Some years ago, on a visit to Wilton House in the UK, I was shown a relic. It was a small dancing pump of patent leather, scuffed, cracked and worn. It was clearly as much a working shoe as a gardener's boot is. I found it very moving to hold it in my hand, as if a small bird, and think of the wearer who could almost, like a bird, at least for a split second, defy gravity as he leapt into the air on one of his very complicated but oh-so simple-looking dance routines in the 1930s. And that shoe really was a relic, a valued survivor of greatness past. In a war bond auction in 1942, a Mr Fred Astaire tap shoe was auctioned for $100,000 in bonds and even the laces went for $10,000. The Wilton pump had belonged to Mr Astaire, just one of the many he wore out over a long and illustrious career, dancing first with his sister, Ms Adele Astaire, as his partner and then, at his peak, with Ms Ginger Rogers in Hollywood movies. Together, they were the Hollywood movie dream team whose names became the global household expression "Fred and Ginger", and whose films grossed millions. But, perhaps for modern fashion followers, Mr Astaire reached his high point as a movie style icon much later when he played the fashion photographer Mr Richard Avedon, opposite Ms Audrey Hepburn in Mr Stanley Donan's 1957 movie Funny Face.
Mr Astaire dancing in the Hollywood musical The Belle of New York, 1952
Mr Astaire always knew the importance of clothes, even when, very young, he and Adele began to work their way up from the bottom to the top of the bill on America's gruelling variety circuit, once called the toughest boot camp on earth. By the mid-1920s they were big enough names to be brought to London, at that time the centre of laid-back aristocratic assurance, the one capital in the world where white tie and tails could be guaranteed to always be worn in the evening, be it for the theatre, a restaurant or even a party in a grand private house. The unofficial but very real ringmaster and arbiter of male elegance in this world was HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, the brightest of the bright young things and the most elegant of all men about town. He went backstage to meet Mr Astaire after a London show starring the Astaires, invited them to a private party - the sort of invitation people would strive for years to get - and totally ensnared Mr Astaire with his perfect taste and superb tailoring.
Mr Astaire had already fallen for English style. Savile Row was his happy hunting ground and as he wrote in his autobiography, he spent hours in Anderson & Sheppard and would "get lost for days in the Burlington Arcade" as he spent a small fortune at Hawes and Curtis and Beale and Inman on "shirts and such". So, it was no surprise that he was immediately mesmerised by the cut of the prince's white evening waistcoat, which, unlike the current fashion, did not show below the dress coat front. It was a seminal moment, changing the hoofer and the veteran theatrical trooper into a searcher for sartorial perfection. It did not take Mr Astaire long to find out who made the prince's dress shirts and waistcoats. A day following the meeting, he walked into Hawes and Curtis and asked to have a waistcoat exactly the same as the one he had seen worn by the prince. He was told firmly but politely that it was not possible as no details of anything the prince bought from them were ever divulged to anyone outside the firm, and copies were unheard of. But the rebuff was not enough to stop Mr Astaire from setting out to make himself the most elegant man in Hollywood and, despite strong competition from the 1930s matinée idols, he succeeded. But more importantly his style was the one that middle-American males coming out of the Depression copied. It was as democratic a look as it was relaxed.
Savile Row was Mr Astaire's hunting ground, and he would spend hours in Anderson & Sheppard and 'get lost for days in the Burlington Arcade'
The whole of the US did not blossom with tails but it did begin to wear tailored "English" tweed sports jackets in Scottish colours, well-cut slacks and soft lamb's-wool sweaters and jumpers, all accessorised with a tie and well-polished leather shoes and a felt hat, carried if not worn. And, as all-day suits were worn with a waistcoat en suite, a fine watch chain frequently added to the Englishness of it all. And even today when we watch reruns of the classic Mr Fred Astaire films of the 1930s, such as Flying Down to Rio or Shall we Dance, and right up to his later work in the 1950s, including the smash hits Bandwagon and Daddy Long Legs, the soigné languor of the totally elegant but entirely relaxed man about town still works its magic on audiences even if they are watching in old trainers and jogging pants. It is a star quality that stars sadly no longer possess.