Love Story: Ryan O’Neal’s Sheepskin Shearling Coat

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Vitals

Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett IV, preppy Harvard student

New England, Winter 1966, and New York City, Winter 1970

Film: Love Story
Release Date: December 16, 1970
Director: Arthur Hiller
Costume Design: Alice Manougian Martin & Pearl Somner

Background

Happy Valentine’s Day! In the spirit of the season of romance, it felt appropriate to explore the preppy style in one of the most famous cinematic love stories of all time… the perhaps uncleverly titled Love Story.

I went into my inaugural Love Story viewing this year familiar only with Larry Siegel and Mort Drucker’s Mad magazine parody and the movie’s reviled thesis that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” so I was a little surprised to find myself non-ironically enjoying it more than I expected. Sure, my friend @berkeley_breathes had primed me to expect some standout Ivy-inspired style worn by Ryan O’Neal as our romantic hero Oliver, but I guess the half-century since Love Story has yielded considerably cornier products with the odd effect that this aged… relatively well? Or maybe I’m just speaking from behind the blinders of my enduring crush on early ’70s Ali MacGraw.

What’d He Wear?

The much-discussed (and copied) style of Love Story‘s leads would lead one to assuming it boasted a prolific costume designer, though the credited designers—Alice Manougian Martin and Pearl Somner—have very limited credits between them; in addition to this, Martin is credited on three 1963 episodes of East Side, West Side, and Somner for a little-known Pat Boone faith-based flick called The Cross and the Switchblade, released just six months before Love Story. Unless there’s part of the story I’m missing, Martin and Somner’s teamwork must be one of the most successful one-hit wonders in the history of cinematic costume design!

Much of the fashionable eye on Love Story has rightly been focused on Ali MacGraw as the scrappy and sharp-tongued Radcliffe student Jenny who swiftly steals Oliver’s heart, but it’s his warm shearling coat that undoubtedly wins the heart of many a menswear enthusiast.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

An Ivy romance.

I mentioned my friend @berkeley_breathes in the introduction, and I’d like to thank him for his help and for encouraging me to take a look at Love Story for BAMF Style content. Earlier this month, he shared his characteristically thoughtful insights with Charles McFarlane for Put This On about Ivy inclusivity and style. I’m also grateful to him for identifying O’Neal’s screen-worn sheepskin coat as most likely a product by Sawyer of Napa, a theory that I’d argue is backed up by The Weejun‘s look at a 1969 Sawyer of Napa coat that shares many of the characteristics (aside from a few collar differences) as O’Neal’s jacket.

While there’s plenty recorded about the history of shearling outerwear, I was delighted that @berkeley_breathes was able to contextualize for me not only how shearling became associated with Ivy style but what it says about Oliver’s character that O’Neal wears it so prominently:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, prep schools started drastically expanding the Ivy canon to include workwear and military surplus, but also (critically) Western gear like cowboy boots, hats, and shearling coats. The really cool thing is that you see them on teachers as often as you see them on kids; it really reinforces the idea that this style developed from practicality and style combined. In a cold New England winter, you need a heavy coat, but—like Tintin in 1975—you want to stay with the times, too, so you reach for the shearling. What you end up with on these prep school and Ivy campuses is a really beautiful sheepskin in a really classic design: no huge collar, very boxy cut, perfect for layering over Shetlands or jackets.

I think the coat really emphasizes Oliver’s character; he’s annoyed by the burden of his name and legacy, and his clothes reflect how he’s starting to push against the confines of those traditions. He looks awkward in his blazer and flannels at the family mansion but at ease and carefree playing in the snow in his shearling coat. It’s a way that Oliver identifies himself with a younger, hipper generation, one that’s open to new ideas rather than being hidebound and reactionary. Of course, Oliver has his own struggles with that and with relationships in general, but that’s one take I have on the coat. It’s practical, it’s stylish, it’s making a point. And it doesn’t age at all; that coat looks as great today as it did in 1970.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Sheepskin is unusual among leathers as it’s tanned and processed with the shearling lamb’s soft woolen fleece intact, providing the effect of an insulating but breathable lining that often presents on the collar and cuffs. The 1960s marked a renaissance for sheepskin, its warm and hard-wearing reputation having popularized it among pilots and cowboys until it fell into the hands of the fashionable set, sported by the likes of Alain Delon and Robert Redford before Ryan O’Neal put his shearling coat through the rigors of a New England winter in Love Story.

