Clothes make the man. It’s an expression that’s been repeated by everyone from the ancient Greeks (who, despite popularising togas, said ‘the man is his clothing’) to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
But nowhere is this adage truer than when talking about the history book’s most stylish and oft-referenced menswear maestros. But who made the clothes that made the men? From the products that pumped up Elvis the Pelvis’ pomp to the suits that gave Sinatra swag, these are the brands that style icons wore.
James Dean was not only one of the most promising actors of his generation, but he also was, and remains, an undisputed style genius. In just 24 short years and with a modest body of work – Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant – Dean became the poster boy for teenage rebellion and a lingering cultural icon.
Of all Dean’s looks, one more than any provided the blueprint for countless men who followed. “His signature white bound neck T-shirt, classic rider jeans and Harrington jacket, as worn in Rebel Without a Cause, are as relevant now as they were over six decades ago,” says Debenhams head of design Julian Fuller.
The exact brand of Dean’s white T-shirt remains as much a mystery as what would have become of the young star. Fortunately, his red jacket (a Baracuta G9), jeans (Levi’s 501s) and sneakers (equally cool Converse Jack Purcells) are still available today, so we can all live fast, die young and look good like Jimmy.
As one of the best dressed men of all time, Steve McQueen is a name that needs no introduction on a list of style icons. Regularly referred to as the ‘King of Cool’, the late actor’s ability to bring a masculine edge to both smart and casual looks is still one of the most sought after wardrobe skills.
“Steve McQueen’s style was effortless and timeless. Many of his iconic looks are still look relevant, from Americana double denim to a classic three-piece suit,” says ASOS head of menswear design James Lawrence.
To create his unique anti-hero image, McQueen relied on a solid mix of classic brands. Persol shades, as seen in The Thomas Crown Affair, are synonymous with McQueen to this day and the brand even produces a model named after him.
Like the equally stylish James Dean, McQueen was a keen motorcyclist, so it’s little surprise that he remains one of the most famous wearers of Barbour International. But while Dean sided with Converse for fuss-free sneakers, McQueen regularly tapped Italian brand Superga, wearing the 2750 model with chinos and a plain T-shirt for a laid-back weekend look.
It’s not hard to see how Frank Sinatra earned himself the nickname the Sultan of Swoon. But perhaps a more fitting title, given his wardrobe, is the Sultan of Swag.
“Sinatra was not one to dress down, he was always looked slick and immaculate, he was extremely well dressed and his style was faultless,” says Alex Longmore, a go-to stylist for Gary Barlow, Vinnie Jones and Danny Cipriani.
Longmore’s assessment fits with the names that lined fashionable Frank’s rails. While best known for his trademark fedora (made by New York hatters Cavanagh), the rest of his wardrobe is equally as impressive.
A stickler for detail, Ol’ Blue Eyes regularly followed Oscar Wilde and Sir Winston Churchill to British outfitters Alfred Dunhill for his suits before heading a short hackney carriage away to one of the world’s oldest and most traditional shoemakers John Lobb, stopping only at Bond-favourite brand Turnbull & Asser for shirts.
Living legend? Definitely. Alpha male? For sure. Badass? You betcha. For almost 90 years and more than 60 films, Clint Eastwood has marked himself out as man few would mess with. But style icon?
While a green poncho, cowboy boots and cigarillos may not sound like the recipe for menswear exemplar, it’s a title of which Eastwood (and his characters for that matter) is more than deserving. From ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan’s (1971) Ray-Ban Balorama sunglasses worn with a checked tweed jacket to Frank Horrigan’s (In the Line of Fire, 1993) impeccably-cut Cerruti suits – neither of which would look out of place today – each reflects the actor’s own casual but calculated approach to dressing.
“He’s a man’s man who loves function over formality, relying on simple style staples and a contemporary ‘less is more’ attitude,” according to House of Fraser’s senior menswear buyer, Paul Hayes.
Off-screen, Eastwood opts for Creed Green Irish Tweed, a scent also worn by Prince Charles, Cary Grant and George Clooney. It’s a choice Gemma Rose Breger, a stylist whose clients include Marks & Spencer, ASOS and Hackett, says places him as “an all-American icon with style, charisma and personality in equal parts”.
Elvis Presley is the undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but he was also the king of trendsetting in the 1950s. His early style – made up of Hawaiian shirts (often by Alfred Shaheen) and relaxed tailoring – is something to be admired even today, but it’s more than likely the white jumpsuit (designed by Bill Belew and then Rosie Swash), huge pompadour and gold sunglasses that come to mind on hearing his name.
Though this sounds like an outfit few have the sartorial muscle to pull off (and it is), there are ways to get the look without leaving your style all shook up.
“Elvis always dressed as smooth as he sounded,” says Phill Tarling, who has dressed the likes of Tom Hardy. “It’s impossible to separate his legendary film roles from his instantly recognisable style.”
Big E’s hair changed dramatically over time, but his signature pompadour was the stuff of Hollywood legend and even appears on American Crew products today.
The high swept style was the perfect finish to his Brut aftershave and iconic Polaroid 8004 sunglasses, which The King found in a gas station while travelling from Vegas to LA. These were then customised by the late Dennis Roberts, former owner of Optique Boutique, with the TCB (‘Taking Care of Business’) lightning bolt on both sides. Presley went on to buy over 400 pairs of bespoke shades from Roberts before his passing.