Steve McQueen’s iconic style in Bullitt was one of my first BAMF Style posts, originally published in October 2012. As my writing style and the information available to me has evolved over the years, this post has been in a state of constant revision and updates, most recently in April 2021.
Steve McQueen as Lt. Frank Bullitt, maverick San Francisco inspector
San Francisco, Spring 1968
Release Date: October 17, 1968
Director: Peter Yates
Costume Designer: Theadora Van Runkle
When I originally set out to learn more about Lieutenant Bullitt’s clothing, I came across a blog dedicated to Steve McQueen’s style that instantly made me feel seen with the declaration:
One thing sane people do, as we all know, is spend a good portion of their spare time on eBay searching for a brown tweed jacket a bit like the one in Bullitt.
Thanks to movies like The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid, and The Thomas Crown Affair—to name just a few—the Indiana-born McQueen has been firmly established as an icon of tough and timeless style, though its arguably his wardrobe as the eponymous hardworking and hard-driving SFPD detective in Bullitt that’s most singularly responsible for his enduring reputation as the “King of Cool”.
McQueen cycles through three distinct outfits in Bullitt—four, if you count his paisley pajamas—though it’s the tweed jacket, turtleneck, and boots that he wears while speeding his green ’68 Mustang fastback through the sloping streets of San Francisco in pursuit of a villainous black Dodge Charger R/T during the film’s unmatched ten-minute car chase that remains his most famous look.
What’d He Wear?
After an action-packed all-nighter at the hospital, Bullitt dresses for what’s sure to be a stressful Sunday on the job. The cool San Francisco climate and the SFPD’s policy of dressed-down Sundays during the ’60s means the already rebellious-spirited Lieutenant Bullitt keeps his Douglas Hayward-tailored navy suit from the previous day hanging in the closet, instead pulling on a blue turtleneck, charcoal slacks, and suede boots, layered under a brown tweed sport jacket and his trusty khaki raincoat.
Costume designer Theadora Van Runkle evidently took inspiration from McQueen’s own wardrobe when designing Frank Bullitt, as the actor had frequently an almost identical sports coat throughout the ’60s (as photographed by his pal William Claxton in 1965.) The Bullitt-worn sports coat is woven in a dark brown-and-tan herringbone woolen tweed.
The notch lapels fully roll over the top button down to the second button, a style colloquially known as the “3/2-roll” and popularized in the United States by traditional outfitters like Brooks Brothers and J. Press, though it’s also a hallmark of Neapolitan tailors in southern Italy. The sleeves are finished with two vestigial buttons spaced apart on each cuff.
Although Bullitt’s jacket features additional European influence like the ticket pocket and double vents, the undarted fit and soft shoulders are indicative of an ultimately American style. This makes sense not only for the setting but also for the practical purpose of a looser cut providing room for Lieutenant Bullitt’s shoulder holster without an unsightly or uncomfortable bulge under his left arm.
In addition to the aforementioned ticket pocket, covered with a flap on his right side, Bullitt’s jacket has the traditional arrangement of a welted breast pocket and straight flapped hip pockets. (During the finale, Bullitt pulls off his jacket to cover a corpse, though a continuity error reveals that the jacket he actually covers the body with has patch pockets, suggesting that a similar tweed jacket was swapped in to protect McQueen’s personal jacket from absorbing the fake blood covering the body.)
Although Bullitt never leaves the urban environs of the San Francisco Bay Area, his jacket suggests classic county sports attire, not just due to the coarse tweed fabric but also the sporty details like the narrow “swelled” welts along the edges of the lapels and the tobacco brown suede elbow patches.
The elongated and unusually shaped elbow patches have been likened to traditional shooting jackets, so rigged to reinforce the frequently strained fabric on the elbows of each sleeve.
After production wrapped, McQueen held onto the jacket Van Runkle commissioned for him, eventually giving it to his son Chad. Chad recognized its cornerstone role in the history of movie costumes and donated it to the public exhibit at the Warner Brothers Museum in Burbank, where it remained on display until it was included in a Bonhams “Profiles in History” auction in July 2013. The jacket initially sold for $720,000, but the sale was never completed so the jacket remained on display in Bonhams’ New York City showroom until it was successfully auctioned in January 2014.
Underneath his jacket, Bullitt wears a rich navy blue turtleneck sweater, made from a medium-weight cashmere. The neck itself is ribbed, as is the waist hem and the ends of each set-in sleeve that McQueen wears cuffed.
