James Dean

Recently, we looked at the superb style credentials of an unexpected figure; the undeniably dapper Lapo Elkann. Mr Elkann is a great example of a cult style icon that is lauded – quite rightly – by a perhaps small but admiring public, and a fine fellow to take a cue or two from as far as fashion is concerned. However, there are some icons whose enduring influence can be felt worldwide. James Dean is one such icon, and he has left a legacy which every man can take inspiration from.

To state the obvious, James Dean was extremely good looking. The enviably handsome young actor was an icon in his own time, achieving a tremendous amount in his short time on Earth – before his tragic demise in 1955 at the age of just 24. The archetypal figure of 50s youthful rebellion, Dean seemed to single-handedly dress Hollywood down. In fact, some might say he was not considered particularly dandy in his time, and nor did he necessarily aim to be.

Dean’s style was less considered, and perhaps more confident than that; Dean dressed like somebody who was extremely good looking.

James Dean Lookbook

James Dean Style Lookbook

James Dean Style Breakdown

James Dean remains the essence of casual cool; never overdressed, Dean pulled off every outfit he wore in such a way that you would always see the man before the clothes. That’s not to say that he didn’t dress with flair or originality – check out the lookbook above to see him working grey wool trousers into a casual look nearly sixty years before the trend looks set to take off this season (now that’s fashion forward). It simply means that he carried himself confidently and that he never seemed to wear anything distracting or ostentatious.

A great part of Dean’s effortless style is just that – effortlessness. Dean seemed to do away with superfluous items. His outfits were very often minimalistic, meaning for example that he wasn’t typically seen accessorising with a scarf or a hat. He also eschewed many fashionable affectations; it’s interesting to observe that despite being an icon of the 50s he was rarely seen in a trendy turned up jean (no time for that), and that despite being an icon of casual style he doesn’t often seem to roll up his sleeves (why bother?)

Catwalk Inspiration

I know what you might reasonably be thinking; catwalk inspiration? All of this about eschewing vanities and not overdressing and suddenly we’re turning to the catwalks for inspiration? Ah, but you see though this would be madness, there is method – as one designer, the illustrious Michael Bastian, opted to centre his spring/summer 2012 collection around his vision of a modernised James Dean:

“I had this idea: What if James Dean came back and picked up where he left off? How would he dress?”
Michael Bastian

Michael Bastian Men's Runways Spring/Summer 2012 Collection

These three looks above, from the stellar collection, pay homage to looks from Dean’s three films; the red jacket from Rebel Without a Cause, the oatmeal jumper from East of Eden and the open shirt from Giant. What’s interesting is how Bastian modernises each look:

  • Dean’s iconic red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause was a loose fitting bomber; Bastian updates the look by streamlining the fit and adding epaulettes to the shoulders to create a more structured silhouette. This is an example of how you can take influence from Dean without necessarily taking influence from the 50s, with the look retaining its striking use of colour and simplicity. Go for modern fits and silhouettes in the spirit of Dean’s style. It’s also worth pointing out how Bastian adds his signature preppy touch to the look, in the form of a well-polished pair of loafers.
  • Dean’s look as Cal Trask in East of Eden was preppy and simple, defined by perfect fit and the cool inclusion of a pocket watch. While a pocket watch may not be for everybody, it’s a good example of details being functional rather than superfluous. This look is barely changed from the film, aside from a nod to the Fair Isle trend; the timeless appeal of simple pieces in neutral tones is easy and stylish.
  • Obviously you would turn a few heads if you were to walk down the street in a cowboy hat; this look is inspired by an outfit from Dean’s final film, the epic western Giant. While he certainly immersed himself in the lifestyle, I would still doubt that Dean would have gone about his daily business in a cowboy hat under normal circumstances. This look does have a rugged and masculine appeal though – great denim and a few undone shirt buttons (how many depends on whether you have a T-shirt on) will make you look like you have something manly to do come the warmer seasons.
James Dean: Inspired By Looks
Look 1
  • American Apparel Fine Jersey T-shirtAmerican Apparel Fine Jersey T-shirt
  • Jean.machine J.m-4 Classic Denim JacketJean.machine J.m-4 Classic Denim Jacket
  • Carhartt Sid Slim Fit ChinoCarhartt Sid Slim Fit Chino
  • Red Wing Iron Ranger BootsRed Wing Iron Ranger Boots

Why not reference one of Dean’s classic looks yourself? This look is a subtle nod to the red jacket and jeans combo, literally turning it upside down. Coloured chinos are currently fashionable, and this muted pair hits the trend without being so bold as to make a distinctly un-Dean-like fashion statement; the man should wear the clothes, not the other way round.

Black worker boots are a fine and on trend alternative to the engineer boots that completed Dean’s look.

Look 2
  • Topman Green Stripe PoloTopman Green Stripe Polo
  • River Island Leather Bomber JacketRiver Island Leather Bomber Jacket
  • Paul Smith Slim-fit Wool TrousersPaul Smith Slim-fit Wool Trousers
  • Oliver Peoples Gregory Peck Optical GlassesOliver Peoples Gregory Peck Optical Glasses
  • H By Hudson Tyska LoafersH By Hudson Tyska Loafers
  • Boss Orange Leather Belt JordyBoss Orange Leather Belt Jordy

Another simple, casual look, taken up a notch by the inclusion of smart camel trousers. Dean knew his way around classic casualwear; he was frequently seen in both polos and striped tees, so it doesn’t take a great leap to imagine him in something like this striped polo.

