Dancer, fashion icon, and motion picture star Irene Castle popularized ballroom style social dancing in America. Teamed with husband Vernon Castle, her career as a trendsetting dancer began in 1911 at the Cafe de Paris in France where the Castles introduced ragtime steps to Parisians. In a New York branch of the Cafe de Paris, Castles replicated their Parisian success.
Irene's slim dancer's body and Parisian dresses made her the focus of feminine style in New York, sparking the shift on body aesthetics away from the corsetted hour glass shape of the Gibson Girl ideal. Consenting to model for several fashion designers, she appeared frequently in magazines wearing the most up to the moment finery. So when she cut her hair short during a hospital stay for apendicitis, and bound her brow in a band, the "bob" became the modish hair style of the era.
The Castles banked on their fashionability by opening a club that served as an instructional venue for Society People wishing to dance. Playing at the club was the famous African American band leader James Reese Europe whose ragtime rhythm became the click-track of pre-World War I modernity. The Castles appeared in several Broadway productions during this period. Vernon, who was fluent performer, usually had a speaking part, while Irene performed a dance specialty; there would be an episode or two of couple dancing. 1913's "The Sunshine Girl" was the first show to feature the Castles, but their follow-up, Irving Berlin's "Watch Your Step" proved the most important for its ragtime ethos, its introduction of the foxtrot, and its suggestion that the world of dance was a world of fun.
Vernon's death in an airplane accident after his enlistment in the war effort made Irene a solo performer. She appeared in Ziegfeld's "Miss 1917" and in guest spots in the Greenwich Village Follies, but the focus of her performing career shifted to motion pictures. From 1917 to 1922 she appeared in eighteen feature-length motion pictures, from tear jerkers such as 1917's "Patria" to fashion-focused chick flicks such as "Slim Shoulders."
Her motion picture career ended because of the turmoil in her private life. Her second husband Robert Tremen had used her money in market speculations and gutted the bank account. She divorced and remarried in 1923 to a wealthy older man Frederic McLaughlin, another unhappy pairing. In later years she consoled herself in charitable work on behalf of animal welfare and in penning the outline of her lifestory. These would become the basis for the 1938 Astaire and Rogers film, "The Castles of Broadway." David S. Shields/ALS