Oliver’s sheepskin shearling car coat shows the usual cognac tan on its suede-like outer shell with the natural-shaded woolly shearling fleece presenting on the collar, about three quarters of an inch from the edge. A loop on the left side of the collar indicates a button at the top to close over the neck with three more brown woven leather buttons closing the coat beginning just below a horizontal yoke across the chest. The coat has set-in sleeves, a single vent, and deep hand pockets that gently curve toward the center of the coat to follow the natural movements of the wearer’s arms when inserting one’s hands through the slanted, jetted openings.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

In his perfect Sawyer of Napa sheepskin coat, Oliver stands out among more blandly dressed students for a fall day on campus.

Oliver layers his shearling coat over a limited but well-loved cycle of Shetland wool sweaters, all given to considerable pilling after each wear. Once you’ve read about this versatile sweater from the Scottish Isles at Put This On, you can start looking for one of your own, starting with the Oliver-approved colors yellow (via Pendleton or Plain Goods) and green (via O’Connells). For a more comprehensive look at Shetland and lambswool sweater purveyors, I offer this guide by From Squalor to Baller.

The first is a mustard raglan-sleeve sweater that he wears over a worn-in light blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt, an Ivy staple that Oliver wears with characteristic insouciance, the collar leafs unbuttoned and atop the widely ribbed crew neck of his sweater. (Perhaps significantly, he wears this both when he meets Jenny and again when the two have their First Fight years later, after their marriage.)

He’s wearing this sweater for the first scene when wrangling with Jenny over his right to patronize the Radcliffe library, unable to comprehend her reluctance to help him and her enthusiasm for referring to him solely as “Preppy”… despite the fact that he’s standing before her in a shearling coat, blue OCBD, Shetland, and khaki corduroys.

Oliver: What makes you so sure I went to prep school?
Jenny: You look stupid and rich.
Oliver: Actually, I’m smart and poor.
Jenny: Uh-uh, I’m smart and poor.
Oliver: What makes you so smart?
Jenny: I wouldn’t go for coffee with you.
Oliver: I wouldn’t ask you.
Jenny: Well, that’s what makes you stupid.

CUT TO:

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

That Friday night, Oliver and Jenny share their first real date when she attends his hockey game against Dartmouth. “Jenny, I might not call you for a few months… then again, I might call you as soon as I get back to my room,” he quips at the end of the night, and indeed he moves swiftly to his phone when he returns home.

Slipping off his coat as he enters the apartment, we see a black manufacturer’s label sewn onto the reverse side of the coat’s left pocket.The tag is consistent with the look and placement of outerwear by Sawyer of Napa, the California brand suggested by @berkeley_breathes.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Oliver removes his coat once he returns home among his friends and roommates (including Hank, played by a young Tommy Lee Jones.)

Oliver peels off his shearling coat to reveal another variation of his campus uniform: OCBD, Shetland, and corduroys. His light blue shirt may be the same (or similar) as the one spotted earlier in the week, its unbuttoned collar leafs worn outside the sweater as usual, though he’s swapped out the golden sweater for a similar one in spruce green.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Oliver illustrates the durability and versatility of his Ivy gear by maintaining his wardrobe beyond his college years, such as the following autumn when he and Jenny move into their first Boston apartment. He’s wearing his light blue button-down layered under the green Shetland, this time with his light brown corduroys and oxblood oxfords.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Oliver and Jenny aren’t far removed from their college days when he’s carrying her across the threshold into their first home, he in his OCBD, Shetland, and cords and she sporting her usual Tartan plaids.

The true difference between sheepskin and suede emerges as we follow our lovers through a blustery New England winter, through which Oliver’s coat endures rain, snow, and never having to say you’re sorry. (I had to.)

