The Electric Horseman: Robert Redford’s Denim Western Style
Robert Redford as Norman “Sonny” Steele, championship rodeo rider-turned-cowboy cereal spokesman
Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, Fall 1978
Film: The Electric Horseman
Release Date: December 21, 1979
Director: Sydney Pollack
Costume Designer: Bernie Pollack
I’ve been feeling romantic leading up to my wedding this weekend, so today’s fall-inspired fashions come by way of The Electric Horseman, Robert Redford’s fifth collaboration with director Sydney Pollack.
Redford plays Sonny Steele, the eponymous equestrian and former rodeo champion turned cynical after selling out to hock cereal touted as “a champ’s way to start a better day!”
Unlike the experiences of so many, Sonny actually finds his soul in Las Vegas, where he’s been scheduled to ride a valuable thoroughbred named Rising Star who’s been drugged into submission. Understandably cynical over his cheapened career, Sonny seeks a shot at redemption by giving the corporate-captive horse a chance at freedom. Luckily for Sonny and Rising Star, a cowboy galloping down the Strip on a horse covered in electric lights is just another Tuesday in Sin City, giving him reasonable cover as he trots into the desert to the tune of Willie Nelson’s countrified cover of “Midnight Rider”.
Willie actually made his screen debut in The Electric Horseman as Wendell Hickson, Sonny’s trusted manager who shares many of his portrayer’s own laidback qualities. As Wendell holds down the fort in Vegas, Sonny continues his pilgrimage to release Rising Star in a canyon of wild horses until he encounters the eager TV journalist Hallie Martin (Jane Fonda), hoping to break the Rising Star story and ultimately falling for the cowboy.
Hallie: Where the hell are we?
Sonny: Well, you’re not in jail, look at it that way.
The Electric Horseman also marked the third of four movies to co-star Redford and Jane Fonda, whose romantic chemistry on screen had originated in The Chase (1966) and especially Barefoot in the Park (1967), the latter considered Redford’s breakthrough role before he shot to stardom two years later in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
What’d He Wear?
Before absconding with Rising Star, Sonny Steele had primarily dressed to present a corporate idealization of a Westerner in suede jackets, snap-front shirts, and jeans… when not wearing his electrified getup, of course. After their escape, Sonny returns to his true roots with an authentic cowboy jacket, specifically the iconic Lee Storm Rider characterized by its corduroy collar and wool “blanket lining” on the reverse of its rugged denim shell.
The Storm Rider had evolved from Lee’s original denim “Cowboy Jacket”, the 101J introduced in the 1930s. By the end of the following decade, Lee had added an 101LJ variant with the “L” denoting the woolly lining that added an insulating layer to keep riders warm. In 1953, Lee standardized this style as the “Storm Rider”, a fast favorite among true cowboys and westerners that also gained big-screen recognition on the backs of stars like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Alain Delon, and Marilyn Monroe. Lee no longer regularly produces the storied Storm Rider, though you can find similar jackets—and a deeper history outlining its Hollywood association—in a recent post from my friend Iconic Alternatives.
Otherwise designed similarly to the standard denim trucker jackets, the Storm Rider features a tan corduroy-covered collar that may be the most obvious visual differentiation from Lee’s unlined denim jackets, added to presumably protect the wearer’s neck from chafing. The waist-length jacket features the traditional blue denim outer shell, lined along the inside with a striped gray wool “saddle blanket” lining.
The straight chest yokes angle slightly downward from shoulder to center, with each chest pocket flap positioned along these yokes and fastened with a branded brass rivet button; at this point, Lee and Levi’s fashioned their iconic trucker jackets with only chest pockets rather than the additional hand pockets that would be added in the mid-1980s. Though a few outfitters had hijacked the Storm Rider design, you can tell Sonny wears a genuine Lee by the branding sewn along the bottom of the left pocket flap, with “Lee” embroidered in yellow against a black background.
Pleated strips extend down from each yoke to the waistband. Six branded brass rivet buttons close up the front, with the buttonholes positioned against Lee’s now-signature zigzag contrast stitch. These buttons match those on the pockets and fastening the end of each set-in sleeve though, curiously, not the adjuster-tabs on each side of the waist that close through one of two dark blue plastic buttons.
