Brad Pitt Channels McQueen as Benjamin Button

Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Vitals

Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button, reverse-aging adventurer and family man

New Orleans, Fall 1967

Film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Director: David Fincher
Costume Designer: Jacqueline West

Background

Now that spring is here, venturing outside will require not a heavy wool coat but instead some intentional lightweight layering, a casual sartorial approach mastered by Steve McQueen in the ’60s and revived with Jacqueline West’s thoughtful costume design in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The premise of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is very curious indeed, following the story of a man born on Armistice Day 1918 with the appearance of an octogenarian who ages in reverse over the course of the 20th century. Early in his youth, the titular Benjamin makes the acquaintance of Daisy, a young girl who—like the rest of us—ages in the traditional fashion. The two reconnect several times over the following decades, but it isn’t until the early 1960s when Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett)—now each in their 40s—are able to establish a lasting connection.

What’d He Wear?

Thanks to the Oscar-winning makeup work of Greg Cannom and the Oscar-winning visual effects team of Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, and Craig Barron, Brad Pitt was able to play the de-aging Benjamin Button from his birth as an 84-year-old man until well into the character’s teens.

Costume designer Jacqueline West was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award recognizing her work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, bringing each decade to life and meeting the costuming challenge of dressing Benjamin to be “both old and young at once,” as she told Variety in 2008.”I used Gary Cooper in the ’40s for my inspiration, Marlon Brando in the ’50s, Steve McQueen in the ’60s.”

The fashions of these latter sequences set in the 1960s are an ideal fit for Pitt as:

  • Pitt—who was 45 years old at the time of the movie’s release—finally overlaps with the actual presented age of his character
  • The physical and attitude similarities between the two actors mean McQueen’s timeless casual looks of the ’60s translate well for Pitt
  • Benjamin Button himself is happiest and most at ease during this period

…thus the character looks the most fashionable and at ease when wearing the McQueen-inspired outfits that West designed.

The Carmel Cardigan

Perhaps the most obvious of the McQueen-inspired outfits is the navy shawl-collar cardigan, plain white T-shirt, and cream jeans, an ensemble famously photographed by William Claxton when he and his wife Peggy accompanied Steve and Neile on a road trip to Carmel in 1964. (Read more about this original outfit here.)

Steve and Neile at Carmel, 1964, photographed by William Claxton.

Steve and Neile at Carmel, 1964, photographed by William Claxton.

Jacqueline West designed a similar outfit for Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button to wear when visiting Daisy in her dance studio, a scene set in the fall of 1967. Like McQueen, Benjamin wears a dark blue shawl-collar cardigan over a white undershirt and cream jeans.

Benjamin’s shoes remain off-camera during the scene, but it’s possible that he was wearing similar footwear as McQueen’s famous crepe-soled Hutton Original Playboy in brown suede.

Benjamin watches Daisy in her studio.

Benjamin watches Daisy in her studio.

Benjamin’s heavy ribbed-knit wool cardigan appears charcoal blue on screen, a touch darker than the vivid navy blue worn by McQueen on his trip up the coast. It also differs with its raglan sleeves and five dark blue plastic sew-through buttons as opposed to the six woven leather buttons of McQueen’s sweater. Though the cardigan has patch pockets (like McQueen’s), Benjamin prefers to slip his hands into his pant pockets.

Underneath, Benjamin wears a plain white T-shirt in lightweight cotton, likely short-sleeved like the undershirts he wears in other scenes set across the decade.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

Benjamin wears cream-colored casual pants with a softness that suggests Bedford cords like McQueen wore for the famous Carmel road trip. Like jeans, these trousers have frogmouth-style front pockets and patch pockets in the back.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

The Cooler King

Five years earlier in 1962, we see Benjamin returning to his mother Queenie’s residence in New Orleans after spending the better part of a decade living the life of a swinging bachelor. The return reunites him with Daisy, eight years after she had brushed him off in Paris while recuperating from an accident.

Benjamin arrives via motorcycle wearing an outfit evoking McQueen’s most famous motorcycle-riding role, that of downed U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot Hilts in The Great Escape, who spends his days in Stalag Luft III wearing a brown leather A-2 flight jacket, cut-off raglan-sleeve sweatshirt, chinos, and tan boots.

McQueen as Hilts in The Great Escape (1963)

McQueen as Hilts in The Great Escape (1963)

Though Benjamin Button saw action during World War II, he was never officially in the service of the U.S. military so it makes sense that he wouldn’t have an original A-2 flight jacket but instead a similar jacket, one of three unique styles custom-made by Belstaff for the production.

