Design Essay: A Muse For The Youth, James Dean

Words by Leanne Clousdale

For a man with two false front teeth, James Dean didn’t fare too badly in the ‘ole heartthrob stakes. The mid-century all-American movie star was dead by the time he was 24, leaving behind a legacy of sultry scowls, cheekbones and greasy quiffs. Rumour has it that he broke into the movie world via advertising, after a classmate at UCLA talked him into being an extra for a Pepsi Cola television commercial in 1950. He ended up being one of the world’s most recognised cultural icons. 

As a struggling young actor he worked as a car park attendant at CBS studios in Hollywood. It was the gig that shifted his dream towards the silver screen a step closer, after he met Rogers Brackett (a radio director for an advertising agency) who took him under his wing. The nurturing friendship they developed was a welcome one for Dean, who’d had a pretty rotten childhood – with an absent father and the loss of his mum when he was only nine. Film buffs often refer to how this previous trauma made his performances all the more authentic. 

During his short-lived career, the enfant terrible was seldom seen without his trademark glasses. Poring over scripts, reading novels in-between takes. He favoured a rounded square frame – which, back in the fifties, wasn’t unusual.

For me, Dean may have been a physical marvel, looks-wise, but all the rhetoric about his rebellious streak bores me. Sometimes it’s easy to forget he rose to fame in his early 20s – there’s no wonder he was behaving like a spoiled brat on set – he was barely out of puberty! With starring roles in three blockbusters; East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) the snarling sensitive ‘hunk’ was pretty popular with the ladies (and the gents). Eartha Kitt claims to have had a threesome with Dean and Paul Newman. She’s been quoted as saying that it was the most ‘celestial experiences of her life’. 

Moving on (swiftly) from his sexual conquests, there’s a lot to be said about his sense of style. 

Watching him in East of Eden, there’s almost an androgynous, Diane Keaton-esque vibe to the way he pulls off the creamy cashmere jumpers and peached cotton twill chinos. It’s a timeless, classy silhouette. Rosy cheeks, flush from the great outdoors, sun-tinted highlights in his hair, framing that frowning face.

USA. Fairmont, Indiana. 1955. In 1955 James Dean returned to his roots, the town of Fairmount where he was raised and educated. He visits the farm of his uncle Marcus WINSLOW, and in the dining room reads some poetry by James Whitcomb Riley.

On the flipside, Rebel Without a Cause offered everyday men an easy casual uniform to mimic. Stroll around any city centre these days and you’ll see blokes following the exact same formula – Harrington blouson jacket, t-shirt and jeans. It’s safe, it’s tidy and it’s ordinarily masculine. Amazing really, that a costume designed to portray an angst-ridden suburban teenager in 1955 is something you take for granted when you see it being worn down supermarket aisles or for pottering around the local garden centre. The wheels of the fashion industry just keep turning (backwards) so it seems. 

“I don’t know anything about Hollywood, but I know you can’t be sexy if you smile. You can’t be a rebel if you grin.”

Elvis presley

In terms of his impact, creatively, a host of familiar household names have claimed that Dean was the sole reason they went into acting; Martin Sheen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicholas Cage, Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro – to name a few. The late hip-shaking megastar Elvis Presley took many a cue from Dean’s sultry demeanour, and explained, “I’ve made a study of Marlon Brando and I’ve made a study of poor Jimmy Dean. I’ve made a study of myself, and I know why girls, at least the young ‘uns, go for us. We’re sullen, we’re broodin’, we’re something of a menace. I don’t understand it exactly, but that’s what the girls like in men. I don’t know anything about Hollywood, but I know you can’t be sexy if you smile. You can’t be a rebel if you grin.”

Dean’s appeal was more interesting off-set. When you delve into the archives and look past the bad-boy press shots, you’ll find a different, more complex persona. The grainy black & white snaps taken by Dennis Stock appear to show Dean in his natural state. Shoulders hunched in an oversized wool coat, tailored pants flapping in the rain, hair unkempt with eyes fixed confidently towards the camera as he strides across Times Square. There’s another one of Dean in the early hours of the morning after (what we imagine to be) a big night out. He’s sitting across the table from Stock in a downtown diner, cigarette dangling provocatively from his lips, untouched ice-cream sundae slowly melting between them.  

During his short-lived career, the enfant terrible was seldom seen without his trademark glasses. Poring over scripts, reading novels in-between takes. He favoured a rounded square frame – which, back in the fifties, wasn’t unusual. Specs back there were purely functional pieces of medical equipment, which just so happened to be worn on the face. Trend didn’t factor into the design. Cutler and Gross were one of the brands that helped to change all that – and their 9290 pays homage to this classic Dean accessory, with a few subtle modifications for today’s audience. 

With a high brow line and recessed nose bridge, the 9290 is Americana personified. A bold-looking form without the weight (thanks to some clever interior milling) they’re a natural choice for any thrill-seeking racing car drivers, budding movie starlets or alternatively, a solid everyday companion for any aspiring Ivy Leaguers who prefer spending time in the library. Engineered to reflect an air of self-assured sophistication – without the snarl. 

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