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Rebel Without a Cause: James Dean in Denim

Denim in cinema has been popularised by some of the great screen icons of the twentieth century. From Marlon Brando (The Wild One) to Steve McQueen (Junior Bonner), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke) to John Travolta (Urban Cowboy), Grace Kelly (Rear Window) to Brigitte Bardot (And God Created Woman).

Similar to the business suit, denim is a sartorial way of life that confers immediate personality on a person without them having to do or say anything; this personality has evolved through time and trends, though one facet remains intact: rebelliousness.

Denim’s symbolism has been created on film from real life frontier mythology. Art imitates life; imitates art. At one time Brando wore jeans like the cowboys, now the cowboys wear jeans like Brando. It is not difficult to understand how James Dean in a pair of Lee 101 Riders jeans was the birth of the American teenager. As Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Dean is so frustrated and repressed he must have spoken for an entire generation.

Costumer designer Moss Mabry carefully chose Dean’s outfits throughout the film to reflect his character’s state of mind. In the opening sequence Stark wears a full suit, which gradually deconstructs to a white under t-shirt, shocking red Anti-Freeze jacket and dark denim jeans. This was the first era in history when turning heads meant dressing down, not up.

How many teenagers, particularly those from a middle class background, must have gazed in wide-eyed acknowledgment as James Dean lit a Chesterfield and paced carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders into destiny? Along with rock ‘n’ roll star Eddie Cochran it was Dean more than anyone else who made denim jeans such a potent symbol of rebellion.

This one-dimensional association continued for another decade before jeans became increasingly exaggerated in style and cut. The swinging sixties led a jeans explosion that by the shocking seventies would ensure their adoption as a way of life for everyone, not just the massing youth.

In initial wardrobe tests for Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean actually wears his jeans with a thin turn up. This was more polarising in latter years of the twentieth century as skinheads adopted the look, but in 1955 it was just another way of wearing your denim. However throughout the film it should be noted that Dean’s jeans are always turned down; Jim Stark has no time for garnish. He knows that the essence of cool is minimalism.

The unreal blue of his jeans was actually achieved by overdying. All the denim used in the film was dipped to make the dye appear more vibrantly blue, as using Technicolor would have made it appear muddy green on screen.

And this is an early example of how movie myth begets reality. James Dean wore the kind of jeans that every kid wanted but none could get. The jeans, like Dean himself, only really existed through the lens. He had created cinema’s benchmark of adolescent cool, even if it was only an illusion.

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.