Walk the Line: Johnny Cash in Rockabilly White and Black

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005)

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005)


Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, rising country rock star

Texarkana, Texas, Summer 1955

Film: Walk the Line
Release Date: November 18, 2005
Director: James Mangold
Costume Designer: Arianne Phillips
Tailor: Pam Lisenby


Eighty-nine years ago on February 26, 1932, J.R. Cash was born in Arkansas. His childhood was dominated by music, as there was little else to encourage the family enduring the hard years of the Depression made worse by a dangerous flood and the violent death of Jack, one of the seven Cash children. It was when he joined the military that the 18-year-old Cash expanded his first name as the Air Force wouldn’t allow just initials, though it wasn’t until cutting his first recording at Sun Records that he established the name that would become legendary: Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash, circa 1955.

Johnny Cash, circa 1955.

I’d long been a fan of Cash’s music, and my girlfriend fiancée Olivia surprised me this Christmas with At Folsom Prison on vinyl, among other great records and Booze & Vinyl: A Spirited Guide to Great Music and Mixed Drinks, a volume by siblings by André and Tenaya Darlington that matches a duo of interesting cocktails with classic albums. It was while enjoying the Darlingtons’ recommended pairing of At Folsom Prison with more than a few of the rum-and-cider concoctions known as a Stone Fence that Liv discovered that she too is a Johnny Cash fan, and it’s been a delight hearing her playing one of my favorite artists.

Just over a year after Cash released his first Sun single, “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in Memphis on July 7, 1956. It was while backstage at the Ryman Auditorium that he met June Carter, then two years his senior and a voice he’d long admired from the radio days of his childhood in Dyess.

The two would grow their personal and professional relationship, frequently touring together over the dozen years to follow until June accepted Johnny’s marriage proposal on stage in Toronto in February 1968, just over a month after they recorded the landmark At Folsom Prison. The couple would remain together until her death in May 2003, with Johnny himself to follow only four months later.

What’d He Wear?

June Carter and Johnny Cash meet backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, July 1956.

The 2005 biopic Walk the Line depicts Johnny Cash and June Carter’s first meeting a year earlier in Texarkana, between a characteristically chaotic Jerry Lee Lewis performance and Cash with the Tennessee Two performing “Get Rhythm”. Though the circumstances gently differ between their real-life meeting and the cinematic depiction, costume designer Arianne Phillips paid tribute to recreating Cash’s stage outfit, comprised of a white shawl-collar jacket over a dark shirt, bow tie, and trousers.

As Cash, Joaquin Phoenix wears an off-white single-button jacket in a lightweight cloth with an imperfect slubbing that suggests raw silk. Though the Walk the Line jacket nixes the showy “J.C.” embroidered on the real Cash’s left lapel, the narrow shawl collar is piped in a similar braided gilt embroidery.

The wide, padded shoulders are characteristic of the mid-1950s, and the jacket is additionally detailed with a welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and a single vent. The sleeves are finished with two non-functioning white buttons at each cuff.

Walk the Line (2005)

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, clad in their white stage jackets with uniquely piped shawl collars. True to his nature, Johnny’s the only one sticking to black underpinnings while the bassist Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) sports a bright red shirt and laconic guitarist Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller) wears a subdued beige.

Befitting the “Man in Black” image he would cultivate over his career, the rest of Cash’s attire under the gold-piped white jacket is all-black. His flat front trousers are self-suspended at the waist, worn without a belt but possibly fitted with button-tab side adjusters. He also wears black leather shoes, likely lace-ups.

Rather than the long striped Western-style bow tie Cash actually wore for the Opry debut where he met June, Phoenix’s Cash wears a simpler plain black satin bow tie in the straight, narrow style that was fashionable during the fabulous fifties.

Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line (2005)

Moments before introducing himself: “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”

Walk the Line suggests that Cash’s famous all-black stage wardrobe originated as it was the only shirt color that he, Marshall Grant, and Luther Perkins shared. Once they’re on the road, successfully touring and selling records, this seems to be less of a consideration as the trio opts for matching stage jackets and differently colored shirts, Cash sticking to black for reasons ranging from practical (easier to keep clean while touring) and pointed (symbolizing rebellion).

Rather than the striped black shirt seen in photos from the ’56 Opry appearance, Phoenix’s Cash wears a plain black cotton Western-style work shirt with mother-of-pearl snap closures up the front placket, on the triple-snap cuffs, and fastening the two “sawtooth” double-snap flaps over the chest pockets. The shirt snaps right up to the collar, which is lined along the inside in a beige sateen fabric.

After the performance, he takes off the bow tie and unsnaps the top of his shirt, showing the top of his white ribbed cotton sleeveless undershirt as he takes a seat next to June at the all-night diner.

Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line (2005)

Emboldened by his stage success, Johnny continues his budding friendship with June after a late meal at a local diner.

Once he’d reached (and surpassed) great fame and success, Johnny Cash was a known fan of Rolex watches, including a gold Day-Date on a “President”-style bracelet seen during performances across the late ’70s and into the ’80s. (To read more about the real Cash’s Rolex watches, check out these articles from Rolex Magazine and Revolution.)

We’re not quite there yet at this point in Walk the Line, as Cash has only just evolved from a struggling salesman into one of a half-dozen budding stars on the Sun Records touring lineup. He’s depicted wearing a different yellow gold watch, though the manufacturer and model are unclear to me. On the opposing wrist, he wears a sterling silver chain-link ID bracelet.

He also wears a gold wedding ring symbolizing his first marriage to Vivian, though we witness his commitment get a little hazier once he makes June’s acquaintance.

Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line (2005)

Things… aren’t great at home.

How to Get the Look

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005)

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005)

Inspired by 1950s-era stage suits worn by the real Johnny Cash, costume designer Arianne Phillips rigged Joaquin Phoenix in a black-and-white outfit piped in gold that may not be practical for day-to-day wear but could inform some rockabilly-driven takes on creative black tie.

  • Off-white slubbed silk stage jacket with braided gilt-piped shawl collar, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, vestigial 2-button cuffs, and single vent
  • Black cotton work shirt with snap-up front placket, double-snap “sawtooth” flap chest pockets, and triple-snap cuffs
  • Black narrow bow tie
  • Black flat front self-suspended trousers
  • Black leather lace-up shoes
  • Black socks
  • Sterling silver chain-link ID bracelet
  • Yellow gold wristwatch with gold dial and gold bracelet
  • Gold wedding ring

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie, and pick up some Johnny Cash records. His 1968 live album At Folsom Prison may be personal favorite but to hear Cash at this early stage of his career, I recommend his debut album, Johnny Cash with his Hot and Blue Guitar!

Originally released in October 1957 by Sun Records, this record chronicles some of Cash’s biggest hits from the first three years of his recording career, including “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, and “I Walk the Line”. The expanded reissue from Columbia includes alternate versions of the latter two hits as well as “Get Rhythm”, the pulsating B-side of “I Walk the Line” that Phoenix performs in this sequence.

The Quote

Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.

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