James Dean as Jim Stark, confused suburban high school student and loner
Los Angeles, Spring 1956
Film: Rebel Without a Cause
Release Date: October 27, 1955
Director: Nicholas Ray
Costume Designer: Moss Mabry
Sixty years ago today – September 30, 1955 – was the famous fatal car crash that ended James Dean’s life at the age of 24. At the time of his death, he had only completed acting in three films (other than uncredited bit parts), but those performances made more of an impact than anyone could have guessed.
After his breakout role in East of Eden in 1955, Dean quickly followed it up with his performance as the troubled and tortured Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, a representation of teenage angst that gave a glimmer of hope to millions of teens throughout the country who were disgusted by the falsely naive and puritanical state of 1950s society. Teens could actually relate to the frustrated Jim Stark rather than the squeaky clean Andy Hardy or mischievous doe-eyed Beaver Cleaver. Dean’s electric performance captivated young audiences that began copying his style.
Unfortunately, James Dean didn’t live to see the release of the film that would give so many of his fans hope. Shortly after completing his role in Giant, Dean was scheduled to compete at a race in Salinas on September 30, 1955 in his “Little Bastard”, a brand new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder (VIN 550-0055) purchased only nine days earlier and painted with “130” on the hood, doors, and deck lid. Rolf Wütherich, the German Porsche factory mechanic that maintained the car, encouraged Dean to drive it from L.A. to Salinas to ensure it was in racing condition. Wütherich joined Dean in the car, with Dean’s friend and stunt driver Bill Hickman driving behind them in the station wagon that Dean had originally intended to use to carry the Porsche via trailer. Hickman would later become famous as the stunt driver and actor who handled the black ’68 Charger in Bullitt. It was Hickman who gave Dean the nickname, “Little Bastard” that Dean then applied to his car.
At 5:45 p.m., more than two hours after both cars had received a speeding ticket, a Cal Poly student named Donald Turnupseed was driving his black and white 1950 Ford Tudor coupe east on Route 46 toward Cholame Junction. Turnupseed hesitantly pulled his Ford left over the center line to take the left fork onto Route 41. Dean, approaching the junction from the other direction, was unable to stop his Porsche in time and attempted to power steer away from Turnupseed’s Ford. Unfortunately, the Porsche slammed into the driver’s quadrant of the Ford in a nearly head-on collision, catapulting Wütherich out of the Porsche but trapping Dean inside the mangled Porsche as it flipped intot he air and landed in a gully, northwest of the junction. The heavier Ford was pushed nearly forty feet down the westbound lane of the road. Turnupseed managed to step out of his damaged car with only minor injuries. Hickman and Collier’s photographer Sanford Roth pulled up in the station wagon and joined the many passersby who stopped to help.
After the badly mutilated Dean had been extricated from the Porsche where his left foot had been trapped between the clutch and brake pedal, Hickman recalled the actor taking his last breath in his arms, and Dean was pronounced dead on arrival shortly after arriving by ambulance at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m. Wütherich would survive but with serious injuries and psychological trauma that would haunt him until his 1981 death.
Dean’s brief flash of stardom in 1955 shook the decade by storm before his death, shaking the long-standing tradition of the old dictating the young. Rebellion became cool, and Dean became a martyr for the movement that he unwittingly ignited but undoubtedly would have supported. Up to this point, fine clothing and dressing up was a symbol of social status. Now, fashion was redirected toward dressing down. Personal attitude became more important than fads or conformity.
What’d He Wear?
The red windbreaker, plain white t-shirt, and blue jeans sported by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause has skyrocketed to become one of the most iconic outfits in movie history, right up there with Bogart’s trench coat, Indiana Jones’ leather flight jacket, and 007 in a sharp tuxedo.
For his night out, Jim Stark dons a bright red nylon windbreaker, appropriately intense for Dean’s performance. It zips up the front with a brass YKK zipper, although Dean tends to keep his only partially zipped down at the waist. The jacket gathers at the waist like a blouson with an elastic hem that provides an athletic figure when closed. The windbreaker has two open slanted hand pockets – one on each side.