The Steve McQueen Style blog suggests that Ballantyne may have made the original screen-worn sweater, though scores of similar sweaters can be found from other manufacturers today, particularly in the wake of Daniel Craig reviving the turtleneck when his James Bond cycled through several gray and blue mock-necks and roll-necks in Spectre.
McQueen’s lack of undershirt under his sweater suggests that his cashmere is likely a finer quality that doesn’t itch, or it may be blended with acrylic or other synthetic fibers.
McQueen’s charcoal gray flat front trousers rise to just below his navel, where he holds them up with his usual black leather belt that closes through a squared steel single-prong buckle. The trousers have slightly slanted side pockets and jetted back pockets with a straight cut through to the plain-hemmed bottoms.
Throughout his life, McQueen was famous for his brown suede boots. In Bullitt, he wears a pair of two-eyelet Hutton’s Original Playboy boots constructed of saddle brown sueded leather uppers and black crepe soles, worn with black ribbed socks.
They are often mistakenly thought to be from the Italian firm Tod’s, in part due to Bullitt advertising material claiming that he wore Italian boots, but they have been confirmed to be the Hutton’s model. McQueen’s career-long association with chukka boots—from The Blob (1958) to Papillon (1973)—is nicely chronicled by this blog, which also confirms the Hutton’s identification after initially misidentifying them as Sanders & Sanders boots.
The only constant of Bullitt’s primary trio of outfits—suit, sweater, and sports coat—is the top layer, a light khaki knee-length raincoat made from a water-resistant cotton gabardine. The single-breasted coat has five light brown buttons on the fly front, including one that closes at the top under the folded Prussian collar, which also has a small metal throat latch.
The raglan-sleeve coat has a short pointed half-tab on each cuff that closes through a single button. There is a slanted pocket at hand level on each side, and the back is split with a single vent.
The gold-and-slate tattersall check on the beige lining suggests Aquascutum, the venerated English outerwear outfitter that had just introduced this hallmark “Club 92” check the previous year.
Around the time of Bullitt‘s production in the late ’60s, major actors like Steve McQueen and Robert Redford frequently continued wearing their own personal jewelry in their movies, regardless of if said jewelry had any connection to the character they were playing. Bullitt’s turtleneck completely conceals McQueen’s gold-plated St. Christopher medallion that he wears on a thin gold rope-weave necklace, but a similar version had been marketed by The Danbury Mint, who explained the piece as:
The medal features the traditional image of St. Christopher — the patron saint of travelers — who, according to legend, safely carried a young child believed to be Jesus across a treacherous river. The pendant was a gift from Steve McQueen’s wife, Neile, as a reminder of her heartfelt love and devotion. This cherished memento is crafted of solid 14kt gold-plated sterling silver, and engraved with “Saint Christopher Protect Us” on the front and the raised relief inscription “To part is to die a little” on the back. The medal features a highly polished outer rim on the front for a tastefully elegant contrast. A coordinating 22″ rope-weave chain also crafted of 14kt gold-plated sterling silver is included with the pendant.
McQueen was also a noted watch enthusiast whose Rolex Submariner and Heuer Monaco have become intertwined with the actor’s stylish legacy. As Lieutenant Bullitt, he eschewed form in favor of practical function with his field watch identified as a Benrus Series #3061, the commercial version of the wristwatch issued to American GIs during the Vietnam War and finished with a civilian-friendly polished steel case and black leather strap.
The 17-jewel hand-wound watch has a branded black dial with a red-tipped second-hand arrow, which Worn & Wound notes as a differentiator from Benrus’ mil-spec Mil-W-3818B and GG-W-113 models that used the same Benrus DR 2F2 hacking movement.
While McQueen’s wardrobe in Bullitt has arguably had a lasting effect on men’s style, it’s worth noting that one of Frank Bullitt’s most significant items was inspired by a real-life policeman. McQueen noted how SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi—who would later be portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac—wore his service revolver in an “upside down” shoulder rig and requested that this be incorporated into Bullitt’s armament.
Thus, Bullitt appears on screen carrying his snub-nosed Colt Diamondback in a brown leather shoulder holster, worn under his left armpit for a right-handed draw. The rig is self-suspended by a system fo off-white straps connected over McQueen’s shoulders without connecting to his belt or trousers. A brown leather carrier is attached to the thinner strap under the right armpit with six loops for additional .38 Special rounds.
