Robert Redford as Dave Chappellet, U.S. Olympic ski team star
Wengen, Switzerland, Winter 1967
Film: Downhill Racer
Release Date: November 6, 1969
Director: Michael Ritchie
Costume Designer: Edith Head (uncredited!)
Wardrobe Credit: Cynthia May
I hope the new year has been off to a fine start for all BAMF Style readers! The first post of 2019 looks back to Robert Redford’s timeless winter style as the titular ski champion in Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer.
Ritchie made his directorial debut with Downhill Racer, bringing an innovative, minimalist directing style to the screenplay scripted by novelist James Salter. The movie centers around Dave Chappellet, a prodigious but cocky skier recruited to replace a wounded star on the U.S. Olympic team. It’s interesting to watch the likable Redford in one of his most arrogant roles, though the actor was still in his early 30s and young enough in his career to still be finding his on-screen persona.
We first see Chappellet as he arrives in Switzerland, traveling by plane and by train to meet up with the team. When he finally meets up with the team that evening, even the normally apathetic star skier takes a few minutes to absorb the stunning surroundings of the Bernese Alps and the tempting challenges they present to him.
What’d He Wear?
First – what is shearling? Orvis defines it well: “A shearling sheepskin is the skin of a shearling lamb that’s tanned, processed, and dyed with the wool still intact. This creates a suede or leather material with a soft wool on the opposite side. Because the wool is still attached to the skin, shearling is a fur product.” Unlike the more modern, polyester-based “sherpa” alternatives, genuine shearling is a heavy and dense yet smooth and breathable fabric.
Like much timeless menswear, shearling coats can trace their popularity to military fashions. Men and women had been using sheepskin for clothing since the Stone Age, but it wasn’t until the B-3 bomber jacket was developed for American flight crews during World War II that most people fully embraced the warmth and comfort of shearling sheepskin outerwear. (Read more about the history and benefits of shearling bomber jackets here.)
Fast-forward a quarter century later when these shearling sheepskin coats with their soft fur pile linings – shorthanded merely to shearling coats – are all the rage for jet-setting civilian gents bundling up for the winter months. The balance of sheepskin’s water-resistant and moisture-wicking qualities makes it a particularly worthy asset for sportsmen embracing the increasing popularity of Alpine skiing.
Thus, pro skier Dave Chappellet’s signature outerwear when he’s not dressed for the slopes is a camel brown shearling jacket.
Chappellet’s copper-tinted coat extends to just below the waistline, enhancing his mobility and reducing bulk when traveling on cramped planes and trains. The yokes are triple-stitched in tan with pointed front yokes and a horizontal yoke across the back. The slanted, shearling-lined hand pockets have thick, curved welts at the openings. The jacket has five dark brown shank buttons with the corresponding buttonholes on the left side reinforced with single-stitched tan rectangle pieces that fold over each buttonhole onto the pile-side lining.
The soft beige lining of the coat is the fleece-like soft wool of the shearling lamb that was kept intact; the coat’s lining is actually the outer-facing skin of the shearling lamb. This piled side of the skin lines the entire inside of the jacket as well as the collar when it is folded down.
The warmth of the jacket means Chappellet doesn’t need very heavy layers beneath it. His light gray raglan-sleeve sweater is a lightweight but durable “waffle knit” with thin ribbing on the crew neck, sleeve cuffs, and waistband hem.
Underneath, Chappellet wears a classic work shirt in sky blue chambray cotton with narrow epaulettes that button at the neck side of the shoulder. The shirt has five large dark blue plastic buttons down the front placket with a single matching button on each cuff. The two chest pockets each close with a single-buttoned flap with mitred corners.
Chappellet wears tan pinwale corduroy (or “needlecord”) flat-front, straight-leg trousers that are styled like jeans with their slanted front pockets, right-side coin pocket, patch back pockets, and seams. They have plain-hemmed bottoms and belt loops where he wears a wide light brown leather belt with a large gold-plated single-prong buckle.
Chappellet’s usual footwear when off the slopes is a pair of tan suede slip-on boots with raised heels.
The shearling coat shows up sporadically over the course of Downhill Racer, including a shot set around Christmas as a lonely Chappellet walks through Wengen, wearing the jacket and boots with his Wrangler jeans and ski-friendly combination of his black turtleneck under a navy sweater with a red-and-white horizontal stripe.