The cuffs close through a single buttonhole on one of two buttons; Dean wears his with the outer button fastened for a looser fit over the wrists.
Many stories circulate about the origins of this iconic jacket. Nicholas Ray claimed that he took it from a Red Cross worker, although most now believe that it is a McGregor Anti Freeze jacket with some customizations by costume designer Moss Mabry. The original McGregor Anti Freeze was designed in the late 1940s, and the McGregor site even acknowledges that this was the windbreaker seen in the film, saying “a certain Mr. James Dean was wearing this coat in a ‘rebellious’ movie that would make history. We can’t be absolutely sure that this was due to the coat, but what is certain is that it has stood the test of time.”
McGregor updated its original Anti Freeze based on the film’s popularity and now offers the “Kirk Anti Freeze” for €199.95, constructed of “light water and wind resistant polyester with a soft wool lining” with the same adjustable cuffs and ribbed elastic hem as the film’s version. The only major cosmetic difference is that the Kirk has flaps on the slanted hand pockets, while Dean’s original Anti Freeze had open pockets.
Underneath, Dean wears a plain white cotton crew neck t-shirt with a short-sleeve “muscle cut” that shows off plenty of arm, as the sleeve ends closer to the shoulder than to the elbow.
Luckily for purists who require nothing less than the exact brand worn in the film, a blogger called The Undershirt Guy has taken the case of identifying the t-shirt worn by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Apparently, after three auctions in six years, Nate D. Sanders finally managed to sell the shirt in 2012 for $6,083. However, none of the auction descriptions say much more than that Gordon Bau, Dean’s makeup artist on his three major movies, was able to give the shirt to Claire Gaynor, who provided the letter of provenance.
(The other auctions were Heritage Auctions and Live Auctioneers.com, if you’re curious. Heritage Auctions remarked on the irony that Clark Gable’s lack of an undershirt dramatically decreased undershirt sales until Dean’s white t-shirt revived them 21 years later.)
The Undershirt Guy persisted and found a 2013 article by CNN contributor Bob Greene titled “Could James Dean save J. C. Penney?” In it, Greene comments that Dean was born in Marion, Indiana which was “smack dab in the middle of J. C. Penney country”, and thus copycats believed he favored the simple J.C. Penney “Towncraft” brand of t-shirts. While the answer is most likely lost to history, The Undershirt Guy provided a helpful alternative to all James Dean wannabes by recommending the RibbedTee Retro Fit shirt, a loose knit cotton/polyester blend going for $30 and marketed by RibbedTee as “reminiscent of the great, but no longer made Towncraft 50/50 undershirts.”
Dean’s jeans leave much less guesswork, as Dean himself advertised for his preferred Lee jeans while he was alive. The dark blue jeans sported in Rebel Without a Cause are Lee 101Z Rider denim jeans, notable being the first zip-fly jeans upon their introduction in 1926. While denim jeans had predominantly been the domain of the working man since Levi’s introduced them in the 1870s, they became the symbol for a rebellious teen counterculture in the ’50s, no doubt thanks to James Dean.
The Lee 101Z Riders worn in the film can be identified by the small black tab stitched onto the top of the right back pocket. They are of the standard five-pocket layout with two slanted front pockets, a coin pocket on the right, and two back patch pockets. The bottoms of Dean’s jeans are frayed.
Under the jeans, Dean wears a pair of black leather engineer boots, identified by the silver buckle on the adjustable leather throat strap. We never see the full length of the boots themselves since they tend to extend about 10-18″ up the leg. Engineer boots were developed during the 1930s for workers exposed to potential leg or foot injuries. They were quickly adopted by motorcycle riders for their resistance to leg burns or injuries while riding.
A blog called Vintage Engineer Boots (whose name leaves no doubt regarding their authority in this case!) visited a Madrid exhibit that showcased a pair of Chippewa engineer boots from the ’40s or early ’50s as the boots worn by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. With more expertise than I could ever hope to gather on my own, the blog sheds some doubt on this claim and opens it up to debate with good points on both sides. Since Chippewa Shoe Manufacturing Company was the original manufacturer of engineer boots, I think it’s conceivable that Dean wore at least one pair of Chippewa engineers in the movie.
