One of my all-time favorite classic movie actors is Gene Kelly. In addition to his charm and unbelievable dancing skills, Kelly also had a unique sense of style. He always managed to make even the simplest clothing look effortlessly cool. No one sports a soaking wet tweed suit and fedora better or with more joyful abandon. In the number, “I Got Rhythm” in An American in Paris (1951) he wears a basic crew-neck sweatshirt and baseball cap and somehow looks anything but ordinary. With a red scarf, his signature penny loafers, and the sleeves rolled way up his arms, Kelly takes what could look like a boring or sloppy outfit and gives it a stylish edge.
He also took a great deal of fashion risk with some of his costumes. During a fantasy dance sequence in 1948’s The Pirate, Gene wears a costume that most others would probably not be able to pull off – a sleeveless black shirt, torn black shorts, boots, and a head scarf. The outfit was quite edgy, especially for the time period, but achieved the goal of showcasing the incredibly powerful dancer’s muscles in his legs. The audience is fully aware of just how much strength and athletic ability Kelly had, while seeing his character through the filter of Judy Garland’s imagination.
While The Pirate was perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the way Kelly dressed to show off his physique, he quite often appeared in a toned-down version. In many of his movies he wore shirts with fitted, shorter sleeves, and pants that were flexible enough to allow for his movements, but yet were not too flowing. He often successfully attempted an all-white ensemble, which is never easy, but still looked athletic and stylish, as in the “You Were Meant for Me” number in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. While his contemporary Fred Astaire often chose a more classically dapper look with suits, Kelly looked more like the “everyman” and was more casual. He spent a great deal of Summer Stock (1950) in jeans with rolled cuffs. Of course, that’s not to say Kelly couldn’t carry off a more elegant look as well – he looked dashing in his tuxedos in movies like Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) and Singin’ in the Rain, and perfectly at home in a sailor’s uniform on several occasions.
And of course there were Kelly’s signature penny loafers. More often than not, he wore the soft, broken-in shoes to dance heavy tap numbers, lyrical ballets, and even stunt-heavy routines that involved jumping across rooftops. I imagine he must have had his loafers custom-made, as ordinary versions don’t strike me as particularly comfortable. But he made them his own, and dancing in them looked beyond easy when he did it.
Gene Kelly brought a unique style to the screen that we don’t often see today. Treat yourself to some of his classics, but also some of his more obscure films. No matter what he did, I never find myself disappointed in his style.
*An American in Paris featured costumes designed by Orry-Kelly (along with specialty costumes by Walter Plunkett & Irene Sharaff); Tom Keogh designed the costumes for The Pirate; Walter Plunkett designed both Singin’ in the Rain & Summer Stock; and Du Barry Was a Lady featured Gile Steele’s designs.