Classic blue jeans, white t-shirt and the red windbreaker: the image that cemented James Dean’s image as cool rebel. He was the one who, with Rebel without a Cause (1955), gave the rebellious teenager an identity. The 1950s were the time when jeans became a wardrobe staple for teenagers. When James Dean put on his Lee jeans, an entire new look was launched. Dressing down became the new revolution.
Nicholas Ray wanted very much to do this movie, and he wanted to do it his way. He wrote the story, and carried out eight months of research to interview hundreds of police officers, judges, youth leaders, juvenile hall authorities and teenage gangs. Ray’s idea was to point out that juvenile delinquency was a function of the family, the kids being raised by parents with values too old-fashioned for their children’s needs. It was a controversial subject and the film was one of the first to bring disaffected youth into the mainstream.
There are many theories on Jim Stark’s red jacket’s origin, but having seen a few of the director’s films and having read a bit about him, I think there is no question that the colour was a conscious decision. Nicholas Ray was one of the directors who paid great importance to colour in his films. For Rebel, he called in a colour consultant and they looked for ideas in old copies of Life magazine. He chose to use primary colours in vivid blocks, creating symbolism through colour and costume. “When you first see Jimmy in his red jacket against his black Merc, it’s not just a pose. It’s a warning, it’s a sign,” the director said. Costume designer Moss Mabry created three copies of the jacket. “Even though it looked simple, it wasn’t,” he said. “The pockets were in just the right place; the collar was just the right size.” The entire look became iconic.
“Red—for life, blood, defiance, daring—unites the characters of Dean, Natalie Wood (her bright-red coat), and Sal Mineo (his one red sock),” Vanity Fair, September 2012. The three of them have found one another, each one of them is trying to survive high school and is longing for someone who can understand what they’re going through.
Costume designer Moss Mabry spent several days at Los Angeles high schools, observing the clothes and styles of teenagers. Nicholas Ray also showed him a picture from Life of a group of college students for inspiration. The wardrobe department aged more than 400 pairs of Levi’s for the extras. “It was learned that high school boys who wear Levi’s always try to dirty the pants first and then have them washed three or four times to get that well-worn look”, said the Warner Brothers press department, and, by the way, that’s how you get that classic, genuine washed-jeans look, not by buying a ready-made pair. James Dean however wore a pair of Lee jeans in the movie.
I wanted to keep the focus on James Dean’s emblematic look, so I added just this one photo of Natalie’s, in a beautiful oversize dusty pink coat. Her character, Judy, would go from a bright red coat and bright red lipstick, representing her trampy, sexually confused persona, in the opening scenes, to toned-down colours, like light pinks and greys and a softer shade of lipstick, as the film progresses –she’s really just a lost child, who feels separated from her family and from society, just like her two new found friends.
Watching the documentary, I learned how desperately she wanted this part as a transition into more adult roles, being tired of playing the kid sister or daughter. She’s one of my favourite actresses, her acting range was fantastic. And there was such a chemistry between James and Natalie on screen. She called Jimmy “a great nonconformist, he wouldn’t do the Hollywood thing, he wouldn’t dress up and do the studio thing”, he wouldn’t play nice with the press – not bad things if you ask me. Natalie also characterised him as moody, poetic and a romantic at heart. I think she was right. And watching Rebel without a Cause again made me realise once more what versatile an actor he was. It was something universal in what he transmitted on screen and I believe therein lies his ongoing image as a hero, as an ideal.
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photos: stills from the film captured by me from the Blu-ray remastered edition (which wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of Martin Scorsese and his Film Foundation, and Gucci) in this James Dean collection
sources: Classic Hollywood Style, by Caroline Young, and the “James Dean Remembered” feature in the collection mentioned above