If the Shoe Dances…

As a designer and a fashion lover, I have always had a deep appreciation for a beautiful shoe.  I have also always been fascinated by dance shoes in particular.  And classic musicals are a feast for the eyes when it comes to dance shoes.  When you see dance (other than ballet) on film today, quite often you see a variation on the ballroom dance shoe.  Many of the styles would seem right at home on Dancing with the Stars.  And don’t get me wrong, ballroom shoes are gorgeous.  I have often been tempted to get a pair for myself, even though I am not a dancer.  But the classic musicals seem to have had a lot more variety.

These don't have an ankle strap like Vera-Ellen frequently wore, but they're some of my favorites of hers.

Often when you see the greats dancing in the classics, they seem to be wearing the regular high-heeled styles of the day, from pumps to elegant peep-toe and ankle-strap shoes. Ginger Rogers wore a huge variety of styles to match her fantastic gowns.  Vera Ellen often wore similar shoes in a variety of colors – usually they had a slightly pointed toe, and an ankle strap with an open heel.  Ann Miller often wore pumps with an ankle strap.  And no matter what style she chose, Miller’s tapping always had the same distinctive sound.  You can almost recognize it without even having to look at the screen.  I’ve often wondered how much of that sound came from her style, the type of taps she used, or enhancements put in later by a sound engineer.  (It was probably a combination of all three.)

Gene Kelly's shoes from Singin' in the Rain (Photo by Brianne Gillen)

And then there was Gene Kelly.  He made dancing look effortless, most often in loafers.  Sometimes he branched out and wore oxfords, but more often than not, when you think of his classic dances, you picture him in his loafers.  Having walked in loafers on more than one occasion, I would imaging tapping in them might not be as easy as he made it look.  But Kelly was such a perfectionist when it came to his dancing, I’m sure he had them custom-made especially for him.  (Can you imagine having that lucky job?  I recently attended the exhibit for Debbie Reynolds’ costume auction and saw a pair of Kelly’s shoes from Singin’ in the Rain.  I could feel the magic just standing next to those shoes – imagine helping create them!)

One final side note on heel height.  I always find it fascinating to look at the height of the women’s shoes in classic musicals, particularly when they’re dancing with a partner.  You can often tell that a gentleman must have been on the short side when an actress (especially one you’ve seen in higher heels for a different number) suddenly appears in flats or very low heels. I’m sure that could have been due to injuries from time to time, but usually it was a trick to even out a significant height difference.  It did happen when women were paired together too – Rosemary Clooney was 2 inches taller than Vera-Ellen, but in the “Sisters” number in White Christmas they appear to be the exact same height.  If you look closely, you can see that, even though they’re technically wearing matching shoes, the heels on Rosemary’s are just a little bit shorter.

And, of course, I haven’t even touched on classic movie ballet shoes, and all the beautiful colors and fabrics designers used to make them.  I could do another whole post about that… Maybe I will – stay tuned!

The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: When Characters Make Their Own Clothes

In film and television, as in life, people occasionally attempt to make their own clothes.  Sometimes their efforts are brilliant, but sometimes they are far from it.  I’ll start with the impressive.

In the movie Enchanted, Amy Adams’ character, Giselle, finds herself in the strange “land” of New York wearing a wedding dress with a giant skirt.  She industriously makes a dress out of her host’s curtains, a la Scarlett O’Hara.  What has always impressed me about this scene is the detail.  You can see the specific pattern pieces Giselle cuts out of the curtains, and they are not random at all.  Unlike many other on-screen attempts, her cut-outs look like real pattern pieces that could be used to create an actual dress.  (Granted, she inexplicably and mysteriously finds pink pumps to go with a second dress she creates later, but at least her dressmaking skills are realistic!)