Dean’s socks will remain a mystery, but he does wear a pair of plain white briefs that are glimpsed poking over the top of his jeans when he gets his hands on Plato’s pistol… if you’re curious about his underwear.
The simple steel tonneau-shaped wristwatch has also garnered some debate among Dean fans and watch aficionados. Although it looks like some Hamilton, Elgin, or Longines pieces of the era, I believe it is a Westclox Wrist Ben on a black leather strap. This watch, with its dark gray luminous dial, appears to be the best approximation of the one worn by Dean.
ClockHistory.com cites that this style would’ve been produced between 1956 and 1958, but it’s the only similar-looking watch from the era that I’ve been able to track down that has only even numerals presented on the face.
Dean himself wore a much fancier watch in real life. The watch on his wrist at the time of his fatal car crash was a Le Coultre Powermatic Nautilus with a 14-carat gold case, black dial, and black alligator strap.
Ironically, Dean became a style icon by ignoring fashion and dressing with an aim towards comfort and practicality. He wasn’t a rebel because of what he chose to wear; he was a rebel because he chose not to conform.
- Red nylon zip-front windbreaker with collar, brass zipper, open slanted hand pockets, button cuffs, and elastic ribbed waistband
- Dean likely wore a customized McGregor Anti-Freeze jacket
- White cotton crew neck short-sleeve t-shirt
- Dean likely wore a J.C. Penney “Towncraft” undershirt
- Dark blue denim straight leg jeans with zip fly, slanted front pockets, coin pocket, and patch back pockets
- Dean wore Lee 101Z Rider jeans
- Black engineer boots with silver buckles
- Dean possibly wore Chippewa engineer boots
- Stainless steel tonneau-cased wristwatch with dark gray luminous dial on black leather strap
- Dean possibly wore a Westclox Wrist Ben watch
- White underwear briefs
Jim’s even more troubled buddy Plato (Sal Mineo) gets his hands on a pistol for the third act, a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer with nickel plating and white pearl grips, found in his mother’s bedroom.
Jim and Judy (Natalie Wood) do everything they can to calm the excited Plato, with Jim eventually getting his hands on the gun in a quick gambit designed to reassure Plato and disarm him.
As Plato slips on the windbreaker, Jim takes out the pistol’s magazine and removes the remaining .38 ACP rounds before handing it back to Plato because “friends always keep their promises.”
The scene ends with tragic consequences as the police don’t know that Plato’s pistol is empty when he steps outside. And, technically, since Jim didn’t eject a round from the chamber – and we know that Plato has already fired it earlier in the evening so the chamber would indeed be loaded – Plato would still have one shot left.
The Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer enjoyed 24 years of production in the early decades of the 20th century, although it is mostly forgotten today. It was one of John Browning’s early efforts at the semi-automatic pistol, a natural evolution from the Colt M1900 and the Colt Model 1902 Sporting Model – both also designed by Browning.
Like its predecessors, the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer is a short-recoil, single-action, semi-automatic pistol chambered for the obsolete .38 ACP cartridge and lacking an external safety mechanism. Externally, it resembles a simplified and more compact version of the later M1911 .45-caliber pistol with its external hammer. Although only four letters separate it from the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, the two pistols are very different.
The Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer weighed just under two pounds with a 4.5″ long barrel and a seven-round box magazine. It was quite popular in its early years as a relatively light and compact pistol with a cartridge that could carry a punch. However, the more streamlined Pocket Hammerless in .32 and .380 would eclipse Pocket Hammer sales and continue to thrive well into the 1940s. Nearly 31,000 Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer pistols were produced until production ended in 1927 as more powerful rounds like the 9×19 mm Parabellum, .38 Special, and .45 ACP gained favor with handgunners.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
You can wake up now, the universe has ended.