James Byron Dean; the short-lived star has been a fashion and pop culture touch stone for coming up to sixty years, and for good reason.
One of the world’s first avatars for teenage disillusion and rebellion, Dean took the hegemonic dress code of the time and added a distinctive chaotic edge. It may be difficult to imagine with a modern outlook, but Dean’s personal style was so radical for his time that it played a part in the break down of his relationship with actress Pier Angeli, whose Italian mother deeply disapproved of the young hell raiser’s appearance.
Thousands of fashion articles have dissected Dean’s clothing, but most seem to fail to look at the context in which his style had emerged. At a time where the suit and tie was the uniform for any upstanding gentleman, Dean was one of the first men in the public eye to challenge the rigid social norms of menswear.
Along with his contemporary Marlon Brando, Dean helped to popularize the white T-shirt, which had until that point only been worn by military men. Paired with his signature blue jeans, this outfit formed the bedrock of one of Dean’s most iconic looks. Interestingly, the red Harrington jacket that he wears in perhaps his most recognisable image was only worn by Dean in his film Rebel Without a Cause; it’s truer to say that the red jacket is more the domain of Jim Starke than James Dean.
So what did James Dean actually wear in his own private life? Aside from the tight white T-shirt, Dean seemed to prefer slightly looser fit clothing. When googling ‘James Dean candid’, there are more than a few images of Dean wearing long sleeved polo shirts, like the one pictured above. The polo he would tuck into his jeans or smart trousers and complete the outfit with a pair of penny loafers.
Another lesser known fact about Dean is that he actually had very poor eyesight, and wore glasses when not on-set. In modern fashion terms, Dean’s glasses would be considered as a ‘vintage, round frame’ with a ‘high bridge’. While the majority of images of Dean wearing optical glasses are in black and white, you can also just about make out that they were tortoise shell-print frames. If you are a glasses wearer yourself, the inclusion of these retro and playful specs help to offset an otherwise serious and rather dark outfit.
When attempting to replicate Dean’s looks for your own wardrobe, you are faced with two potential approaches to take. If you are a purist, you can ensure that you completely replicate Dean’s style by getting the exact 1950s’ fit trousers and the iconic red Harrington jacket. This way, you can channel the bad-boy essence of Dean’s style in its most distilled form. In a time where ‘retro’ fashions are increasingly making a come-back in both men’s and women’s clothing, there is no better time to stick to the old-school styling.
However, it’s important to remember that Dean’s personal style was not created in a vacuum; they were a response to the time and society that he
lived in. To truly take a James Dean approach to personal style, feel free to mix modern elements in with Dean’s inspiration. Instead of adopting the red Harrington, think about working in a red bomber jacket. This will update and modernize the look, whilst retaining the recognisable colour palette. Alternatively, trade the penny loafers for monochrome trainers or baseball sneakers to bring the outfit up to date.
Through these revisions, you ensure that you are not merely copying Dean’s style, but instead you are using his style philosophy to inform your own fashion choices.