James Dean Style Profile: Fashion of a Generation

For many years James Dean was the face of mens style, at least for his young followers who saw him as a symbol of youthful rebellion and fun. His unique style has lasted until now, a true testament to his popularity in Hollywood and his wider effect on a generation.

James Dean Look

Perhaps because of the young age at which he died and his prior launch to stardom, Dean’s most popular looks are actually from movies. His style can most aptly be described as undeniably cool, always exuding confidence and his signature smile.

Throughout his short stardom he was regularly seen in a timeless outfit often consisting of denim, leather boots, casual shirts, suede jackets and tinted sunglasses.

If the modern man can take anything from his style it should be that dressing casually does not mean looking unkempt. In fact, as he has proved it’s possible to still be smart while having a rebellious edge by combining casual elements like denim with leather boots and shirts.

James Dean Clothing


In his most famous movie, Rebel Without A Cause , his character was rarely seen without his signature red Harrington jacket. The movie was so successful and was the actors first significant showcase to the public, which caused Dean himself to become synonymous with the Harrington jacket despite not regularly wearing one outside of the film.

Although the color is unlikely to be as popular today, the Harrington jacket is a must for men who want to dress casually and still look fantastic. This style of jacket has been popular in the UK for many years because it’s versatile, lightweight and comfortable.

To wear a jacket like this you should ideally layer it over a plain T-shirt, as the actor himself was seen doing, and combining it with denim and boots. This look is perfect for casual events both in the day and the evening. For the jacket colors like beige, navy and black are safe choices that can be worn with a much greater array of outfits than more extravagant colors including red, burgundy and silver.

Harrington Jacket in the 50's

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Other than Marlon Brando, nobody has helped to popularize the humble T-shirt as much as James Dean. The actor is most frequently seen in a signature white T-shirt, often with a pair of jeans and tough leather boots.

The cut on his shirt was regular, well-fitted through the chest with arm holes that accentuated his arms but without hugging them. Cheap T-shirts rarely fit well and that’s why investing in a few premium shirts that will last you for a long time is a much better idea.

The actor generally wore these T-shirts with a classic blue denim but today you might consider a black slim cut jean instead. To complete the look you could opt for a casual shoe like Converse or alternatively a slightly smarter and yet also more rugged look with a leather boot.

White t-shirt on a stylish man

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Polo Shirt

While T-shirts are a great look that are extremely easy to wear, they aren’t appropriate for all styles or events. But if you have no interest in dressing up with a dress shirt you can compromise a choose a polo instead.

His preppy look defined a generation, escaping the rigid fashion rules of the 40’s while still looking smarter than what most men of his age today would wear. The preppy look is incredibly simple to pull-off and is entirely timeless, ensuring that you’ll look great today and five years from now.

Polo shirts can just as easily be worn with denim as they can with cotton trousers. This versatility is what makes them a must for everyman’s closet. Today you might consider pairing a navy polo with a lighter wash denim and white sneakers.

Alternatively, smart polo shirts made from a thinner material and cut close to the body can be worn with a smart dark wash jean in a slim style with leather dress shoes. This smart look is ideal for a date, casual work events and even for going to a cocktail bar in the city.

James Dean in polo shirts, two diffenet photos

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For many men jeans form a central part of their wardrobe, but finding the right pair that fit, are comfortable and will look great with your other clothes can be tough. Fortunately, Dean was best known for his signature straight, blue wash, Americana jeans that have been popular ever since. This style of jean is particularly easy to fit because they are designed to be loose throughout.

Popular brands that still produce this style of jean are Levi and American Apparel. Levi in particular has a signature 501 cut which is straight legged and can be found in a large variety of different colors including blue, indigo and dark washes.

To emulate the James Dean look you want to pick a pair that are comfortable and loose throughout, skinny or even slim jeans weren’t common in this era. But to parallel this look to our modern era you might prefer a slightly slim look that is straight from the waist to the knee and then tapered from the knee to the ankle. If you’re slim or skinny then this is particularly important because straight jeans can swamp you and clump around your shoes.

Wearing a straight cut blue wash denim jean

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In a series of photographs with Roy Schatt titled “Torn Sweater”, James Dean was seen wearing a thick necked sweater with vertical lines. His sweater was torn and heavily worn, but a cleaner fabric would also look great.

During the colder months it can be difficult to dress fashionably while still being practical, the humble sweater helps to solve this problem. It can worn over t-shirts, as well as under overcoats and even a roomier Harrington jacket.