Like the last look, the layering here is as simple as a polo and a jacket. As previously mentioned, Dean didn’t over complicate his outfits.

Note the glasses: Dean proves that if you need specs, big frames need not be worn ironically, usually opting for a round horn-rimmed tortoiseshell pair. Ultimately though, you should wear the type of frame that best flatters your face.

Dean often demonstrated preppy sensibilities, hence the tassel loafers.

Look 3
  • River Island Navy Stripe Polo ShirtRiver Island Navy Stripe Polo Shirt
  • Acne Cotton Navy JacketAcne Cotton Navy Jacket
  • Lee 101 Kaihara Selvage Slim JeansLee 101 Kaihara Selvage Slim Jeans
  • Bottega Veneta Distressed BroguesBottega Veneta Distressed Brogues

No slouch in smart-casual, Dean could often be found in a blazer. Combining one with a polo produces a more relaxed aesthetic than even an oxford shirt might manage, while being far more refined than a tee. A great pattern is an easy way to add interest.

This is as good a place as any to mention denim; get it right! Dean was most famously associated with Lee jeans, but really the key is to get a pair of jeans in a straight/slim fit, in a quality dark wash that fit you like they’re tailor made – whatever the label says.

Look 4
  • Asos Slim Fit Cutaway Collar ShirtAsos Slim Fit Cutaway Collar Shirt
  • Dolce & Gabbana Gold Fit Wool-blend Tuxedo SuitDolce & Gabbana Gold Fit Wool-blend Tuxedo Suit
  • Austin Reed Plain Black Satin TieAustin Reed Plain Black Satin Tie
  • Polo Ralph Lauren Crew Cotton SocksPolo Ralph Lauren Crew Cotton Socks
  • White Square Pocket HandkerchiefWhite Square Pocket Handkerchief
  • Mr. Hare Miller Patent Toe Cap ShoesMr. Hare Miller Patent Toe Cap Shoes

While it’s not what he’s best famed for, Dean also undeniably knew a thing or two about formal dress. Along with a few other notable stars of his day, Dean was responsible for the resurgence of the shawl collared tuxedo in the 50s – and it’s a look that’s still suave today.

Dean’s no frills approach suited black tie down to the ground, knowing that meddling with the formula often results in a sizeable fashion faux pas.

James Dean: Inspired By Clothing
  • Topman Red Twill Cotton ShirtTopman Red Twill Cotton Shirt
  • Calvin Klein Underwear White 3 Pack Basic T-shirtsCalvin Klein Underwear White 3 Pack Basic T-shirts
  • Asos Stripe T-shirt With PocketAsos Stripe T-shirt With Pocket
  • Polo Ralph Lauren Lisle Striped HenleyPolo Ralph Lauren Lisle Striped Henley
  • Levis 501 Straight JeansLevis 501 Straight Jeans
  • Reiss Tux Slim Fit Jean DenimReiss Tux Slim Fit Jean Denim
  • Reiss Master Two Button Suit Airforce BlueReiss Master Two Button Suit Airforce Blue
  • Apc Petite Col Roule Noir KnitApc Petite Col Roule Noir Knit
  • J.crew Shawl-neck Cotton SweaterJ.crew Shawl-neck Cotton Sweater
  • Allsaints Standen Leather JacketAllsaints Standen Leather Jacket
  • Selected F14 Leather JacketSelected F14 Leather Jacket
  • A.p.c. Cotton Twill Bomber JacketA.p.c. Cotton Twill Bomber Jacket
  • Topman Harris Tweed Green Check CoatTopman Harris Tweed Green Check Coat
  • Belstaff Chocolate Leather Townmaster 55 BootsBelstaff Chocolate Leather Townmaster 55 Boots
  • Grenson James Leather LoafersGrenson James Leather Loafers

You might notice some of the styles we’ve picked out above haven’t been covered in the article. James Dean’s style was constantly evolving, and is difficult to pigeonhole. Aim to build a wardrobe of solid, dependable classics however, and you’ll be close already.

The rest of it is in the look and the attitude – and so we recommend a few final products to really nail Dean’s iconic style:

  • Brylcreem original hairdressing 250mlBrylcreem original hairdressing 250ml
  • Kent Tortoiseshell Effect Fine Pocket Comb – Medium 7tKent Tortoiseshell Effect Fine Pocket Comb - Medium 7t
  • American Crew Pomade 85gmAmerican Crew Pomade 85gm

You know you want to.


We will leave you with some words from Morrissey, a noted Dean fanatic to say the least:

“I was fascinated by the fact that he always looked so good, regardless of what kind of clothes he stumbled into; he could wear an old rag and he was still quite stunning, and equally he could clamber into a tuxedo and it would also be incredibly fetching. So for me he is the only person who looked perfect persistently.”

So, what do you think?

  • Is James Dean a timeless style icon?
  • Is Dean’s style still relevant today?
  • Does Dean’s style appeal come from the clothes or the attitude?
  • Will you be slicking a bit of Brylcreem into your hair any time soon?

Let us know in the comments section below, and feel free to recommend your own timeless style icons…