dress, and I didn’t like being put to the test.” Feathers did indeed waft off of the gown, and Astaire didn’t hide his displeasure, she adds, as he plucked them off his tailcoat. But Rogers didn’t hide her resolve, also because it was clear the gown moved beautifully, largely thanks to the ostrich feathers, just as she had imagined it would. Other accounts mention that at one point Astaire, frustrated by feathers flying off the dress, snapped and yelled at Rogers, causing her to burst into tears, but she doesn’t mention this in My Story.

But one statement by Rogers in particular in her autobiography illustrates her challenges as an actress in the 1930s, and how she was willing to fight to achieve her own goals. “Obviously, no one in the cast or crew was willing to take sides, particularly not my side,” she writes. “That was all right with me. I’d had to stand alone before. At least my mother was there to support me in the confrontation with the entire front office, plus Fred Astaire and Mark Sandrich. My 105 pounds couldn’t have gotten me through the first round without her.”

Once that rehearsal was complete, it was clear those involved were going to let Rogers wear her gown, albeit begrudgingly. She notes that when she went to watch the rushes of the scene the following day, no one in the screening room spoke to her. After everyone else had left, one assistant complimented her on the gown, but didn’t stop to be seen in conversation with her. And for the few remaining scenes in Top Hat, Sandrich wasn’t friendly; instead, Rogers calls his attitude following the dress drama “stiff and businesslike.” Though she remained confused about why her gown had caused such a commotion, she said she never pouted or sulked over the matter – and with billing equal to Astaire’s in Top Hat, didn’t Rogers have the right to defend what she wanted to wear?

In his own autobiography, 1959’s Steps in Time, Astaire remembers the incident decidedly differently, namely that he had requested to rehearse with Rogers wearing the gown, but it wasn’t ready, and the first time he saw it was when she showed up on set wearing it, ready for filming (though getting into the dress caused her to be an hour late, he points out).

“Everything went well through the song, but when we did the first movement of the dance, feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote,” he writes, adding that multiple takes were required as the gown continued to shed. “I never saw so many feathers in my life. It was like a snowstorm. They were floating around like millions of moths.”

Ultimately the gown settled down, and the rushes the next day revealed that the final take showed only minimal feathers flying through the air, while none could be spotted on the ballroom floor.

Less than a week after filming the scene, Rogers arrived in her dressing room to find a gift from Astaire: Inside the box, a note read, “Dear Feathers, I love ya! Fred” – and underneath, a gold feather for a charm bracelet Rogers was fond of wearing. Later Astaire would present Rogers with another gift that alluded to her nickname, a travel watch housed in a gold case designed to resemble an envelope, crafted by Paul Flato, considered Hollywood’s “jeweler to the stars” in the 1930s and 1940s. The inside of the case is engraved with “By Hand To Feathers/All best love – Fred.” The piece sold at a 2018 Sotheby’s auction for £12,500.

Rogers in the gown she designed with Bernard Newman on the set of “Top Hat.”
“I’d had to stand alone before. At least my mother was there to support me in the confrontation with the entire front office, plus Fred Astaire and Mark Sandrich.”

Two gowns worn by Rogers and designed by Newman today reside in the Smithsonian, though neither unfortunately is the now-iconic feathered gown: One is a sequined peplum dress for the “Piccolino” number in Top Hat, while the other was seen in 1936’s Follow the Fleet, a heavy beaded dress that reportedly cut Astaire’s nose during a spin by Rogers.

But for the rest of their lives, Astaire would refer to Rogers as “Feathers,” and any rift clearly had been mended long ago. When Astaire’s autobiography was re-released in 1981, Rogers wrote the foreword, which she ends with, “For each one of [our] ten films, I can’t think of any performer of the screen or stage I would rather have performed alongside than You, Mr. A!”

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