James Dean, enigmatic young actor and rebellious emblem
Los Angeles, Summer 1955
Photographs by Sanford Roth
Part of BAMF Style’s Iconic Photo Series, focusing on style featured in famous photography of classic stars rather than from specific productions.
Today would have been the 90th birthday of James Dean, born in central Indiana on February 8, 1931. Considering his cultural impact, it’s remarkable that Dean condensed his entire career into less than a half decade in the early 1950s, acting in a series of commercials, TV anthology programs, and uncredited bit parts in movies until delivering a trio of enduring performances in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant that would be released within a year and a half of each other.
Famously—or perhaps infamously—a racing enthusiast, Dean only lived to see the release of East of Eden before the September 30, 1955, crash of his “Little Bastard” Porsche that took his life at the age of 24. He would become the first actor to be posthumously nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, in fact receiving nominations for both East of Eden and Giant after his death, though it may be Rebel Without a Cause that’s considered his signature performance as the disillusioned teen Jim Stark.
During this brief but shining career, almost everything that Dean wore on- and off-camera set a new standard, whether it’s the long greatcoat he was photographed wearing on the streets of New York City or the red McGregor windbreaker, white T, and blue jeans while exhibiting his all-American angst in Rebel Without a Cause.
“Importantly to his wider influence, Dean dressed as though for a fashion plate in his personal life too, his dress also reflecting the pioneer spirit inherent to the hard-wearing, masculine clothing he preferred,” wrote Josh Sims in Men of Style. “His clothing choices might include denims or work pants, patch-pocket work shirts, striped Oxfords, Bretons, or T-shirts, motorcycle boots or Jack Purcell sneakers, Perfecto black-leather biker jacket, flight jacket, or double-breasted overcoat, aviator sunglasses or horn-rimmed glasses and, capping the look, seemingly glued to his bottom lip, an ever-present cigarette. Shirts were invariably worn undone, collars crumpled or turned up. His quiff alone was instantly recognizable.”
On the set of his final film, Giant, Dean became fast friends with photographer Sanford Roth. A generation older than the actor, Sanford and his wife Beulah became almost adoptive parents to Dean, frequently hosting the actor as a houseguest at their Los Angeles home, where he would listen to stories of their European travels and play with their Siamese cat. “He liked us, but he loved our cat, Louis, and we came to recognize that he was Louis’ guest,” wrote Beulah Roth.
During one of these visits in the summer of 1955, Roth pulled out his 35mm camera and snapped some candid photos of the actor revealing a more sensitive side, looking both playful and philosophical.
What’d He Wear?
Roth often brought out his camera when James Dean was visiting, capturing the actor in a variety of candid poses and outfits, though my favorite of these spontaneous sessions featured Dean in a unique Breton-striped top that cemented this French naval design in the annals of menswear. Though this pattern may be frequently associated with an icon of the fabulous fifties, its origins date back more than a century earlier.
“Fishermen in the Brittany region of north-western France had long worn warm, loose-fitting versions of the top, with three-quarter length sleeves and, according to France’s Musée de la Marine, specifically… blue and white stripes—in part out of regional pride, and in part because the stripes made it easier to see anyone who fell overboard,” wrote Josh Sims of the Breton top’s history in Icons of Men’s Style. The French Navy witnessed the effectiveness of the Breton top with its potentially life-saving stripes and lack of buttons or flaps that could snag on rigging, and the marinière was officially authorized for naval service in March 1858, with regulations dictating that “the body shall have 21 white stripes, each twice as wide as the 20 or 21 navy blue stripes.” As fans of Battleship Potemkin undoubtedly recall, the Imperial Russian Navy would soon follow with their own telnyashka jumpers.
During World War I, a vacationing Coco Chanel liked what she saw on the backs of fishermen below her Deauville balcony and transformed the Breton-striped jersey into a simple but striking style staple for chic women over the generations to follow, though the shirt never shook its hard-wearing origins as macho men like John Wayne and Lee Marvin sported Breton stripes in movies like Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and The Wild One (1953), respectively. (You can read more history of this shirt by Angus Walker for The Breton Stripe Co.)
Though he never wore it in any of his films, wild-titled or otherwise, the Breton stripe came to be intrinsically associated with James Dean after this series of photos at the Roth home as he sat at their table in a casual and comfortably chic long-sleeved pullover knitted shirt patterned in a bold navy and white horizontal striping that balanced the width of both colors to a total of 66 narrow stripes alternating in navy and white from shoulder seam to waist hem as opposed to the 40 or 41 found on a traditional Breton top. (That said, the white stripes on Dean’s shirt are still correctly wider than the blue, just not double the width.)
Unlike the simple boat-necked tops favored by sailors, Dean’s shirt has a large navy collar with a short V-neck placket that transforms the effect into a casual polo shirt. At the end of each set-in sleeve, a navy ribbed cuff echoes the collar.
Photography I’ve seen from the day doesn’t reveal the back of Dean’s blue denim jeans, specifically whether or not they’d include the “lazy S” compound curve that had been a Lee signature for the last decade, but the cut of the front pockets suggests that he’s indeed wearing the Lee 101 Riders. Dean often favored these durable jeans in real life, and he would prominently wear them on screen as Jim Stark’s preferred denim in Rebel Without a Cause.
Dean’s brown leather belt is tooled with decorative tan leaf designs and contrasting edge stitching and may be the same one personalized with his name across the back as worn (indeed, with a pair of Lee Riders) in a candid photo Roth shot of Jimmy with Beulah, beaming in the background as the actor seemingly turns a camera on Roth himself.
Glimpses of gold from Dean’s left wrist suggest that he’s wearing the LeCoultre watch he had purchased in 1955. The 18-karat yellow gold watch had a black dial with gold hour markers—numeric at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock, with a sub-dial at the 6:00 position—and was fastened to his wrist via black leather strap.
You can read more about this watch—and Dean’s “lucky” Elgin pocket watch worn earlier in his career—at Crown & Caliber (which suggests the watch was a LeCoultre PowerMatic Nautilus) and see photos of his LeCoultre at the Timezone forums.
How to Get the Look
“May I say that James Dean wore these clothes because he liked them and he knew he looked well in them,” wrote Beulah Roth. “There was no social significance to this choice at all.”
Like so many style icons of the last century, James Dean’s unintentional style choices have inspired many to dress with intention, though there remains a fine line between the scores of imitators and those who can nod to Dean’s offbeat fashion choices while still carving their own sartorial path.
- Navy-and-white Breton-striped knitted long-sleeve pullover shirt with navy V-neck collar and ribbed cuffs
- Blue denim Lee Rider jeans
- Brown tooled leather belt
- LeCoultre yellow gold wristwatch with round black dial (with 6:00 sub-dial) and black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Look for the TASCHEN book published in the early 1980s, memorializing James Dean through Sanford Roth’s intimate photographs and Beulah Roth’s eloquent memories.
An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet. In the short span of his lifetime, an actor must learn all there is to know, experience all there is to experience, or approach that state as closely as possible. He must be superhuman in his efforts to store away in the core of his subconscious everything that he might be called upon to use in the expression of his art.