Since Lee doesn't regularly manufacture and market modern Storm Riders, anyone looking for a new jacket may want to consider these alternatives:
- Ginew Thunderbird Jacket in Japanese Kurabo Denim (Ginew USA, $385)
- Iron Heart 17oz Natural Selvedge Denim Fleece Lined Modified Type III - Indigo
- Division Road, Inc., $600
- Franklin & Poe, $600
- Iron Heart America, $600
- Lee Zip Front Cord Collar Denim Jacket (ASOS, $217)
- Mango Corduroy Collar Denim Jacket (Mango, $89.99)
- Studio D'Artisan Stormy Rider Denim Jacket (Corlection, $260.11)
- Wrangler Men's Western Style Lined Denim Jacket (Amazon, $64.20 and up)
Sonny wears a plaid flannel shirt in the Western-styled tradition with pointed front and back yokes and the snap (or “popper”) closure that had been reportedly pioneered at the start of the 20th century by Rockmount Ranch Wear founder Jack A. Weil to dress cowboys in shirts that could easily break away if snagged on fencing or other obstacles.
Rather than the all-white snap shirts Sonny had worn across the first act, he dresses more for authentic cowboying in a woolen flannel shirt patterned in a blue-on-slate shadow plaid framed with a blue, brown, and white check. The shirt has a point collar and front placket with the expected mother-of-pearl snaps. The two chest pockets are covered by pointed flaps that each close through a single snap. Each sleeve also ends with double-snap cuffs and an additional snap on each gauntlet.
Sonny regularly wears the top few snaps undone, showing the darker slate satin-finished lining that insulates while also protecting his skin from the itchier wool fabric. This practice also reveals his silver rope-chain necklace.
- Carhartt Rugged Flex® Relaxed Fit Midweight Flannel Long-sleeve Snap-front Plaid Shirt in "asphalt" cotton flannel blend (Carhartt, $54.99)
- Gioberti Men's Western Brushed Flannel Plaid Checkered Shirt in charcoal/gray/black combed cotton (Walmart, $27.99)
- Levi's Classic Western Flannel Standard Fit Shirt in navy plaid cotton flannel (Levi's, $69.50)
Sonny actually cycles through two different sets of jeans, wearing both Levi’s and Lee. He favors the Levi’s, distinguishable by the traditional “red tab” sewn along the back-right patch pocket as well as the arcuate stitching across both back pockets. The Levi’s are cut slim through the hips and thighs, flaring out for ’70s-influenced boot-cut bottoms.
The Levi’s are nearly the same shade of blue denim as his jacket, though his Lee Rider jeans are a shade darker and more obviously identifiable by the distinctive “lazy S” stitch across the back pockets and the “X” bar-tacks over the upper corners of each pocket seam.
The jeans are held up by a smooth russet-brown leather belt that closes through a sterling silver ornamental buckle that, while substantial, still pales in size compared to the oversized gold rodeo buckles he’d worn across the first act. The oval-shaped buckle has a recessed center where a turquoise stone is set, flanked by a scale-like texture filling the rest of the buckle’s surface.
Buckles like this are popular from Native American artists, such as this Navajo-made buckle that somewhat resembles the style worn by Redford on screen.
Sonny’s boots are plainer—and thus, considerably more practical—than the rhinestone-adorned Justin boots that he had worn with his electric showman costume. Little can be seen of these boots under the boot-cut legs of his jeans, though we can discern smooth tan leather uppers and the tall raised heels designed specifically for riding.
Sonny often pulls on his well-worn work gloves, made from a pale-yellow leather like deerskin with three-point detailing on the back of each hand.
Anyone can wear a denim “Canadian tuxedo”, oversized belt buckle, snap shirt, and riding boots, but it takes a true buckaroo to effectively wear a cowboy hat. With a light taupe-gray color suggesting the natural “silverbelly” felt sourced from a beaver’s stomach, Sonny’s hat follows the traditional cattleman’s style with its tall, shaped crown and dramatically curved brim. The feathered hat band is comprised of copper-colored feathers with streaks of white that maintain the same general width around the base of the crown.
