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