“It’s a very small silver ring that was given to me by Hopi Indians in 1966. Every film I have done since 1968, I’ve had that ring on my right-hand ring finger,” described Redford to The Hollywood Reporter of his ever-present silver ring.
Indeed, Redford’s signature silver etched ring makes its first appearance in the trio of films he released in 1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (released in October), Downhill Racer (released in November), and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (released in December). The ring has appeared in almost all of Redford’s film in the half-century since, with the exception of Havana, where it would have conflicted with the bulky pinkie ring his gambler character wore.
Chappellet wears a steel wristwatch with a round silver dial on a steel bracelet.
Chappellet wears all-white underwear, including a cotton V-neck short-sleeved undershirt and a pair of cotton long john bottoms for sleeping and extra insulation against the cold Swiss winter evening.
This outfit is one of several functional and fashionably simple costumes that Redford wears on-screen, but it’s interesting to note that the film’s sole costume-related credit attributes the wardrobe to Cynthia May, for whom Downhill Racer remains her sole IMDB entry.
As it turns out, the legendary costume designer Edith Head had started work on Downhill Racer in spring 1967 before her Paramount Pictures contract ended and she joined Universal Studios. Downhill Racer remained a Paramount property, so the film was left without a costume designer.
In yet another interesting twist behind the scenes of Downhill Racer, Natalie Wood stepped up as an assistant, not only typing script revisions and appearing as a well-disguised extra but also providing hairstyles and shopping for wardrobe items and props. Wood was married to the film’s producer, Richard Gregson, and had several other connections to the production. Redford and Wood had been friends since high school and co-starred together in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property is Condemned (1966), two of the seven movies where her costumes were designed by Edith Head.
Go Big or Go Home
There’s a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it character moment as Dave Chappellet rides the train to Wengen for the first time. It’s a cool move that only a guy with Chappellet’s skill-backed arrogance – or Redford’s bold Leo confidence – could muster.
Chappellet is pushing his way through the crowded train car when he comes up right against a waiter handing out beers and sandwiches. Though Dave can hardly be bothered by much else, he swiftly puts down his bag, swiping a sandwich from the bucket.
We fear that perhaps he’s going to steal the sandwich, but even the waiter is unconcerned as Dave bites the bagged sandwich, freeing his hand to draw up some coins from his pocket to pay. The waiter glances up at Chappellet, who half-shrugs that he has no idea how much the sandwich costs nor the inclination to worry about it.
The waiter grabs his due payment from Dave’s hand then nods to him that they’re square before they both continue on their way.
In a movie full of fantastic skiing, this is hardly its biggest or most stand-out moment, but it showcases Redford’s mastery of quiet, subtle character moments even at this relatively early point in his career.
How to Get the Look
Robert Redford looks cool, comfortable, casual, and classic in his shearling coat and Ivy-approved layers for his arrival in Switzerland at the beginning of Downhill Racer.
- Camel brown sheepskin shearling five-button coat with beige pile lining, Western pointed yokes, set-in sleeves with plain cuffs, and pile-lined curved welt hand pockets
- Sky blue cotton chambray naval work shirt with point collar, button-down epaulettes, front placket, flapped chest pockets, and 1-button cuffs
- Light gray lightweight waffle-knit crew-neck raglan-sleeve sweater
- Tan needlecord flat front, straight-leg trousers with belt loops, slanted front pockets, patch back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Brown wide leather belt with large gold-plated single-prong buckle
- Tan suede slip-on boots with raised heels
- White cotton V-neck undershirt
- White cotton long john bottoms
- Silver tribal ring
- Steel wristwatch with round silver dial on steel expanding bracelet
Redford’s shearling jacket was celebrated in an article by Jonathan Heaf for British GQ, published in December 2018.
Although the B-3 bomber jacket has been out of military service for decades, shearling-lined sheepskin coats remain a popular winter staple for civilians with designers like Billy Reid, Isabel Marant, and even Levi’s offering their own variations of these classic coats for shoppers with around $1,000 to spend.
Should one desire the look rather than the actual fabric, “sherpa coats” are a very affordable alternative made frequently from synthetic polyester fabric – or occasionally cotton – designed to resemble the dense sheep’s wool of authentic shearling.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. Thank you to my pal and BAMF Style reader Wendi, who provided a DVD copy for the screenshots in this post!
If you like this one, Redford would collaborate again with Michael Ritchie three years later in The Candidate (1972).
I don’t expect to be given anything.