Ginger Rogers’ Hand in Her Own Legacy

By Briana McGuckin

Ginger Rogers knew that the artifacts of her career would outlast her, and that she herself – the Ginger Rogers of the screen – was an artifact. Once captured, this Rogers would hold its shape, and burn bright always, while she shrank and diminished as mortals do.

Yet Rogers didn’t cede her power to her image, or her accoutrements. Rather, she took control of both. Far from being someone who wore what she was told to wear, Rogers used to sit with Bernard Newman, designer of many of her outfits, describing her desires (material, color, etc.) while he drew.[1]

If not for Rogers, the famous, ostrich-feathered dress she wore while dancing with Fred Astaire in Top Hat might never have been made. The dress was almost replaced by something Rogers had already worn in The Gay Divorcee because Astaire disliked the loose feathers flying off and into his face during. However, Rogers threatened to leave the film if she could not wear the dress. Thus, the feathers were more firmly affixed, and the dress made its mark – as much because of Rogers intention and vision.

Rogers insisted on having her way with everything and refused to have them undone, including the way she would be remembered. In an editorial for the New York Times, Maureen Dowd writes that she once met a 75-year-old Rogers in Washington. The actress was there to address Congress, campaigning against the conversion of black-and-white film to color. Dowd reflects that “…nothing filmed in color was ever as beautiful as the sight of Ginger Rogers in a feathery gown,”[2] and Rogers knew this, too.  

While sitting for a portrait in 1975, Rogers told artist Don Bachardy that he was getting the proportions of her face wrong. Guiding his hands over her face, she explained exactly how long her forehead was, how big the space between her lip and nose. In the end, he had to produce a ruler in order to convince her that what he had drawn was true to her face. Rogers used a mirror to look at herself beside the drawing before conceding. Bachardy writes that “her method of criticism [was] the most effective I have ever dealt with. She spoke, not as an actress and a woman in defense of her ego and her vanity, but as a fellow draughtsman as dedicated as I to the search for truth and clarity.”[3]

Ginger Rogers may not have had the power to freeze herself and eventually would have to stand in the shadow of her legacy. So, she was determined to decide what that legacy would be – to make it perfect. This power was not handed to her; she took it and fought for it, so that the part of her that would last forever looked exactly as she wanted it to – right down to her feathers.    


[1] Laverty, Lord Christopher. “Top Hat: Ginger Rogers’ Ostrich Feather Dress.” Clothes on Film. Last modified August 11, 2010.

[2] Dowd, Maureen. “Ginger Rogers,” New York Times (New York, NY), Apr. 27, 1995. 

[3] Bachardy, Don. Stars in My Eyes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.