The History of Leather Part 24 – James Dean

Posted on 02/08/14

The king of cool (1955)

Known by many as the original king of cool, James Dean was a textbook example of making his style, presence and attitude look effortless. Often credited as the archetypal figure of youthful rebellion, Dean’s look was pioneering, powerful, divisive even.

Sure, in today’s Western world, a decision to rock slim-cut jeans, plain t-shirts and leather jackets is met with about the same level of excitement you would expect to see at a mid-tour Coldplay concert, but in the 1950s it was a different story, particularly for a prominent public figure.

Watch an early episode of “Mad Men” for five minutes and you’re presented with a cavalcade of immaculately presented men and women, never a single hair out of place. Their looks are carefully crafted for maximum impact, a lot like the ad campaigns they slave over day in and day out. Well, if they can fit in the ad work within their hectic schedules of casual sexism and alcoholism.

Then James Dean suavely saunters into the picture with his hair and his good looks, thinking he owns the place. Dean made the screen stars of 50s cinema look overdressed. If Dean could dress like a, dare I say normal person, why couldn’t his peers too? James Dean’s look was one that the average man actually stood a chance of being able to replicate. You could match Dean’s style without it necessarily even looking like that was what you trying to do.

That said, you can walk the clothing walk without talking the… You get the idea. Try as we might, dressing like James Dean doesn’t make us James Dean. To channel the slurred, boisterous football chants of yesteryear, there’s only one James Dean. No one can wear leather jackets quite like he did, in the same way no one can wear a constant look of bewilderment and confusion like Boris Johnson can.

It was Martin Sheen that said it best in an anecdote from his twilight years in acting:

“When I was in acting school in New York, years ago, there was a saying that Marlon Brando changed the way people acted, then James Dean changed the way people lived.”

Dean was instrumental in the dressing down of Hollywood, reining in the fashion excesses of his contemporaries and appearing all the more grounded and natural in the process. His leather and denim look still holds tremendous weight today, and will continue to for future generations.

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