Of all the mismatched, gaudily patterned and coloured attire Jeff Bridges as ‘The Dude’ wears in The Big Lebowski (1998, directed by the Coen Brothers), the ubiquitous Cowichan-type Pendleton cardigan sums up his character best of all. Threadbare, scruffy and in need of a good wash, the pair sure do go well together.
Without indulging too detailed a history lesson, Cowichan is a style of knitting developed in the mid-nineteenth century by native Coast Salish women of the Cowichan tribe in British Columbia, Canada. Superficially it is similar in design to Fair Isle knitwear in Scotland. Although, amongst other differences, such as the more ‘jigsawy’ shape of Fair Isle, traditionally there is far less colour work involved.
The Cowichan sweater, or more accurately pullover or cardigan, is heavyweight with a shawl collar, adorned by local BC wildlife and other Coast Salish designs. Real Cowichan is always handmade and it takes around a fortnight to complete an adult sized garment. The Dude is wearing a Pendleton version (by Winona Knitting Mills, under contract to Pendleton), most popular with his ilk during the 1960s/70’s. Pendleton have been making Native American inspired clothing for over 140 years. The Dude’s is actually based on a Chief Joseph blanket design.
As sourced for The Big Lebowski and ‘distressed’ by costume designer Mary Zophres, Jeff Bridges’ cardigan is relatively lightweight, fitted with a zip and made from 100% pure virgin wool. The lived-in look is all there, even a hole in the sleeve to show wear.
The Dude would have been pivotal in the original hippie scene. Born out of the West Coast of America, specifcially San Francisco, in around 1965, in sartorial terms the hippie craze was part of an anti-fashion explosion sweeping across the world. It was another way to thumb one’s nose to the establishment, or perhaps more customarily, ‘The Man’.
In the 1960s there was as emergent back-to-nature feeling in response to increasing global capitalism, mainly spurred by youth. Knitwear was more popular in the sixties than any other decade since World War I. Indigenous clothing, such as Cowichan, expressed affinity for Mother Earth.
Hippies adopted this Cowichan style as part of their clothing uniform, as loosely prescribed as this was. Later when ‘folk’ largely overtook hippie for those in search of the next fad, this form of anti-fashion remained but the music changed (Jefferson Airplane to Bob Dylan).
In The Big Lebowski, The Dude abides; committed to the harmonious philosophy of hippie, even if he struggles as much as his favoured sub-culture to find a place in modern society (then 1991, when the story was set). Far from the indifference he himself exhibits, his very presence seems to anger those who presumably dismissed hippies first time around as a ‘dropouts’ or ‘draft dodgers’.
The scene where he is pelted with a coffee mug by an incensed Malibu police captain exemplifies this point. To some people The Dude is living the dream; to others he is causing every nightmare they see happening around them. The Dude’s own response? “Fascist!” His musty cardigan would likely not have helped the situation.
Reminiscent of drifter John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) in First Blood (1982), when Sheriff Will Teasle warns him that “looking the way you do” in an army jacket he is asking for trouble, The Dude is also singled out because of the way he dresses. His appearance still opposes draconian authority the same way it did forty years ago, although now without any significant strength in numbers. A lone hippie had better be a strong one.
Even the film itself repeatedly and painfully scorns its hero. Every moment of joy The Dude receives is tampered by rotten luck. The police recover his stolen car (good), a vagrant has used it as a toilet (bad). He drives along in his beloved Pendleton, happily smoking a joint and supping beer (good – for him anyway), he crashes his car into a tree (very bad). To many, The Dude represents the ultimate guy’s guy, the coolest of the cool; ice cold with no cares in world. But in actual fact the hard truth is that he is a bit of a loser.
Such a shame as bumbling through life, in this case a convoluted kidnapping mystery, even with those constant bouts of unconsciousness, violence, mishaps, and a friend like Walter, still looks to be a darn sight more fun than working for The Man.
© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.