Amazingly, James Dean starred in just three films over the course of his short career: East of Eden; Rebel Without a Cause; and Giant. Even more amazing, he was just 24 years old when he died. Yet his influence on pop culture and men’s style has been indelible.
It had to be more than just good looks. Benicio Del Toro has the same smoldering gaze, Jude Law the same defiant jawline, and Tom Hardy the same full, petulant pout, but no one in today's Hollywood shows signs that we’ll be talking about him in quite the same way as we’re still obsessing over Dean more than 60 years after his death.
“There’s just a timeless, cool quality about him. People are drawn to it,” says Jennifer Weiderman, Vice President of Marketing and Education for Sexy Hair. The company recently made Dean its new brand ambassador, following three successful years of an ongoing campaign with Marilyn Monroe.
Dean seemed to be born with a natural sense of what’s cool. It was a quality he possessed authentically rather than a persona he donned for the cameras. “He was called the King of Cool. He hung out on Sunset and drove his fast Porsche, and ran around Hollywood as a partier and a bad boy,” says Weiderman. “Even if you’re not rebellious that way, you want to be.”
The degree to which Dean’s aura of cool resonated with the culture was in part an accident of timing. In a 2014 essay for The Guardian's fashion blog, Lauren Cochrane and Helen Seamons said, “For fashion historians, Dean is a key figure: a man whose clothes perfectly summed up the first decade in which young people’s style was distinguished from their parents'.” Jeans, tees and leather jackets are such wardrobe staples for today’s man it’s hard to believe that they were once symbols of rebellion. But ever since Dean wore them, pop culture icons from The Fonz to Jason Bourne to pretty much every rocker ever have used them to telegraph their cool.
Not that Dean couldn’t rock a suit with the best of them. Some of the images that have endured and which continue to captivate admirers even today are of the actor in a tux, again looking as though he were born to do it.
And then there was that hair. Dean wasn’t the first to wear a quiff with slicked-back sides but he might as well have been. The fact that it’s one of the more universally flattering men’s cuts probably has less to do with its enduring popularity than the fact that it was Dean’s signature style. In all its incarnations since, from the exaggerated rockabilly pompadour to the polished version worn by the likes of David Beckham, it retains its edge and confers upon the wearer a little of the bad-boy swagger of the original King of Cool.