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The ritz has several definitions all flowing from the same source, the creation of the Ritz-Carlton Hotels by famous hotelier, César Ritz. He is best known for two European Hotels, The Ritz in Paris and the The Carlton in London. These hotels were the ultimate in luxurious accommodations, and after Ritz’s death, the Ritz-Carlton Company was formed to open more hotels bearing his name in the US. After the Great Depression, only one American hotel, the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, Massachusetts, remained. Yet regrowth of the economy led to the company, which has changed hands numerous times, building more hotels after the 1940s.
César Ritz’s European hotels were expensive, luxurious and impressive. Globetrotting millionaires and celebrities frequented them, and the term “the ritz” became synonymous with extreme elegance to the point of ostentation. The idea of “putting on the ritz” remains firmly in the public mind because of Irving Berlin’s song composed in 1929, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which then appeared in a film the following year, and again much later in the Fred Astaire 1946 film Blue Skies.
To put on the ritz means to dress glamorously, in the latest style, and specifically to wear evening or very fancy clothes. Tuxedos and ball gowns, especially made by designers, are by nature ritzy. So are designer clothes and the glitzy and glamorous lives of the rich and famous.
It’s interesting that Berlin’s original lyrics, which were later replaced by the more well-known ones in Blue Skies actually comment on a very different group of people than the wealthy. The lyrics refer to people living in Harlem who would dress to the nines despite their poverty, and the song reflects this poverty and the Great Depression sweeping the country. In Berlin’s original interpretation, anyone could appear stylish with good clothing, and dressing well with poor pockets was viewed as an affectation.
Later, Berlin revised the lyrics to reflect the habits of the wealthy, dropping the references to African Americans living in Harlem. Yet initially, anyone could ostentatiously parade in fine clothing. Even the words “puttin’ on” suggest assuming an affectation that isn’t fitting with one’s societal status. Moreover the phrase, “You’re putting me on,” tends to mean, “you’re not telling me the truth.”
For modern filmgoers perhaps the most cogent illustration of how fine clothes don’t necessarily make the man or woman occurs in the film Young Frankenstein. When young Dr. Frankenstein is able to reform his “monster,” he takes him on tour and the two perform in tuxedos singing Puttin’ on the Ritz. While the audience is initially impressed by this display, they are soon throwing garbage and vegetables when an exploding stage light scares the “monster”. This scene takes the idea of “puttin’ on” back to its original use, evoking the adage that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.