Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden and Giant – the only three films James Dean ever starred in – are being re-released in cinemas tomorrow. For fashion historians, Dean is a key figure: a man whose clothes perfectly summed up the first decade in which young people’s style was distinguished from their parents.
Dean’s famous costume in Rebel Without a Cause – the red blouson jacket, Lee jeans, white T-shirt and that perfect quiff – was designed to reflect what the 50s newly defined teenager was wearing. It has become a classic of the teen style genre, up there with Mary Quant’s miniskirt and the plaid shirt that Judd Nelson wears in The Breakfast Club.
In his all-too-short life, Dean showed an impressive aptitude for style as well as acting. He’s a preppy chancer in East of Eden and a sinister cowboy in Giant.
Even his off-duty photographs have become famous fashion templates, from shots of his famous black leather biker jacket and Breton sweater, to pictures of him with a shirt open to the abdomen, cigarette hanging from his snarling lip.
In the fifties, the young rebelled against their parents’ style by embracing casual staples such as jeans and T-shirts – the sort of thing that pretty much everyone wears now. Dean embodied that first wave, which is why these images are still so powerful. The original trailer for Giant, released posthumously, calls Dean the “star who became a legend, who spoke for the restless young as no-one has before or since.” That title – and every nonchalant, defiant image that remains of him – still holds up nearly 60 years later.