Go Big or Go Home
Frank Bullitt may dress well—a hypothesis proven by the fact that we’re still discussing and continuing to see its influence more than a half-century later—but it’s ultimately his attitude that makes him such an aspirational character. Certainly influenced by McQueen’s own brand of swagger, Bullitt balances effortless cool and reasonable vulnerability whether he’s dealing with thickheaded bureaucrats, shotgun-toting crooks, or his beautiful artist girlfriend (played by Jacqueline Bisset).
“Come on now, don’t be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell to the public,” the powerful opportunist Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) pitches to him, but Bullitt has no interest in selling himself at all. Ultimately, his honesty is his greatest virtue… even if it’s his own unique brand of honesty that permits the occasional corpse-switching cover-up, all ultimately in the service of a greater good.
Indeed, McQueen’s performance as Bullitt proves that it takes a lot more than clothes to make the man. You could get yourself a custom-made tweed sport jacket, a sleek cashmere rollneck, and even a ’68 fastback Mustang, but if you start squawking like Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2 (or Joe Pesci in any movie, really), you’re won’t get taken seriously. On the other hand, you’ve got Steve McQueen waltzing into a corner bodega after stealing a newspaper and buying Swanson TV dinners in bulk… it shouldn’t look cool, but it does. And why? Because it doesn’t even look like he’s trying, he’s just “living his truth”, to quote many a wellness blogger or Instagram influencer.
Bullitt’s cool factor was further enhanced by the fact that every move he made was scored by Lalo Schifrin’s hip soundtrack. Tracks like “Ice Pick Mike” and “On the Way to San Mateo” ooze jazzed-up ’60s grooves while nodding at the film’s basic premise as a police procedural. “Shifting Gears” is a special favorite of mine; as you may have guessed by the title, this is the track that plays when Bullitt’s Mustang first faces off against the assassins’ Charger. (To his credit, Schifrin argued that his score shouldn’t be used over the chase itself, allowing the sounds of the roaring engines to impress audiences instead.)
Steve McQueen’s main rival as Bullitt‘s star was the 1968 Ford Mustang GT-390 2+2 fastback he drove throughout, including the impressive car chase.
The Mustang driven by McQueen in the film has attained legendary status, with Ford offering two later generations of the “Bullitt Mustang” in the same color, Highland Green. Two Mustang GT-390s were used in the film, both with the 390 cubic-inch Ford “FE” V8 engine and four-speed manual transmissions, provided by Ford through a well-placed promotional deal.
Despite this deal, the screen-featured Mustangs were stripped of most external styling, including driving lights and any Ford or Mustang badging. Max Balchowsky, a race car driver, modified the engines, brakes, and suspensions so that the cars would adequately perform during the chase.
Although McQueen’s face is clearly visible—as he intended it—during many of the stunts, the majority of driving was performed by legendary stunt coordinator Bud Ekins. (If you want to know who’s driving, check out the rear view mirror during the interior shots; McQueen’s gum-chewing face is reflected when the mirror is down, and the mirror was flipped up when Ekins was driving so as not to reveal the swap.)
One notable sequence where McQueen is obviously behind the wheel finds Bullitt just missing a turn and being forced to rapidly back up and burn out as he takes off back in pursuit of the Charger. Initially a mistake, it was left in the film as an additional nod to realism as not all police lieutenants are perfectly trained stunt drivers.
The rival car in the chase is one of my personal favorites, a black 1968 Dodge Charger R/T with a 440 Magnum V8 engine making 375 bhp. The original car to be used in these scenes was a Ford Galaxie sedan, but the hills of San Francisco were too much for the Galaxie to handle at high speeds and the Charger (or two Chargers, to be exact) were brought in as replacements.
The power of the Charger led to the Charger actually “winning” many of the chase scenes, with Frank P. Keller’s editing skills managing to make the Mustang look triumphant. Indeed, Keller’s expert editing of the gripping chase likely led to his winning that year’s Academy Award for Best Editing.
Director Peter Yates had called for top speeds during the chase of no more than 80 mph, but the Mustang and the Charger—both products of the golden age of American automotive muscle—easily topped 110 mph during the filming.
1968 Ford Mustang GT-390
Engine: 390 cu. in. (6.4 L) Ford FE V8 with a 4-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust
Power: 325 bhp (242 kW; 330 PS) @ 4800 RPM
Torque: 427 lb·ft (579 N·m) @ 3200 RPM
Transmission: 4-speed manual
Wheelbase: 108 inches (2700 mm)
Length: 183.6 inches (4660 mm)
Width: 70.9 inches (1800 mm)
Height: 51.6 inches (1310 mm)
Bullitt’s Mustang is fitted with a set of California license plates, JJZ-109.
