Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, impulsive drifter based on Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady
New York to San Francisco, via New Orleans, Winter 1949
Film: On the Road
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Director: Walter Salles
Costume Designer: Danny Glicker
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of when On the Road was published on September 5, 1957. Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat Generation novel had been years in the making, beginning with his continuous, single-spaced 120-page “scroll” that he typed across three weeks in April 1951, almost immediately after returning from the last of the book’s depicted travels.
With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road, when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City in 1926, in a jalopy, on their way to Los Angeles.
Though Kerouac hardly shied away from including seedier details of his friend’s life, On the Road became something of a hagiography centered around Dean Moriarty, the alter ego he developed for his real-life pal Neal Cassady. With the same excitement of the Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, and George Shearing performances they celebrate, the impulsive Dean steals the spotlight much as he and his fellow travelers steal to support their travels, or offset “the cost of living”, as they rationalize.
Despite considerable interest—including from the author himself—in cinematic adaptations, it wouldn’t be until more than a half-century passed that cameras would finally roll on bringing On the Road to the screen. Francis Ford Coppola had held the rights since 1979, holding on through decades of development hell until the artistic critical success of The Motorcycle Diaries encouraged him to hand over the reins to director Walter Salles and writer José Rivera. Salles again collaborated with cinematographer Éric Gautier, whose photography brought mid-century America back to life across the small towns, sandy deserts, and snowy hillsides that resisted generations of change.
Garrett Hedlund’s appropriately kinetic performance as the dangerously charismatic Dean also emerged as one of the strongest aspects of Salles’ On the Road adaptation, with Owen Gleiberman writing for Entertainment Weekly that “the best thing in the movie is Garrett Hedlund’s performance as Dean Moriarty, whose hunger for life—avid, erotic, insatiable, destructive—kindles a fire that will light the way to a new era.”
“We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind, performing our one noble function of the time: move,” narrates Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) as he embarks on yet another journey, this time with Dean and Dean’s young girlfriend Marylou (Kristen Stewart), just after New Year’s Day 1949. Their first stop is to see “Old Bull” Lee (Viggo Mortensen) in New Orleans, when they plan to drop off Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan) with his long-suffering wife Galatea (Elisabeth Moss) before heading west for California, specifically San Francisco.
What’d He Wear?
Dean Moriarty is a generally simple dresser, who needs little more than a plain white T-shirt and his hardy jeans and boots to store his minimal possessions as he aimlessly roams the country.
A standout piece of Dean’s limited road closet is a khaki flight jacket that he pulls on for this wintry leg of their journey. With its mouton fur collar and non-leather shell, Dean’s jacket echoes military styles, specifically the garment marketed by The Real McCoy’s as the MJ1911 U.S.N. Cotton Flight Jacket, which could be described as a contemporary B-15 flight jacket but with the nylon shell replaced with the corded “jungle cloth” cotton of the N-1 deck jacket. Whether the Navy ever actually issued a jacket like this remains a mystery to me, as I can find no record of an “MJ1911” or similar jackets produced during the World War II era or later.
Dean’s jacket appears to have a softer serge shell, but still follows the overall style with its simple blouson-like design with dark brown ribbed cuffs and hem and slash-style hand pockets. the jacket is lined with a dark brown quilted polyester that provides an additional layer of warmth.
“A weary young fellow, muscular and ragged in a T-shirt,” was Sal’s first description of Dean after not having seen him for a year before arriving on his brother’s doorstep on Christmas 1948. Like the real Neal Cassady, the screen Dean cycles through a variety of plain white cotton undershirts, worn on their own like short-sleeved T-shirts in a style that would be popularized through the ’50s by screen rebels like Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. (Interestingly, Brando had been Kerouac’s own choice to play Dean during early talks of a cinematic adaptation.)
As evident by the signature red tab sewn along the back right pocket, Dean’s light blue denim jeans are the classic Levi’s 501® Original Fit style, naturally distressed from his insouciant nomadic life. Dean’s jeans resemble modern Levi’s, though this is due to the fact that 501 had mostly evolved to its current state by the movie’s late 1940s setting. Belt loops had been a fixture of the 501 since 1922, the red tab since 1936, and the old-fashioned back cinch and suspender buttons had also been removed since before World War II.
