He was Old Hollywood, not Pennsylvania Main Line, from an immigrant Austrian family that settled in Nebraska, not the Northeastern Establishment. He favored gray flannels and suede oxfords more than khakis and tassel loafers, and he was in his fifties during Ivy’s collegiate heyday.
Still, perhaps no other 20th-century icon better exemplifies casual American elegance like Fred Astaire. While all Ivy style is American (even when it’s Italian loafers and Scottish sweaters), not all American style is Ivy. Still, few illustrate the crossover better than Astaire.
Astaire’s personal style, which he employed in his films whenever possible, was based on natural shouldered tweed jackets, soft-roll buttondown collars and rep ties. A customer of Brooks Brothers since about 1920, he would buy striped ties by the dozen.
Astaire also knew instinctively the importance of looking dressed down even when dressed up. He was often seen with his jacket removed and sleeves rolled up. And in a famous apocryphal anecdote, he would supposedly throw a new jacket against the wall a few times to break it in. Above all, just like his dancing, Astaire’s style suggested a lack of effort, a carefree nonchalance that many strive for and few achieve.
Now a new biography on Astaire explores the man behind the style. The author is Joseph Epstein, author of the mildly amusing “Snobbery: The American Version.” Writing on Astaire, Epstein opines:
Charm is elegance made casual, with emphasis on the casual. American charm, to be truly American, somehow has to combine the aristocratic with the democratic, but without a trace of snobbery.