For men it’s best to avoid more extravagant shades, sticking to a dark color palette of grays, blacks, blues and greens. These colors are normally the most universal with pants and boots, ensuring that you’ll get plenty of use out of this kind of sweater.

Two photos of male actor in sweater

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Accessorizing can be difficult, but as soon as the sun comes out it’s not only good for your eye health but also for your style to throw on a pair of sunglasses. Dean knew this and when filming he was often seen in a 50’s classic, rounded tinted glasses with a thin metallic frame.

While this style of sunglasses is still popular today there are other more modern styles which can be just as elegant. The key is to choose a dark tint that isn’t ostentatious, generally a gray, black or green tint is best.

The shape and style of the glasses is going to depend on your face shape but many people look great in lenses that are primarily rectangular but with soft rounded corners. For most of us a thin to medium thickness is ideal for the arms of the glasses, preventing them from looking clunky on your face.

Although there are some cheap alternatives available, you get what you pay for when it comes to sunglasses. More stylish frames can cost more and premium materials that will be harder to break and will offer more protection for your eyes aren’t cheap. Fortunately, your head isn’t going to change size much throughout your adult years and therefore you can afford to invest in one quality pair.

Men's sunglasses 50's

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In Rebel Without A Cause, the actor was primarily seen wearing a dark leather boot that is just as rugged as the rest of his outfit. Leather boots should be a staple of everyman’s shoe collection, they look great with a huge variety of pants but they are also incredibly comfortable and can last you for a decade if you take care of them.

The most popular style of leather boot today is the Chelsea boot, perfect for wearing both with dress pants as well as jeans of all different colors. Truly, the Chelsea boot is one of the more versatile types of footwear. Grabbing both a black and a brown pair is best, ensuring that you can dress up and down your existing pants.

When it comes to boots you need to invest. Creating leather shoes isn’t cheap and being frugal is only going to lead to you having to buy a new pair a few months down the line. Instead, buying from a reputable designer that uses the highest quality materials will save you money in the long run and also give you the best footwear possible.

Black cowboy boots mens

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When he wasn’t wearing his boots the he was regularly seen in casual white sneakers like Converse tennis shoes. This style of sneaker is still popular today with companies like Vans, Converse and Adidas choosing this style as their signature shoe.

It’s easy to wear with jeans, T-shirts and polo shirts. White sneakers can dress down any outfit, they are relatively cheap and they are also incredibly comfortable.

James Dean Haircut

Perhaps more so than his clothes he is famous for his hair. The James Dean hairstyle is a messy quiff that not only inspired a generation but has changed the way that men have styled their hair ever since.

Before Dean the quiff wasn’t a popular style , it would have been considered too rugged and not professional enough for most young men. But that was what the actor relished, he made the haircut sexy and that’s why even today the quiff is considered to be the sexiest cut for a man.

James Dean hairstyle

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To get a James Dean haircut you should first go to a skilled stylist who can cut your hair to the right length. The fringe should come to somewhere between your eyebrow and the bottom of your eye, depending on your desired length. The back and sides should be scissor cut but still left relatively long so that you create a rounded look from the front.

Taking a picture of the actor to your hairstylist is the best way to ensure that they know what you are hoping for.

Once you have the cut you need to style it. It’s impossible to know exactly what regime he used but on-set it likely combined a wax or pomade , along with a session of blowdrying.

Firstly, you should wash your hair so that it is clean and dry. With your hair almost completely dry you should blow-dry upwards and backwards, which will give volume to your hair and reduces the amount of product that you need.

Next, take a dime piece sized amount of product on your fingers and rub it for 10-seconds or until it’s warm and soft. Apply the product throughout your hair vigorously to ensure that you don’t miss anything. Rather than just putting it on the top of your hair you must get in deep to ensure that the product covers the roots of your hair, don’t be afraid to mess it up a little.

Finally, take a large spaced brush and blow-dry the hair upward and into position, teasing and twisting the hair into a curled-back quiff position with the brush. To lock your hair into this position your might consider a light spray of hairspray and then a quick blow-dry on a low power and cold setting.

About the author

Jack Prenter

Jack has been fascinated by fashion for decades and spent huge amounts of time researching it and becoming an expert. He's written for many well-known publications and is in the process of opening an online clothing store for men. Jack studied at the University of Nottingham and is now based out of Toronto, Canada.