Ginger Rogers: The Infamous Feather Gown
Heaven, I’m in Heaven / And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak / And I seem to find the happiness I seek / When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek
Feathers, I hate feathers / And I hate them so that I can hardly speak / And I never find the happiness I seek / With those chicken feathers dancing cheek to cheek
The grace and sophistication of Irving Berlin’s original lyrics for the song Cheek to Cheek, written for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Top Hat (1935), were parodied by Astaire and Hermes Pan after an on-set flap started by the now infamous feather gown.
The ostrich feather gown Ginger Rogers wore in Top Hat is truly one of the most famous gowns from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film centers around Rogers’ character, Dale Tremont, who is dressed by Beddini, deliciously played by Erik Rhodes, an Italian fashion designer to wear his glamorous creations where they can be seen, “…by all the smart people”. Astaire plays a dancer hopelessly in love and in pursuit of her. The plot, like many other Astaire & Rogers films, falls into the familiar theme of mistaken identity, but we don’t care. The film is all about their beautiful dancing, the emotion and love expressed through their movements. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
The love that is conveyed on-screen in the Cheek to Cheek number was not in evidence during filming, if anything it was the exact opposite. Rogers, who had a great passion for fashion, was the impetus for the creation of the gown with head RKO costume designer Bernard Newman. She told Newman she wanted a dress of pure blue, “…like the blue you find in paintings of Monet…with myriads of ostrich feathers” and that is exactly what she got. She sprung the gown, a figure hugging bias-cut satin gown encircled with $1500 worth of ostrich feathers around the top and bottom sections with only a diamond clasp at the neck and a satin bow at the bottom of the very low back, on Astaire and the rest of the crew right before the scene was to be shot.
Needless to say Astaire was not pleased, but agreed to try the dress out for rehearsals. Feathers flew everywhere, sticking to his clothes and face, not to mention covering the floor. Director Mark Sandrich and Astaire tried convincing Rogers to wear a different dress, but she stood her ground and threatened to walk off the picture if she couldn’t wear the gown. After the wardrobe department pulled an all-nighter to reinforce each feather individually, Sandrich and Astaire, after watching the rushes of the dance number, admitted to the gown’s beauty and perfection in the scene. Afterwards and for the rest of their lives, Astaire called Rogers by his nickname for her, “Feathers”. Luckily for us, Ginger defended this gorgeous gown, allowing us to see its beauty on repeat screenings of Top Hat or the next time The Smithsonian Museum puts it on display.