“Why don’t you dress up like that other fella?” Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios once asked Gene Kelly. Referring to Fred Astaire’s tails and a top hat, the producer was addressing Kelly’s ‘subversive’ choice of clothing. Where Astaire and Sinatra wore tailored three-pieces and starched-collar Oxford shirts, Kelly’s self-styled wardrobe, on screen and off, took a far more relaxed approach. Before a time of wardrobe designers and costume cupboards, actors would wear their own clothes, and Kelly’s time had yet to catch up with him.
Despite shrugging off the rules, the dancer did it in such a way that was approachable and charming. His collars were unfused, long and pointed, and worn beneath soft cashmere sweaters and vests. His preference towards penny loafers (or moccasins) pre-empted the mid-century trend towards the preppy shoe, and his disarming, kilowatt smile made it evident he didn’t take any of it too seriously.
This made it easy for men to aspire to look like him because he wasn’t as polished as they were used to seeing, yet was still cool and considered. He chose white socks beneath his moccasins because they “are clean and focus the eye on the feet”. Arguably his best asset, tapping, rollerblading and waltzing across the screen of many a wistful onlooker, drawing attention to them was a given. Props and accessories became one; “We did like hats. They’re a dancer’s best prop” he told the New York Times in 1994, and everything that came into close orbit with Kelly inevitably turned into something to dance with, around or on, be it his hat, newspaper, or – most famously – an umbrella. He built his wardrobe around his propensity to dance, and the rest came naturally.