James Dean as Caleb “Cal” Trask, angsty and entrepreneurial farmer’s son
Salinas, California, Fall 1917
Film: East of Eden
Release Date: March 9, 1955
Director: Elia Kazan
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
James Dean’s first of only three major credited screen roles also resulted in his first of two posthumous Academy Award nominations, starring as the moody Cal Trask in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, itself a loose retelling of the story of Cain and Abel set in California’s Salinas Valley around the time of America’s entry into World War I.
Cal and his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) vie for the affections of their father Adam (Raymond Massey), a prominent farmer and draft board chairman, whom Cal hopes to impress by growing beans to raise funds that would support the family and supplant some of Adam’s own financial losses. As Cal’s success in the bean-fields grows, his competition with his brother extends to Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), growing closer to her after they meet up at a county fair. (The music scoring the fair consists mostly of 1920s standards like “Ain’t She Sweet”, “Ain’t We Got Fun”, and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, gently anachronistic for the scene’s setting in the fall of 1917.)
East of Eden was Dean’s only starring film to be released during his lifetime, premiering in New York City on March 9, 1955, and widely released a month and a day later. His subsequent film projects—Rebel Without a Cause and Giant—would both be released following his death at the age of 24 on September 30, 1955.
What’d He Wear?
Given the charismatic James Dean’s potential as a rising star, his clothes reflect World War I-era fashions but worn with a contemporary ’50s sensibility, perhaps most represented in this scene not just by the sporty shirt but also by Cal wearing it only buttoned to the mid-chest, showing off far more of himself than would have been permissible by the era’s decorum. It may not be fair to deem Cal’s wardrobe totally anachronistic, though it’s worth mentioning that—at the very least—he presents a very progressive approach to dressing.
Cal Trask dresses almost exclusively in shades of brown, from beige shirts, sweaters, and trousers to his brown three-piece suit and this bronzed sports coat while attending the fair. The heavy light brown wool has been woven in a tight herringbone weave of sharp chevrons. The single-breasted jacket has short notch lapels that roll to the top of the full three-button front. The jacket also has three non-functioning buttons on each cuff, straight flapped hip pockets, and a welted breast pocket.
The ventless jacket has been tailored to emphasize an athletic hourglass silhouette with wide, heavily padded shoulders and a suppressed waist that’s enhanced by a half-belt sewn across the rear waist. This belted-back detail dates back to the emergence of sportswear like the famed Norfolk jacket in the late 19th century, allowing for a full-fitting jacket to be flatteringly pulled in at the waist while allowing the wearer a greater range of arm motion whether he’s leveling a rifle at wild game… or at milk bottles during a county fair.
Dean’s screen-worn jacket has been auctioned at least twice in the last two decades, sold through Heritage Auctions in October 2006 and again by Nate D. Sanders in September 2012, where the closing price neared $12,000. You can check out both listings for more information and photos of the actual jacket.
Cal maintains his usual chromatic scheme with a short-sleeved sport shirt made of a light ecru cotton. Aside from when we see him wearing a full suit and tie, all of Cal’s dressed-down shirts have short sleeves, a curious anachronism that certainly would have been contemporary to the 1950s production but was certainly not as widespread at the time of the film’s setting in 1917 when most men’s clothing—even for sports and labor—had full-length sleeves. The popularity of pre-made short sleeves wouldn’t emerge for at least two decades, following the relaxed sartorial standards influenced by interwar resort culture and the aloha shirts and tropical uniforms that servicemen had been exposed to during the second world war.
In addition to their short sleeves, several of Cal’s shirts are also characterized by their sporty one-piece collar, a style often marketed as a “Lido collar” for its associations with resort-wear. These flat collars resemble the familiar camp collar but tapered down the front of the shirt without a notch; similar to the Johnny collar, this graceful V-shaped neckline prevents the option of wearing a necktie which, especially in 1917, would have made this a particularly casual shirt.
The shirt has five buttons ton the wide placket, with the top button positioned just under the fold where the Lido collar overlaps, though Cal gradually devolves from wearing this top button undone at the fair to having the top three buttons unfastened when he’s confronted at home by his brother. A pocket over the left breast further dresses the shirt down. The screen-worn shirt, with a May 1954-dated mark for “Jim Dean”, was also auctioned by Nate D. Sanders in 2012.
The cooler fawn shade of Cal’s wool gabardine flat front trousers subtly contrasts from the heavier sport jacket to break up the undesired “mismatched suit” effect. Aside from his three-piece suit, all of Cal’s trousers have belts made from matching fabric, including the narrow fawn-colored belt that closes over these trousers’ extended waist tab through a brass single-prong buckle.
The trousers have jetted back pockets, on-seam side pockets, and a slit pocket just below the right side of the belt-line where Cal wears his watch. The bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) with a high break.
Between the common choices of black and brown shoe leather, Cal wisely opts for the latter with this sandy-toned outfit, sporting a pair of cognac plain-toe oxfords worn with taupe socks.
While the rest of his screen wardrobe may have been rooted more in contemporary fashions of the ’50s, it was actually James Dean himself who insisted on incorporating the most period-correct part of his costume: a vintage gold pocket watch.
Dean was still just a struggling actor in the early 1950s when he purchased what he would call his “lucky watch”, a gold-filled pocket watch with a full-hunter cover, powered by a rhodium-plated Elgin movement and made by Standard Watch Co. in 1889. As described by Stephen Pulvirent for Hodinkee:
Dean’s solid gold pocket watch is signed “Standard USA” and was made circa 1889 in bassine et filets style with an engine-turned back. The front cover is engraved with the initials “JD” and the dial is simple white enamel, decorated with a sunken sub-seconds counter that lives below the blued steel hands. The coin-edged case contains an Elgin movement composed of a three quarter plate, five jewels, a straight line lever escapement, and a cut-bimetallic compensation balance.
Three years after he purchased it and was on the fast road to stardom, the actor insisted on wearing it during the filming of East of Eden, against director Elia Kazan’s protestations… though he did reportedly swap out the cover to hide his monogram.
Perhaps sensing that he had sourced all the good luck that the watch could give him, Dean gifted the watch to Warner Brothers hairdresser Tillie Starriet, whom he had befriended on set, and began wearing the LeCoultre PowerMatic Nautilus that was still on his wrist when he died in the infamous September 1955 car crash.
Nearly sixty years after it dangled from his waistband in East of Eden, Dean’s “lucky” pocket watch was auctioned by Antiquorum in 2013, fetching around $42,000. You can read more at Hodinkee and Watch Collecting Lifestyle.
How to Get the Look
While I don’t think James Dean’s look in East of Eden would win any awards for era-authentic costume design, Cal Trask presents a comfortable template for tastefully sporty dressing in his light brown belted-back jacket, matching-belted trousers, and Lido-collar shirt… with a vintage pocket adding character.
- Light brown herringbone wool single-breasted 3-button sport jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and half-belted back
- Ecru cotton short-sleeved sport shirt with Lido collar, wide front placket, and breast pocket
- Fawn wool gabardine flat-front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, front-right slit pocket, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Fawn wool belt with brass single-prong buckle
- Brown leather plain-toe oxford shoes
- Light taupe socks
- Gold full-hunter pocket watch with white enamel dial (with radial Roman numeral hour markers and 6:00 register) on a short chain with round fob
Do Yourself a Favor and…
I never go home anymore.