The Band Wagon: Fred Astaire’s Gray Flannel Suit

Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon (1953)

Vitals

Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter, musical comedy star

New York, Spring 1953

Film: The Band Wagon
Release Date: August 7, 1953
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Costume Designer: Mary Ann Nyberg

Background

Happy 2020!

Let’s dance into the new year with a dapper Fred Astaire in the dazzling opening sequence of Vincent Minnelli’s 1953 musical The Band Wagon, more than a decade after Astaire had danced across the screen with Bing Crosby, Virginia Dale, and Marjorie Reynolds for two on-screen New Year celebrations in Holiday Inn.

Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, and Virginia Dale ring in the new year in <em>Holiday Inn</em> (1942).

Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, and Virginia Dale ring in the new year in Holiday Inn (1942).

The Band Wagon introduces us to Astaire as Tony Hunter, a “singin’, dancin’ fella” as he overhears two fellow passengers describing him on the train to New York,  puncturing his pride when one of the men suggests that Tony is “washed up” as he hasn’t starred in a movie in three years. Though keenly aware that the general public assumes he is “through” like the two men on the train, Tony is encouraged by reporters rolling out the proverbial red carpet when the train arrives in New York… only to discover that the press is there to receive Ava Gardner, who was on the same train.

Tony expresses his sorrows in a solo performance of “By Myself” until he’s interrupted by the small but mighty “Tony Hunter Fan Club”, consisting of fellow actors Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), who eagerly explain the musical comedy they’ve penned that would serve as the perfect vehicle for Tony’s stage comeback. The trio makes their way up 42nd Street to Sarti’s, though Tony sends the Martons on their way in a taxi as he jaunts through an arcade to the tune of “Shine on Your Shoes”, a song brought to life as he employs the expert services of a shoeshiner (Leroy Daniels) whose tropical red aloha shirt is reminiscent of Magnum, P.I.

While I aspire to dress like Fred, my more frequent attire is likely more in line with the shoeshiner's ensemble.

While I aspire to dress like Fred, my more frequent attire is likely more in line with the shoeshiner’s ensemble.

What’d He Wear?

Fred Astaire is dressed to his usual high standards, working with Academy Award-nominated costume designer Mary Ann Nyberg to appoint Tony Hunter with the same tastefully rakish sartorial approach as the dancer himself favored both on- and off-screen, showcased by Harry Jackson’s impressive color cinematography.

Tony’s introductory suit exemplifies how muted, conservative colors can be anything but bland when worn with style. As far as colors go, a gray suit with a blue shirt and tie is hardly revolutionary and rarely exciting, but Astaire brings the outfit to life through flattering double-breasted tailoring and interesting textures and accompanying pieces.

While the double-breasted jacket of his light gray flannel suit has a classic 6×2 button formation, Astaire typically wears only the lowest button fastened (though there are a few shots where he wears both buttons done; unlike a single-breasted coat, double-breasted jackets can and typically should be worn with both buttons fastened for a cleaner look.) Astaire can get away with wearing only the bottom button fastened due how cleanly the peak lapels roll over the center row of buttons.

Flanked by his "fan club", Tony Hunter takes in the familiar sights and sounds of The Great White Way.

Flanked by his “fan club”, Tony Hunter takes in the familiar sights and sounds of The Great White Way.

Tony’s ventless jacket has padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads, and the sleeves are finished with four-button cuffs. In addition to straight flapped hip pockets, the jacket has a welted breast pocket where Astaire wears an eye-catching burgundy silk hank, arranged in Astaire’s typical jaunty fashion. This small detail proves the effective power of the pocket square, adding a high-contrasting dark touch that ties his outfit together by echoing a color seen only in the stripe of his hat and resisting the common urge to coordinate with his shirt or tie.

The shirt and tie in question are both light blue, though the slate shade of his silk tie—kept in place by the shirt’s elegant button-down collar and a bright silver tie clip—adds just enough of a tonal contrast.

