Guys in Films

The Fabric of Film: Tough Guy Wear

In honour of The Times’ film critic Kevin Maher’s list of iconic movie rebels, we take a look at what it truly takes to make a tough guy in cinema.

What constitutes a tough guy, as in ‘man’, on film is usually a traditional interpretation of masculinity. There is always room for the sensitive hero in a sweater and slacks, but for those who watch movies as ingrained wish fulfilment, the sexy and sweaty man’s man needs suitable attire to reflect his personality. But it is not just about the garments themselves. A jacket is a jacket, but a leather jacket is a symbol. A wax jacket on the other hand is enlightened – the reformist hero.

Waxed cotton is fantastic stuff. Essentially it is a treated fabric, albeit one that needs regular re-covering to ensure longevity. The result is a lightweight, versatile material that, although not especially warm, is water repellent. It can often be mistaken for leather because the finish is outwardly similar. Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds (2009) wears a sheepskin shawl collar Belstaff S. Icon made from wax cotton that was largely thought to be calf leather upon the film’s release. Action man on screen and off, Steve McQueen famously wore a wax Trialmaster for the International 6 Day motorcycle trials in Germany in 1964. Although his jacket was actually a Barbour, McQueen was reputedly a Belstaff devotee for day to day riding. Wax is going through a cinematic revival for the tough guy hero. Daniel Craig as James Bond wore one for the gritty finale of Skyfall (2012), reinvigorating interest in the fabric’s latent crossover potential. Once the preserve of geriatric gamekeepers, wax jackets are now cool again. The, shall we say ‘distinctive’ smell only adds to their appeal. And, honestly, what would you rather wear to defend yourself from vampire mutants as the last man alive than a wax Belstaff Trialmaster? Will Smith as Lt. Colonel Robert Neville in I am Legend (2007) set the post-apocalyptic uniform.

Belstaff S.Icon jacket worn by Brad Pitt as as Lieutenant Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds (2009), thought to be leather but is actually wax cotton with a sheepskin wool collar.
Belstaff S.Icon jacket worn by Brad Pitt as as Lieutenant Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds (2009), thought to be leather but is actually wax cotton with a sheepskin wool collar.

Obviously there is still a place for leather. Its connotations of cool stem from decades in cinema as the go-to fabric for bad boys, from Marlon Brando’s impetuous fifties youth in The Wild One, to Mel Gibson as Mad Max (nicknamed ‘the road warrior’, his leather jacket is born out of function rather than form), to Harrison Ford’s A-2 esque bomber as Indiana Jones. For these men, leather is a reflection of their persona. It is robust and timeless. Brad Pitt sports a Belstaff Panther jacket while riding his Indian Scout in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). He is not exactly a tough guy, although ageing backwards is hardly an easy gig, but he is damn cool, and arguably the two terms will always go hand in hand. Same with Javier Bardem as eccentric gangster Reiner in The Counselor (2013); his lurid green ‘Snetteton’ moto is definitely a strong look – ballsy and flamboyant. Brightly coloured leather is generally a risk for all but the most confident of personalities, which is probably why Ryan Reynolds could get away with an (admittedly briefly seen) ice blue Belstaff racing jacket as smart-ass supernatural dick Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity (2004). Really the only substitute for leather is wax. Consider Pitt’s incomparable Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1999) without his beaten-up vintage leather coat – the only possible substitute would be a Belstaff Trialmaster. Tough guy fabrics are blatant because they need to be.

Of course the female contingent, or tough ‘gals’ if you must, have not been mentioned. That is another post entirely… However, just to be going on with you cannot get much tougher, or cooler, than Hilary Swank playing real life aviator and pioneer Amelia Earhart in a Belstaff bomber for Amelia (2009). Tough fabrics are not sex or gender specific; they simply have to reflect that, in the movies at least, strong, hard-bitten characters should always wear what they are.

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© 2015, Lord Christopher Laverty.