While Jerry Seinfeld may have ruined his suede jacket by wearing it in the rain, no such harm comes to Ryan O’Neal’s sheepskin vestment, emerging victorious the following spring with perhaps just a touch of seasoned patina that merely adds to its value.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Jenny and Oliver don’t get a little rain get in the way of their romance… or their inclination to wear their favorite weather-ready coats.

As Oliver’s idyllic romance with Jenny progresses through the winter months, their weather-friendly coats serve them well for dates spent frolicking in the powder making snow angels and snowmen. Here, his outfit varies only slightly from his usual campus looks; he wears a white oxford cotton, the button-down collar unfastened as usual but considerably more disarranged.

Oliver’s slate blue Shetland sweater and blue jeans are likely the same as seen during a brief vignette of he and Jenny reading on his couch, the sweater rigged with a V-neck—as opposed to the crew-necks of its forebears—to show plenty more of the top of his white shirt and the undershirt beneath it.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Oliver’s sheepskin passes the snow angel test with flying colors.

Whether it’s fallen leaves or snow crunching under his feet, Oliver wisely stomps around campus in a pair of heavy dark brown leather lace-up boots. Though the boots are often too buried in snow to make out the details clearly, I believe I discerned the profile of derby-style open lacing.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Oliver almost always wears taupe knitted gloves, supplemented in moments of school pride by a wool scarf, block-striped in Harvard colors crimson and white with long fringe on the ends. Similar scarves are still available from The Harvard Shop more than a half-century later, though you could also go the more generic route via Amazon.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Almost mocking himself as he swaddles his throat in the school colors after losing a hockey game, Oliver despondently watches his aloof father drive away in his Jaguar.

We don’t see much of Oliver’s signature shearling coat during the early months of his and Jenny’s marriage; instead, he pulls on a shorter and darker sheep-lined flight jacket for his desperate dash around campus after their fitst fight.

Oliver presses the coat back into service later as he and Jenny relocate to New York for his new job at a law firm. He’s several years removed from campus and has updated some of his style to keep hip with the times, layering the coat over a simple slate-blue turtleneck as well as his trusty light brown corduroys just broken-in enough to be comfortable when spending hours cramped into the cockpit of his MG TC roadster between Beantown and the Big Apple.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Seconds after pulling up in front of the Manhattan high-rise they’ll now call home, Jenny again asks to be carried over the threshold.

Unfortunately, the young couple’s promising future is marred when they learn Jenny is terminally ill with cancer. Perhaps subconsciously hoping to recapture the magic of their first dates, Oliver reverts to his old campus “uniform” when making the most of his remaining time with Jenny.

For a wintry afternoon spent ice skating in Central Park, he’s in one of his old light blue oxford shirts, the button-down collar again worn undone and folded over the crew neck of his sweater, in this case a bulky ivory cable-knit fisherman sweater that he wears with dark brown corduroys.

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

“I want her to have the very best,” a distraught Oliver insists outside of Jenny’s hotel room.

How to Get the Look

Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story (1970)

From the shearling coat to the Shetland sweaters, several sheep sacrificed their skins for Oliver Barrett IV to arrange the outer layers of his campus uniform, insulating his Ivy staples like the light blue OCBD and earthy corduroys.

  • Camel brown sheepskin shearling four-button coat with beige pile lining, loop collar, straight horizontal yokes, set-in sleeves, and curved jetted-entry hand pockets
  • Light blue oxford cotton button-down shirt
  • Woolen crew-neck raglan-sleeve sweater
  • Brown corduroy flat front trousers
  • Dark brown leather work boots
  • White cotton crew-neck undershirt
  • Taupe knitted wool gloves
  • Crimson-and-white block-striped wool scarf with fringed ends

Got a few hundred bucks saved up? Search “Sawyer of Napa” on eBay and find that rugged style that’ll work for you!

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie… and, if you’re looking to get beyond tipsy this Valentine’s Day, watch Love Story and take a shot every time Ali MacGraw calls Ryan O’Neal “preppy”.

The Quote

Hey, if you’re so convinced I’m a loser, why did you bulldoze me into buying you coffee?

One comment

  1. Pingback: Gorky Park: Lee Marvin's Sheepskin Flight Jacket » BAMF Style

Leave a Reply