Gene Kelly’s on-screen costumes reveal a star preoccupied with his own masculinity
When it comes to dance royalty, Gene Kelly reigns supreme. With credits including classical musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), An American in Paris (1951), and On The Town (1949), Gene Kelly is best remembered for his athletic style of dancing, and stands out in popular memory as the original example of the manly dancer.
But despite this posthumous reputation, during his career Kelly’s masculinity was a constant source of anxiety for both the star – he frequently retold a story in which he denied being a ‘sissy dancer’ at a burger bar in New York – and for the studio he worked for. Although Kelly worked hard to hone a dancing style that would be considered manly and virile this was not enough, and in both his on-screen and off-screen appearances it becomes clear that dress was of paramount importance in creating Kelly’s masculine image.
This dual preoccupation with both Gene Kelly’s masculinity and his relatability crystallises in his sailor costumes, which he wore in films including On the Town and Anchors Aweigh (1945). Intentionally resonating with the uniforms worn by men who had fought in the Second World War, his dress in these films not only underlined Kelly’s patriotism but also encouraged contemporary male viewers to recognise themselves in Kelly’s star image.
But at the same time as stressing Kelly’s ordinary masculinity, his sailor outfits in also undercut these implications. In Anchors Aweigh, for example, Kelly performs ‘The Worry Song’ with an animated Jerry the Mouse. Here, Kelly’s blue striped t shirt stretches over his torso, emphasising his pectoral muscles, and his high-waisted white trousers are very tightly fitted. Throughout the dance routine, a long tracking shot is used to ensure that the star’s body is in full view and so, despite insisting on his masculinity, Kelly’s costume here in fact positions him in a typically female cinematic role – that of sexualised spectacle.
Of course, Kelly’s sailor suits and their ostensible assertions of masculinity are further complicated by the cultural understanding of the sailor as a signifier of homosexuality. In Anchors Aweigh, his costume not only exhibits Kelly’s body but also resonates with his male co-star (Frank Sinatra)’s costume to imply their togetherness – something which is echoed in their physical closeness during dance routines – and suggest the possibility of a relationship between the two. Although likely unintentional, this example is significant for highlighting the anxieties of gender and sexuality that troubled Kelly’s star image. Here we see how, despite being used to try to obscure such ambiguities, dress in fact becomes a key to understanding them.
Originally published on Documenting Fashion.