By the mid 1970s, denim had been accepted as day wear for everyone and yet still remained intrinsically associated with adolescent ‘drop out’ culture.
Warren Beatty was 37 at the time of shooting The Parallax View (1974) so could hardly be described as young; he looks a touch too old for his sky-blue western Levi ‘Trucker’ denim jacket and brown twill hip-hugger pants. Nonetheless the casual denim jacket remains a potent symbol of seventies action hero. Mainstream acceptable yet scruffy, Beatty’s attire resists his character Joe Fredy’s profession as a serious, determined journalist, but not his wayward personality.
A denim jacket seen in this era subliminally plants the seed of action in our mind. With his shaggy hair (that ten years previous would have been ridiculed as ‘deviant’ and no doubt contributes to his ribbing by a hic deputy) Fredy struts around town almost embarrassed; like everyone is afraid of him because of the way he looks. His jacket is a clear nod to the frontier Wild West. It legitimises Fredy as a man capable of more than posing.
Political unrest and the fallout from sixties youth rebellion caused the public to distrust authority figures and their typical uniform – the suit and tie. At this stage starchy James Bond was struggling to look young and fresh (in more ways than one). The era of the messy hero had dawned, and this situation would remain so until at least the mid-1990s.
Consider Keanu Reeves in 1993 action thriller Speed. He spends most of the film dressed in a plain white t-shirt, something that was thought of as underwear until the 1950s. Indiana Jones too only ever wears a suit (by choice) for lecturing or formality. The moment things get hairy, Temple of Doom (1984) being a perfect example; he throws on the famous grubby leather bomber and khakis. It is his iconography. How we identify him. Indy’s silhouette is known the world over.
Chuck Norris was rarely seen without his own denim ‘Action Jeans’ in the 1980s. They were specially designed to stretch in the seat and groin for those all important high kicks and spontaneous squat thrusts. By the time Warren Beatty in The Parallax View soils his denim jacket by scrapping in a bar and then splattering it with mud during a police chase, he has made full use of the fabric’s inferred masculinity.
A few scenes on and Beatty swaps his disheveled combo around for light blue denim jeans and brown twill western jacket, and later a brown moleskin sports jacket (this swapping of certain capsule items happens several times in the film). Things are serious now; more white collar. Parallax do recruit potential murderers but they draw the line at layabouts slopping in a denim jacket.
So, did Warren Beatty wearing denim help sales of the classic waist-length western jacket in any meaningful way? Doubtful. By 1974, denim was already the most popular fabric of the decade. Levi were far and away the biggest selling denim clothing manufacturers at this time. Though up to denim’s true birth as leisurewear during the 1950s, Levi were overshadowed by the much larger Lee Mercantile Company (Lee jeans).
What denim achieves in the context of The Parallax View is to symbolise Beatty’s character as the epitome of distrust and free thinking radicalism. Yet ultimately this is what seals his fate as a patsy. To survive in the world of Parallax you had better exchange those jeans for a suit. And stop asking questions.
© 2010 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.