THE BAND WAGON

Trouser pleats have often been collateral damage against the cyclical nature of men’s fashion across the last century. While some contemporary sartorial advisers suggest pleated trousers only for larger men seeking a more flattering fit, look no further than the elegant example the lean Fred Astaire sets when striding and stepping in his pleated trousers. At the time that The Band Wagon was produced, trouser pleats had been back en vogue for the better part of a decade, emblematic of the American postwar trends that celebrated excessive fabrics in the wake of a booming nation free of wartime restrictions or a national economic depression.

These light gray flannel suit trousers have double reverse-facing pleats flanking the center fly, with the rear pleat on each side considerably shorter than the forward pleat. Behind each set of pleats is a pocket opening that gently slants from the belt line around each hip with no pockets in the back. The bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).

Astaire’s trousers are rigged with the dropped “Hollywood”-style belt loops that were popular during this age of high-rise trousers and the increased popularity of belts as opposed to suspenders or side adjusters. While Astaire was famous for his frequent practice of using old neckties or handkerchiefs as a sash, he wears a walnut brown leather belt here with the gold-toned single-prong buckle dashed off to the left. The dancer explained in a 1957 interview with GQ that this was his usual practice when wearing belts, “simply to get [the buckle] out of the way.”

THE BAND WAGON

Tony wears the suit trousers orphaned in a few scenes later in the movie during rehearsals, once with a gray cardigan and on their own in another scene with Gaby Gerard (Cyd Charisse): “Did you ever try spreading ideals on a cracker?” He appears to be wearing the same light blue shirt with the button-down collar, but he wears higher-contrasting neckwear, a navy silk tie patterned with neat rows of white polka dots, worn with a gold tie chain.

THE BAND WAGON

Throughout the opening sequence, Tony wears dark brown leather shoes with a pair of eye-popping royal blue socks that echo the blue of his shirt and tie, though it appears that different shoes were used between the train and the arcade dance number scenes. At the train station, Tony’s oxfords appear to have a cap toe but, by the time he’s dancing through the arcade, the toecap appears to be a distinctive wingtip shape.

Tony gets a snapshot of his kicks for posterity.

Tony gets a snapshot of his kicks for posterity.

By the early 1950s, the straw boater was already considered old-fashioned, thus it’s perhaps appropriate to see the “washed-up” Tony Hunter sporting one for his arrival in New York City. That said, the jauntily askew skimmer looks perfect atop Astaire’s frame as he dances his way through the Big Apple. The boater is banded with a strip of grosgrain silk, detailed with two bold red stripes against a navy ground.

Astaire wears what was likely his own jewelry of a gold signet ring on his right pinky and a gold curb-chain bracelet on his left wrist.

THE BAND WAGON

Though the trousers make a few orphaned appearances as detailed above, the full suit appears only once more in a brief vignette as he and Gaby have reluctantly signed on to perform in the Martons’ new show with grandiose actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). Tony sits comfortably crouched in his front-row seat wearing this light gray flannel double-breasted suit and his usual light blue button-down shirt, but he has substituted the blue tie and straw boater for a brown striped bow tie and a dark taupe fedora with a narrow band.

Cordova sits among his new co-stars Gaby and Tony as he eagerly shows off the stage to the production's core team.

Cordova sits among his new co-stars Gaby and Tony as he eagerly shows off the stage to the production’s core team.

How to Get the Look

Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon (1953)

In The Band Wagon, Fred Astaire injects his own colorful style into Tony Hunter’s wardrobe which pleasantly flirts with anachronism as he brings a colorfully old-fashioned flair to 1950s New York in his double-breasted suit and skimmer.

  • Light gray flannel tailored suit:
    • Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
    • Double reverse-pleated trousers with dropped “Hollywood” belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
  • Light blue oxford-cloth cotton shirt with button-down collar, front placket, and button cuffs
  • Slate blue silk tie
  • Bright silver tie clip
  • Royal blue socks
  • Straw boater with navy-and-burgundy striped grosgrain silk band
  • Gold signet pinky ring
  • Gold curb-chain bracelet
  • Burgundy silk pocket square

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

The funny thing about what you’re saying, boys, is that it’s absolutely true. Here, have an exploding cigar.

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