It was supposed to be filmed in black and white. Rebel without a Cause was already in production when the studio made the decision to switch to color Cinemascope, introducing entirely new concepts for both the cinematographer and costume designer. Thanks to the change of plans, when Rebel was released on this day in 1955, audiences were able to drink in James Dean’s saturated red jacket, bright white shirt and indigo blue jeans. These three everyday items of clothing worn together by Dean have become the most iconic jeans-and-T-shirt combination in movie history, and literally changed the way teenagers perceived what was cool. For the first time, dressing down was suddenly more favorable than dressing up.
The film about a troubled new heartthrob in town looking for a little love and respect followed the success of Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One, the first films to depict young people as complicated and unhappy rather than obedient and cheerful. Director Nicholas Ray was passionate about wanting to depict the teenagers as realistically as possible, and he obsessed over every minutia of detail, even homing in on the symbolic use of color and how the costumes interacted in a landscape of primary tones. He handed costume designer Moss Mabry a page torn from Life magazine that showed a group of casual college kids and told him to replicate their style. “That’s what he wants?” Mabry recalls thinking in Live Fast Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause. “Well that’s what he got.”
The plain, simple clothes Ray wanted were an unusual request in an era that celebrated Hollywood glamour, and Mabry simply let the cast members loose in Warner Bros.’ wardrobe department. Young actress Steffi Sidney grabbed a costume worn by Dorothy Malone in Young at Heart, actor Tom Bernard nicked Alan Ladd’s leather jacket from Shane, and co-star Natalie Wood called dibs on a fur collar previously worn by Bette Davis.
What wasn’t found in wardrobe was purchased cheaply around town. “I sent Natalie Wood to buy a green skirt off the rack, not some $450 designer special,” remembers Ray in Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design. Seventeen-year-old Wood was very slim, and Mabry wanted to pad her hips and rear end in an effort to make her look a bit older, but Ray (who was having an affair with the teenage Wood) was disgusted when he saw her in costume and ordered the wardrobe department to reduce the padding.
But mostly Ray was fascinated with the psychology of color and its significance, and created color-coding for each character: Judy (Wood) was red and pinks; Buzz (Corey Allen) was yellow-orange; Plato (Sal Mineo) was black and blue; Jim (James Dean) was, of course, red. But the story of where the famous red jacket came from is filled with conflicts. Ray claims the idea for the jacket came from him, saying, “The first thing I did was pull a red jacket off the Red Cross man, dip it in black paint to take off the sheen and give it to Jimmy.” Actor Frank Mazzola recalls accompanying Dean to Mattson’s Department Store on Hollywood Boulevard, where Dean got a blue Athenian jacket that the costume department dyed red. After Rebel was released, writes Frascella and Weisel, Warners referred fans who wanted the jacket to Mattson’s, which sold a red jacket for $22.95.
But Mabry has held to a much different story, claiming that he fashioned three red jackets for Dean, after finding inspiration from a guy walking around the lot in one. “This guy walked in with a red jacket just trying to get a part. And I was fascinated,” Mabry recalls. “How good he looked in that red jacket. So I went back to the wardrobe department and cut off a swatch of red” to show to the director. Although Ray had originally asked for a khaki jacket for Dean, he approved the red swatch, and Mabry developed a pattern for it in red nylon. “Even though the jacket looked simple,” Mabry says, “it wasn’t. The pockets were in just the right place; the collar was just the right size.” Not much has been written about how the rich, cherry-red color was acheived, but it appears to be over-dyed, creating a dramatic statement through many of the most intense moments of the film.
As for the blue jeans, Dean—a die-hard Levi’s man—wore Lee 101 Riders for the film. The unreal color of all the denim in the film was achieved through dip-dyeing, to make the jeans more vibrant as Technicolor made the colors too muddy.
Teenagers who saw the film latched onto Dean’s look. Actress Steffi Sidney, who plays a bit character in the film, later remembered that how after Rebel came out she would drive by her old high school and all the boys hanging out in front would have on that same red jacket. Bob Dylan was obsessed with the film, and bought a jacket just like Dean’s. As for the original jacket (or three, depending on whose story you believe), its origins are lost to history. —Ali Basye
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.
Photos: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Sources: We usually use a number of sources for every story, but in this case the 2005 book, Live Fast Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause, by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, provided the majority of the information. It’s a pretty incredible book and I recommend it. Also helpful was Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design (also highly recommended in general!), my interview with Stewart Stern and various websites.