About forty years after they were developed for airmen, aviator sunglasses had a fashionable renaissance through the ’70s with Robert Redford among their most visible advocates, wearing them behind the scenes of The Sting and Three Days of the Condor as well as Ron Galella’s famous 1974 photos of the actor arriving at a party. Redford had briefly sported aviators on screen in the ’40s-set scenes of The Way We Were, but it was The Electric Horseman where he would finally include them as a prominent part of his wardrobe, though his gold-framed shades are less to protect his eyes against the sun but more to protect his anonymity while on the run.
After misplacing his own aviators, Sonny is reduced to borrowing Hallie’s prescription sunglasses… which are considerably less timeless (and masculine) than his aviators.
Robert Redford wore a Rolex Submariner dive watch in real life, specifically the ref. 1680 variant that was the first to include a date function, seen in his previous movies The Candidate (1972) and All the President’s Men (1976). He wears the same watch here, with its usual stainless steel case, black rotating bezel, and black dial with its 3:00 date window, albeit swapped onto a turquoise-plated bracelet that neatly incorporates a more western flair appropriate for the Sonny Steele character.
Turquoise jewelry is often associated with Native American culture, specifically of indigenous tribes in the southwestern United States like the Apache, Navajo, and Hopi, who—according to TSKIES—”considered turquoise to be the excrement of the lizard who travels between ‘the above’ and ‘the below,’ and Hopi miners carried turquoise to give them security and strength in their work.”
Redford had lived in Utah since the 1960s, and it was likely here that he developed a relationship with the Hopi whom he explained to The Hollywood Reporter had gifted him the etched silver ring that he would wear in most of his movies from 1966 onward. The Electric Horseman is no exception, though it may be one of the more organic instances of one of Redford’s characters wearing this tribal ring.
How to Get the Look
After years of well-tailored roles in movies like The Sting and The Great Gatsby, Robert Redford returned to his rugged roots as an honest-to-goodness Western cowboy, appropriately clad in his Lee Storm Rider denim jacket with Levi’s jeans, snap-up shirt, turquoise-detailed belt buckle and watch bracelet, and a cowboy hat and boots.
- Blue denim Lee Storm Rider “cowboy jacket” with tan pinwale corduroy collar, rivet buttons, two button-down flap chest pockets, button cuffs, button-tab side adjusters, and gray striped wool “saddle blanket” lining
- Blue-on-slate shadow-plaid woolen flannel western-style shirt with point collar, pointed yokes, snap-front placket, two chest pockets with pointed snap-down flaps, and double-snap cuffs
- Blue denim Levi’s boot-cut jeans
- Russet-brown smooth leather belt with large oval textured silver turquoise-mounted buckle
- Tan leather cowboy boots
- Silverbelly felt cattleman’s-style cowboy hat with brown feathered band
- Gold-framed aviator-style sunglasses
- Silver rope-chain necklace
- Silver tribal ring
- Rolex Submariner ref. 1680 dive watch with stainless steel case, black rotating bezel, black dial (with 3:00 date window), and turquoise-plated bracelet
- Yellow deerskin leather three-point work gloves
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Boy, are you fulla shit… with all due respect, ma’am.
The Astro Zone
“You got any eucalyptus leaves?” Sonny asks at a natural foods store along the way. “You must be a Capricorn!” smiles back the delighted clerk, though Steele is none too delighted himself. She may be right, as Steele’s—well, steely—nature reflects the serious, job-oriented nature of those born between late December and late January. His deep connection to the Earth also befits Capricorn being an Earth sign.
Real-life Capricorn cowboys include “Catch-’em-alive Jack” Abernathy (born January 11, 1876), cowboy poet Baxter Black (born January 10, 1945), Pat Garrett’s killer Wayne Brazel (born December 31, 1876), rancher and Earp ally Henry Hooker (born January 10, 1828), “Wild Bunch” outlaw Ben Kilpatrick (born January 5, 1874), cowboy-turned-Rough Rider Billy McGinty (born January 1, 1871), Lincoln County Regulator “Doc” Scurlock (born January 11, 1849), English-born rancher Oliver Wallop, 8th Earl of Portsmouth (born January 13, 1861), and the unfortunately nicknamed outlaw “Little Dick” West (born December 31, 1860).
Congratulations on 10 glorious years of BAMF and your nuptials! I enjoy your work immensely. Please review the costumes for Don’t Worry Darling when you have the opportunity. Thanks!