The chase itself begins at Fisherman’s Wharf, a touristy neighborhood in San Francisco. After driving through the town, the chase ends on the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway near Brisbane, California. The total running time of the chase is 10 minutes and 53 seconds.
Music to Drive By
Lalo Schifrin’s score for Bullitt has been lauded in the 45 years since the film’s release and the classic soundtrack is the perfect jazzy companion to cruising in a classic American muscle car. The appropriately-named track “Shifting Gears” will send your eyes darting to the rear view mirror, trying to spot the shotgun-toting hitmen in a black Charger.
A true individualist, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt even carries a less commonly seen sidearm. While his fellow detective Delgetti and Stanton each pack a standard Colt Detective Special service revolver, Bullitt carries a custom 2″-barreled Colt Diamondback in his “upside down” quickdraw shoulder holster.
Much like the rest of his stuff, Bullitt’s piece would also send you on an extensive search as it seems much less rare than it actually is. If you can find a Colt Diamondback anywhere, that’s great. If it’s a 2″-barreled snub nose, even better. To really emulate Bullitt, make sure it’s a .38 Special, as Diamondbacks were also produced in .22 Long Rifle, hardly an ideal caliber for self defense let alone serious police work.
Finally, the hardest part is making sure it has the rounded grips of a Colt Detective Special like Bullitt’s piece.
The Diamondback was offered from 1966 until 1988 and also was made in .22-caliber. The .22 would be a poor choice for a policeman’s duty weapon, but would work for an assassin. Peter Boyle’s character in The Friends of Eddie Coyle actually used a full-length .22-caliber Colt Diamondback during the film’s finale.
Why not just give Bullitt a Detective Special? For one thing, there tends to be an unspoken role that movie heroes need to have different (and, thus, slightly cooler) guns than the people surrounding them. Furthermore, the Diamondback had just been introduced two years earlier, in 1966. A cool detective like Bullitt would have the newest gun. Additionally, the Diamondback was a deluxe model, more similar to the premium grade Colt Python than the more commonly seen Detective Special.
Bullitt’s Diamondback has a wide serrated target hammer, ventilated rib, fully adjustable target quality sights, and full-length barrel underlug, which help differentiate it from the Detective Specials carried by his partners.
Bullitt’s outfit has become one of the most iconic men’s costumes in movie history, inspiring a movement of men embracing the masculine intersection of professorial and hip.
- Brown herringbone tweed 3/2-roll sport jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped hip pockets and ticket pocket, 2-button cuffs, long sueded elbow patches, and short double vents
- Rich navy blue medium-weight cashmere turtleneck sweater with ribbed turtleneck, cuffs, and hem
- Charcoal gray flannel flat front straight-cut trousers with belt loops, slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather belt with steel squared single-prong buckle
- Hutton’s “Original Playboy” saddle brown suede 2-eyelet crepe-soled boots
- Black ribbed wool dress socks
- Khaki waterproof cotton gabardine single-breasted knee-length Aquascutum raincoat with Prussian collar, 5-button fly, slanted hand pockets, single-button pointed half-tab cuffs, and long single vent
- Benrus Series #3061 polished steel field watch with black dial on black leather strap
- Gold-plated medallion of St. Christopher on a thin gold rope-weave necklace chain
- Brown leather RHD shoulder holster with cream chamois straps (for snubnose Colt Diamondback)
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Bullitt is a rare example of a movie that arguably surpassed the popularity of its source material. The original novel, Mute Witness, was written in 1963 by Robert L. Pike (as “Robert L. Fish”). The basic plot of a maverick cop ordered to guard a mob witness who ends up murdered remains intact, but Pike’s NYPD Lt. Clancy being transformed into SFPD Lt. Bullitt is one of many major changes. (Of course, the famous Mustang vs. Charger car chase was also added for the cinematic adaptation.)
If you’re interested in checking it out, the book is available on Amazon.
You sell whatever you want, but don’t sell it here tonight.
If photos from the production are any indication, Steve McQueen had plenty of fun making Bullitt as he frolicked with beautiful women and sped around San Francisco in beautiful cars. Each of his three on-screen outfits is supplemented in behind-the-scenes photos with a pair of the iconic tortoiseshell Persol 0714 folding sunglasses that McQueen made famous.