Benjamin’s dark brown leather Belstaff blouson does share many stylistic similarities with the A-2 including its shirt-style collar, zip-front with covered fly, epaulettes, flapped patch pockets with snap closure, and ribbed-knit hem and cuffs.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

Benjamin’s shirt removes any doubt that his style is McQueen-inspired as the unique faded sweatshirt with its raglan sleeves cut off at the elbows is straight out of The Great Escape, though Benjamin’s appears to be a more faded taupe cotton than the navy blue worn by Captain Hilts.

Benjamin gets an enticing offer from Daisy.

Benjamin gets an enticing offer from Daisy.

Underneath the sweatshirt, Benjamin wears a white ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt, tucked into a pair of khaki flat front chinos. The chinos have straight pockets along the side seams, jetted back pockets, plain-hemmed bottoms, and belt loops, though—like Hilts—he foregoes actually wearing a belt.

...and takes her up on it.

…and takes her up on it.

Benjamin wears tan leather boots with dark soles, made from a smoother leather than Hilts’ roughout service boots.

A Harrington Jacket…

Steve McQueen, photographed by William Claxton, 1964.

Steve McQueen, photographed by William Claxton, 1964.

The Baracuta G9 was a staple of Steve McQueen’s casual style, in both navy blue and a light stone color, with the brand’s signature tartan lining. The Baracuta story began in the 1930s when the British company introduced its G9 zip-front golf jacket with its two-button standing collar, ribbed cuffs and hem, and slanted pockets with single-button flaps. Its famous wearers also included Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. When Ryan O’Neal’s character Rodney Harrington donned the jacket on Peyton’s Place, the popular garment was renamed the “Harrington jacket”.

Benjamin Button wears a beige Harrington-style jacket several times on screen, most notably when he and Daisy return from their sailing trip in the Florida Keys in 1963 only to learn that Queenie has died. Though it has the classic two-button collar and zip front of the Baracuta, Benjamin’s windbreaker lacks the ribbed-knit hem and cuffs, instead with single-button pointed tab wrist closures.

Like McQueen, Benjamin layers this zip-up jacket over a white shirt and cream sweater, though the white shirt is another short-sleeved undershirt rather than the button-down collar shirt that the actor wore in this 1964 photo by William Claxton.

Benjamin finds his childhood home sadly empty.

Benjamin finds his childhood home sadly empty.

Listings on The Golden Closet, Heritage Auctions, and Julien’s Live have identified Benjamin’s cream yellow sweater as a vintage 1960s piece in 100% cashmere from Royal Prince. It has long set-in sleeves and a deep V-neck that shows the top of his white crew-neck T-shirt.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

Benjamin wears a few pairs of trousers with this jacket, wearing the same cream jeans with the pale yellow sweater. For a brief vignette on his silver-blue Triumph, he wears a more rugged pair of worn blue denim jeans, tan roughout lace-up boots, and mustard leather gloves.

Full photo: Brad and Cate channel the famous couple in a production photo from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Inset: Steve and Neile, photographed by John Dominis for the July 12, 1963, cover of LIFE magazine.
Full photo: Brad and Cate channel the famous couple in a production photo from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

…and a Bullitt-like Jacket

Less of a direct visual reference to Steve McQueen, Benjamin still recalls one of the actor’s most iconic outfits when he attends his mother’s funeral in 1963 while wearing an earthy sport jacket over a dark turtleneck, just as McQueen did when he played the smooth San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt.

McQueen as the titular police lieutenant in Bullitt (1968)

McQueen as the titular police lieutenant in Bullitt (1968)

Benjamin’s dark brown plaid sport jacket has slim notch lapels and is worn over a charcoal knit sweater with a narrow rollneck.

Benjamin and Daisy at Queenie's funeral.

Benjamin and Daisy at Queenie’s funeral.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

How to Get the Look

In honor of what would have been Steve McQueen’s 89th birthday this weekend (March 24), take a page from Brad Pitt’s playbook as Benjamin Button and find a way to incorporate the King of Cool’s fashion sense into a spring-friendly weekend casual outfit… perhaps starting with the famous “Carmel cardigan.”

  • Charcoal-blue heavy ribbed-knit wool five-button shawl-collar cardigan sweater
  • White lightweight cotton crew-neck short-sleeve T-shirt
  • Cream “Bedford cord” jeans with belt loops, front pockets, patch back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Tan leather lace-up boots

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story.

The Quote

We finally caught up with each other.

Advertisements

3 comments

  1. josephcrobertson

    Nice article – I do like the style choices in this film, but I will admit I found it nearly unwatchable otherwise. 😅

    Like

  2. George

    Fascinating article Nick. I thought that I knew everything about McQueen style after reading hundreds of posts about his style influence on the various menswear blogs etc but this is new to me. I’ve flipped by this movie a lot but have never seen it but I’ll check it out now. Thanks.

    Like

Leave a Reply to josephcrobertson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.