Steve McQueen as Steve Andrews, headstrong teenager
Chester County, Pennsylvania, Summer 1957
Film: The Blob
Release Date: September 12, 1958
Director: Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.
As today would have been Steve McQueen’s 90th birthday, let’s take a look at his first starring role, a sci-fi/horror drive-in favorite called The Blob. A personal favorite of producer Jack H. Harris, The Blob was filmed on location in southeastern Pennsylvania on a low budget that, depending on the source, has been quoted as anywhere between $110,000 and $240,000, a cost kept low thanks in part to the low $3,000 salary that the then-struggling actor McQueen had accepted to afford short-term expenses like food and rent.
After two uncredited movie roles and scattered TV bit parts across the mid-1950s, McQueen’s credited feature film debut was in Robert Stevens’ 1958 crime drama Never Love a Stranger, which also featured his future Bullitt co-star Felice Orlandi. Less than a week after the premiere episode of Wanted Dead or Alive aired on CBS in September 1958, The Blob was released in theaters with “Steven McQueen” first-billed.
Fittingly, McQueen’s first feature film scene with star billing found him behind the wheel of a car, though perched atop the back of the seat as his teenage character—also named Steve—puts the moves on his timid girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corsaut). When a romantic “shooting star” appears to be a meteorite crashing to Earth, Steve slides down behind the wheel of his aqua-colored ’53 Plymouth convertible and takes off in the direction of where it landed… where he discovers a strange red amoebic blob that will eventually absorb many residents of his town.
Given that premise, McQueen was among those surprised by the independent production’s impressive $4 million box office performance, though The Blob was still a modest start for the Indiana-born actor who remains immortalized more than a half-century later as the “King of Cool”.
What’d He Wear?
The Blob has no credited costume designer, a common practice from these low-budget B-movies when actors often wore their own clothing, and thus it’s not surprising to see the 28-year-old Steve McQueen wearing a few of the staples that would become part of his signature as he matured into a style icon.
For what begins as a laidback summer date one Friday evening, Steve dresses simply but stylishly in accordance with the then-fashionable Ivy code of an Oxford-cloth button-down (OCBD) shirt and cinch-back trousers with the actor’s own preferred suede ankle boots.
Depending on the lighting, Steve’s cotton shirt falls along the light yellow spectrum from a cool pale ecru to a warmer, creamy peach (“peachy cream”, if you will), styled in the manner of a traditional OCBD with breast pocket, a box pleat running down the center of his back, and—of course—a button-down collar, with a third button through the back of the collar, a functional detail to keep skinny ties in place under the collar until Brooks did away with the button as ties grew too thick to be reigned in by a mere button during the late 1960s. The long sleeves have rounded barrel cuffs that each close through a single button that is placed asymmetrically high on each cuff, closer to the wrist.
The shirtmaker is unknown, but it’s possible that it may be a Brooks Brothers item as we know McQueen was a frequent customer of the storied Manhattan-based clothier to the point that he even had a Brooks Brothers credit card. Indeed, it was Brooks Brothers that had revolutionized the button-down collar shirt, transforming what had been a functional fad among English polo players into an Ivy style staple over the first half of the 20th century.
Steve wears a white cotton short-sleeved T-shirt as an undershirt.
Steve’s trousers are particularly contemporary to the era. At first glance, they appear to be your standard, run-of-the-mill gray slacks until we get a glimpse of a silver buckle from the center of his belt line. As we continue to follow Steve and his frenemies while they do battle with the titular blob, we see that at least three of them are wearing trousers with a back cinch-strap. (The other cinch-backed fellas are the plaid-shirted group leader, Tony Gressette, and the red-sweatered “Mooch” Miller, though Steve is the only one of the trio who foregoes a belt, thus proving that his own back-cinch is likely serving the practical purpose of tightening his trousers around the waist.)
Cinch-back trousers were a trend unique to this brief period in the mid-to-late 1950s, though the detail itself extends back even further to the early days of Levi Strauss & Co. “The now-legendary West Coast brand’s relationship with the back cinch dates back to as early as 1872, where its function was to tighten the waist in an age when belts were not commonplace,” wrote Austin Bryant in a Heddels focus on the cinch-back. A half-century later, during the years that followed World War I, belts were increasingly more commonplace on men’s trousers from suits to denim work-wear. This was the twilight of cinch-back practicality, as Levi’s began supplementing its cinch-back 501 jeans with belt loops in 1922, and by 1933, the brand would offer to physically cut off cinch-backs for customers who preferred belts. As menswear trended in favor of belts and World War II led to restrictions on materials for civilian clothing, Levi’s had no choice but to introduce the 1944 pattern of 501 jeans that were the first to be manufactured with solely belt loops and nary a suspender button or back-cinch to be seen.
Christopher Sharp’s comprehensively researched history for Ivy Style suggests that the style was revived around 1952 when Jesse Siegel introduced it on the backs of wool trousers and cotton chinos, marketing the “Ivy-Alls” for the sophisticated college set. “The strategy was simple,” Sharp quotes Siegel telling Forbes in 1966. “We took the basic cheap garment and put a little fashion in it.”