In fact, a brief closer look at the back pockets of Dean’s Levi’s suggests an authentic pair of mid-century Levi’s with the pockets sewn over to cover the copper rivets rather than the bar-tacking that replaced the rivets in 1966.
For someone as itinerant as Dean, who may not always have a fast car at his disposal or any means to find one, solid footwear is essential. Dean thus appoints himself with a pair of worn-in and well-traveled brown leather cap-toe work boots with hard leather soles. The derby-laced system consists of four pairs of brass eyelets and another trio of nickeled speed hooks that Dean often ignores when tying the round brown laces.
What to Listen to
Jazz features significantly in the novel On the Road, not just as the subject to which its characters remain most loyal but also in driving the improvisational rhythm of Kerouac’s fluid writing, particularly in passages depicting Dean Moriarty’s frantically paced lifestyle.
To properly get in gear with Sal and Dean, a Spotify user named Jim Campbell masterfully curated a 24-track playlist of all music specifically mentioned in On the Road:
The 2012 movie somewhat departs from these tunes with its soundtrack, perhaps due to licensing issues or creative choices, though there’s some overlap with artists like Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard, and Billie Holiday, whose “Lover Man” is mentioned in the book while her 1937 recording of “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” (featuring Lester Young on tenor sax) plays as Dean and Marylou neck in the backseat of his Hudson Commodore sedan.
After Sal’s first road trip in On the Road comprised primarily of hitchhiking and cramped buses, the second trip offers the luxury of a car, specifically the maroon 1949 Hudson Commodore sedan that Dean brings to his family’s front door on Christmas.
The screen-used sedan echoes the “mud-spattered ’49 Hudson” that Sal describes Dean driving up to his brother’s Virginia home at the start of part two in On the Road. As the real Neal Cassady was a prolific car thief, it would seem that Dean obtained the brand-new Commodore—then the largest and most luxurious of Hudson’s automotive lineup—through less-than-legitimate means, though Dean insists that he purchased it with his savings after a $400/month job working on the railroad with Ed Dunkel. Having spotted the Hudson for sale, Dean describes having bought the car on the spot after withdrawing “his entire roll” from the bank, leaving the newly laid-off Dean broke but in possession of a sleek new sedan.
Hudson had introduced the Commodore for the 1941 model year, halting production after only a year, as the American automotive industry shifted its focus to war materiel for the duration of World War II. Just weeks after V-J Day in August 1945, Hudson resumed production, with the renewed ’46 and ’47 Commodore models following prewar styling cues. For 1948, Hudson introduced a sleeker “step-down” redesign by Frank Spring, with the Commodore available in a trio of body styles and either six- or eight-cylinder engines.
Though initially popular, the Commodore was phased out in 1952 as Hudson trimmed its redesigned cars that were already looking outdated as American automakers vied for supremacy throughout the fabulous fifties.
How to Get the Look
Depicted several years before big-screen rebels of the ’50s would popularize jackets half-zipped over plain white T-shirts and jeans, Dean Moriarty favored this easy practicality with his fur-collared khaki flight jacket pulled on for hours behind the wheel.
- Khaki cotton-shell flight jacket with taupe mouton fur collar, brass front zip, slanted slash pockets, and dark brown ribbed-knit cuffs and hem
- White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt/T-shirt
- Light blue wash denim Levi’s 501 Original Fit jeans
- Brown leather cap-toe derby-laced work boots
- Brown socks
Costume designer Danny Glicker may have been inspired to include the jacket for its resemblance to the nylon B-15 jacket that Jack Kerouac had been photographed wearing around the same time with his fellow Beat pal Al Hinkle, who was portrayed as “Ed Dunkel” in On the Road and became the “last man standing” of its colorful characters until Hinkle’s death in December 2018 at age 92.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
The Astro Zone
As stated in Kerouac’s opening chapter, Neal Cassady had indeed been born in Salt Lake City in 1926, February 8 to be exact, and the magnetic, rootless, intelligent yet unmotivated, and ultimately enigmatic Cassady—and his literary counterpart Dean Moriarty—could be argued to be the quintessential Aquarius.