One of the most famous and successful performers of her time, Irene Castle (1893–1969) was a creative ballroom dancer and a tremendous influence on American and European fashions of the 1910s. Along with her husband and dance partner, Vernon (1887–1918), the elegant Irene brought respectability and social acceptance to dozens of new modern dances. At the same time, the Castles' dancing enlivened respectable society with the exciting new rhythms of ragtime music and dance. The public also admired Irene Castle for her tall athletic figure and her modern sense of style. Women everywhere imitated her short hair and loose clothing, and many fashion historians consider Castle the first flapper.
Born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1893, Irene Foote was drawn to the theater from early childhood. She took dancing lessons and performed in a few local productions, but her dream of a career onstage did not come true until 1910, when she met a British dancer and comic named Vernon Castle. Castle had already begun a career in vaudeville, a variety stage show popular from the early 1890s to the mid-1920s. Within a year the pair were married, and they soon began performing a dance show in Paris, France, at the popular nightclub Café de Paris. They were an immediate hit and soon began dancing professionally at society clubs and parties all over Europe.
The early 1900s had seen a tremendous rise in the popularity of an energetic, jazzy music called ragtime, which was influenced by the rhythms of African American music. As ragtime became more popular, many new dances were introduced to go with the new music. Between 1912 and 1914 over one hundred new dances were introduced. These new dances were seen as sexy and wild, and, though many modern young people loved them, older, more conservative people found them shocking. Irene and Vernon Castle created toned-down versions of the wild modern dances. Together the Castles created many of their own dances, such as the "Castle Walk," the "Castle Lame Duck Waltz," and the "Castle Half and Half." They helped bring the dance craze to respectable society. In 1914 they brought their dance show to the United States and were soon making five thousand dollars per week, at a time when the average worker made about fifteen dollars per week.
Irene's influence reached far beyond dancing. Tall, slim, and tomboyish, she became one of the most imitated women of her time. When she cut her hair short, women across the United States went to hairdressers demanding the "Castle crop." For ease in dancing, Irene stopped wearing a corset and adopted straight loose dresses, and women began to throw away their corsets. The pearl headband she frequently wore over her hair became the popular "Castle band," and a perky feathered hat she wore became the "Castle hat." The flapper look of the 1920s began with the Castle look of the 1910s.
World War I began in 1914, and in 1916 Vernon Castle went back to England to join the air force. He was killed in a plane crash in 1918, and the Castles' influential dance partnership ended. Irene tried to maintain her dance career with other dance partners but was never again as successful or as famous. She remarried three times before she died in 1969.