While the collegiate cinched-back craze evidently petered out by the end of the fabulous fifties, a few men’s retailers still include retro-minded cinch-back trousers among their offerings:
- Levi’s® Vintage Clothing “Cinch Back Pants” in beige cotton/linen blend, from an original Levi’s pattern (via Levi’s)
- Orvis “Brushed Cotton Miner Pants” in gray cotton/synthetic blend (via Orvis)
Unfortunately, both products appear to be sold out at the time of this writing in March 2020, so I’d advise interested shoppers to monitor if they should become available again or mine the offerings of vintage retailers for an original pair from the ’50s like those worn by the sharply dressed Ethan M. Wong on his exquisite blog, Street x Sprezza.
The rest of Steve’s semi-solid slate blue flat front trousers are considerably less interesting. The fly has a hidden hook closure and a zipper, and the belt loops remain unused… after all, who needs a belt when you’ve got a properly adjusted cinch strap? The trousers also have slanted side pockets with a slightly rounded opening and jetted back pockets with a button through the left back pocket only. Generously cut through the hips and legs, the trousers have a gentle taper as they approach the pressed turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms.
The shirt and trousers are consistent with Ivy style trends of the era, but Steve’s suede ankle boots would take a new life with McQueen’s growing reputation as a style icon. While the other elements that would long become linked with “Steve McQueen” style—the Persol shades, the shawl-collar cardigans, the tweed shooting jackets—had yet to be associated with the actor, The Blob marks an early appearance of the iconic Hutton “Original Playboy” boots that he would famously wear on- and off-screen for the next decade and beyond.
Debate endures about who actually made McQueen’s boots, with Sanders & Sanders and Hutton both emerging as the most popularly cited shoemakers. By following the lively and informed discussion among McQueen fans and footwear enthusiasts on the Steve McQueen Style blog, a consensus seemed to emerge that argued in favor of Hutton being the original manufacturer while Sanders & Sanders is credited for offering the closest currently available boot similar to what McQueen wore in movies like The Blob, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Bullitt as well as in real life and during his early television appearance with then-wife Neile Adams on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Man from the South”. I also suggest you read what my friend at Iconic Alternatives had to say about what makes these boots special and where you can find a pair today.
McQueen’s famous boots had snuff brown suede uppers with two eyelets for matching laces. The charcoal crepe soles are the distinctive thick “bumper” soles that differentiate “Playboy” boots from similar chukkas or desert boots. Steve wears them in The Blob with burgundy cotton lisle socks that add a little-seen but much-appreciation subtle pop of color to this outfit.
After they are sent home by the police, Steve covertly arranges to meet with Jane later that night. He keeps his clothes on while pretending to be asleep for his parents’ benefit before he leaps out of bed, laces on his boots, and zips on a yellowed tan blouson jacket.
The U.S. military had introduced the nylon MA-1 bomber jacket over the previous decade to supersede the previous leather flight jackets, offering a lighter and more weather-resistant construction in a cost-effective package. Interestingly, these jackets bookend McQueen’s film career as he wears this bomber-inspired jacket during his first starring role in The Blob and would wear a sage green Alpha Industries MA-1 jacket in his final starring role, The Hunter, released just months before the actor’s death in 1980.
While not structured or styled to be a true bomber jacket, Steve’s tan suede blouson in The Blob clearly took some design cues from the MA-1 with its ribbed-knit collar, cuffs, and hem in a tonal peachy-hued wool. The zip-up jacket has set-in sleeves and slanted hand pockets with open jetting rather than the MA-1’s pocket flaps.
After finding stardom over the next decade, McQueen would be inextricably linked to his iconic timepieces like the actor’s own Rolex Submariner 5512 that appeared in The Hunter, the distinctive Heuer Monaco worn in Le Mans, a utilitarian mil-spec Benrus in Bullitt, and the luxurious Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre he wears in The Thomas Crown Affair. However, he had evidently not yet acquired his horological habit when The Blob was in production as he appears on screen bare-wristed, his only accessory being the actor’s own gold ring.
Worn on the third finger of his left hand, the traditional placement for a wedding band, this large ring is embossed with the actor’s own initials, the “S” overlaying the “M” in a configuration abstract enough that it doesn’t look like his character, Steve Andrews, is wearing an incorrectly monogrammed piece. In fact, the ring would appear in several of McQueen’s early roles, from the TV show Wanted Dead or Alive through his breakthrough role as the swaggering Captain Hilts in The Great Escape. You can see a closer shot of the ring in the Steve McQueen Online discussion forum.
How to Get the Look
For his first major starring role, Steve McQueen dressed with a balance of character-informed Ivy style and a touch of his own signature sartorial sensibilities that would define the King of Cool throughout his career and his enduring menswear legacy.
- Creamy yellow cotton long-sleeve shirt with button-down collar, front placket, breast pocket, and single-button rounded cuffs
- Tan suede zip-up blouson jacket with ribbed-knit collar, cuffs, and hem, set-in sleeves, and slanted jetted hand pockets
- Slate blue flat front “cinch back” trousers with belt loops, zip fly, slanted front pockets, jetted back pockets (with button through left), adjustable rear cinch strap, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Saddle brown suede 2-eyelet playboy boots
- Burgundy cotton lisle socks
- White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
- Gold personalized ring with overlaid “S.M.” embossing
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. Even at this early stage in his career, much of McQueen’s delivery and mannerisms recognizably consistent with his later performances even if he would continue to develop his talent and charisma.
How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don’t believe in?