Irene Castle – Ballroom Dancer & Fashion Icon

Castle sitting in profile and wearing a black short-sleeved satin dress by Lucile, ca. 1921 by Baron de Meyer

Irene Castle (1893 – 1969) was born Irene Foote in New Rochelle, New York. The daughter of a prominent physician, she studied dancing and performed in several amateur theatricals before meeting Vernon Castle at the New Rochelle Rowing Club in 1910. With his help, she was hired for her first professional job, a small dancing part in “The Summer Widowers”. The next year, over her father’s objections, the two were married. The English-born Vernon had already established himself as a dancer in comedic roles. His specialty was playing a gentleman drunk, who elegantly fell about the stage while trying to hide his condition.

In 1914 the couple reached the peak of their popularity in Irving Berlin’s first Broadway show, Watch Your Step, in which they refined and popularized the Foxtrot. They also helped to popularize ragtime jazz rhythms and African-American music for dance.

As the couple’s celebrity increased in the mid-1910s, Irene Castle became a major fashion trendsetter, initiating the vogue for shorter skirts. She is also credited with introducing American women to the bob – the short hairstyle favored by flappers in the 1920s. Her elegant, yet simple, flowing gowns worn in performance were often featured in fashion magazines. These were often supplied by the couturier “Lucile”, but Irene also designed some of her clothes herself. The whisper-thin, elegant Castles were trendsetters in other ways: they traveled with a black orchestra, had an openly lesbian manager, and were animal-rights advocates decades before it became a public issue.

In 1918, after serving with distinction as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I, Vernon died in a plane crash. Irene continued to perform and made silent films over the next decade. She remarried, had children and became an animal-rights activist.

   

Irene Castle introduced her “Castle bob” to an American audience in 1915.

Irene Castle 1922

Irene Castle wearing French designer Madeleine Vionnet 1922

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Irene Castle wearing French designer Madeleine Vionnet 1922

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Irene Castle / photograph by Moffett, Chicago (1915)

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Irene Castle in dance costume / photographs by Ira L. Hill’s Studio

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Irene Castle Winter Costume before 1917

Irene Castle Ball Gown before 1917

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 Irene Castle New York World’s Fair (1939-1940) via digitalgallery.nypl.org

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New York World’s Fair (1939-1940) via digitalgallery.nypl.org

The Castle Walk

 The original Castle Walk by Vernon and Irene Castle in 1915.

The Europe Society Orchestra wrote the song “The Castle Walk” specifically for the Castles and this dance,

 

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