The result of Lucy's misguided sewing adventure

And then, of course, there are the sewing-challenged, whose valiant efforts can yield great comic moments.  One of my favorites is from a true comedy legend, Lucille Ball.  On I Love Lucy, Lucy tires to save money by making her own dress.  Her problems begin when, after finding manicure scissors inadequate, she cuts out her fabric with a razor blade.  One ruined carpet later, she has her pieces cut out and must figure out how to work a sewing machine.  In classic Lucy fashion, the results are far from perfect.  Ethel’s response says it all: “It looks like you made it with your own two feet.”  It really is a mess of a dress, but you can’t help feeling sorry for Lucy at the same time.  As any beginning sewer can tell you, it can be pretty intimidating!

Another of my favorite fashion attempts gone wrong is from yet another classic sitcom, The Cosby Show.  In another effort to save money, Denise offers to recreate a designer shirt for her brother, Theo, so that he can look cool.  The result is a hilariously ill-fitting, bright yellow shirt, complete with sleeves of different lengths.  Theo is furious, until people see him and label him as fashion-forward.  All is then, of course, forgiven.

Theo's "designer" look

I always find these DIY fashionistas entertaining, whether or not they’re successful.  And they certainly get credit for at least trying.  I also applaud the costume designers, particularly where the end result had to be so wrong.  It’s not easy to make a flawless garment, but it’s not a cinch to make something terrible on purpose either.  Although I imagine it’s probably a lot of fun.

 *Enchanted’s costume designer was Mona May; The Cosby Show’s was Sarah Lemire.  This particular episode of I Love Lucy does not list a costume/wardrobe credit.

Pride & Prejudice – A Tale of Two Austens

Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’m equally enamored with two of its screen adaptations.  Having seen the 1995 BBC version shortly after reading the book for the first time, that production will always hold a special place in my heart.  (And Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy to me.)  But I also greatly enjoyed the film version from a few years back starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.  From a costume perspective, both versions are stunning (and traditional Austen), though different in their approach.

Elizabeth & Darcy (Jennifer Ehle & Colin Firth) in the BBC version

The BBC version is crisp and beautiful.  The women mostly stick to pale, neutral shades in their empire-waisted gowns.  The Bennett sisters have their varying degrees of style, with the elder two displaying a hint more maturity, and the younger girls appearing slightly more disheveled.  Mary, shy and in the middle, tends toward more drab styles and colors than her more social sisters.  I love, too, that the older sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, have jeweled cross necklaces that they wear throughout most of the film.  Each of them has a piece that means something to them, where the younger girls have a more disposable attitude toward their fashion.  The real exception to the women’s color palette comes from those of the slightly higher classes, like Lady Catherine and the Bingley sisters.  Caroline Bingley primarily wears jewel tones in richer fabrics that look like they might have been imported from somewhere like India.  She also has much more elaborate hats and even gets to wear some turbans, making her look even taller.

The men in this version are also well dressed.  The officers wear dashing bright red uniforms, and the gentry the traditional tailcoats and cravats.  And, of course, one well-placed white shirt, combined with a lake, has made Colin Firth infamous for nearly two decades.

Members of the Bennett family (incl. Keira Knightley, center) from the big screen adaptation

Director Joe Wright’s more recent adaptation differs slightly from the BBC.  In this one, the costumes have a slightly more earthy, realistic feel to them.  While Mr. Bennett is a gentleman, he and his family are not the richest of people, and their clothes reflect that a little more in this film.  We can see more of the everyday wear and tear, and the designer used more coarse fabrics for their casual daytime dresses and coats.  Their ball and party gowns, however, are still stunning, and provide evidence of where the characters seemed to have splurged a little.  In this adaptation, Caroline Bingley stands out more by the style of her dresses than the colors, as they seem a little more daring, and even at times, almost more modern.

Both films are a feast for the eyes, and it’s fun to compare the costume styles of each.  But even as different as they are, each one captures the spirit of Austen’s characters in its own way.

*The 1995 BBC production featured costumes designed by Dinah Collin, and the 2005 film’s costume designer was Jacqueline Durran.