Denim on Film

Film critic Glenn Kenny picks the greatest hits of cinema’s most iconic fabric

The Ringo Kid wore denim. But as it turned out, he wore the wrong kind. The jeans John Wayne sported as the Ringo Kid in 1939’s Stagecoach—the John Ford Western that made Wayne a star—weren’t authentic to the year in which the film is set, 1880. No, the button-flies were Wayne’s own, store-bought—and no one seemed to mind. Because on the Ringo Kid it still looked rugged as hell, and that is that.

Denim and masculinity go together on film the same way that widescreen and Technicolor used to. And interestingly enough, while denim in real life signifies a relaxed-yet-confident cool, its wearers in classic cinema often have an ambivalent relationship to both society and themselves. Mixed messages, it turns out, are part of the fun. We couldn’t include every counterculture maverick (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider), surly antihero (Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces) or 20th-century bull-breaker (Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men). But we think the fellows in the films below have earned their place in the spotlight.

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, 1955

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Dean appears the epitome of cool in his iconic ensemble
This “youth problem” movie opens with James Dean’s Jim Stark practically passed out on a Los Angeles sidewalk, inconsolable in a brown suit. He’s the new kid in town, and he dresses sharp for his first day in school the next morning, only to be run roughshod by a bunch of cool kids, played by the likes of Dennis Hopper, Nick Adams and Corey Allen…their blue jeans tight and sometimes cuffed, jackets leather, flicking the switchblade at the blazer-wearing Stark. When Jim goes out that evening—Nicholas Ray’s movie packs all the anguished drama and tragedy of adolescence into little over a 24-hour period—he dons the jeans and the red windbreaker, finally letting himself be himself. Dean would take the denim with him in his next, and last, role, as the insolent ranch hand turned oil tycoon Jett Rink in 1956’s Giant.

WEST SIDE STORY, 1961

The Sharks and the Jets face off in a symphony of colorful denim
The justly famous opening sequence of this movie, in which the rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks strut their respective stuff over New York City’s streets to Leonard Bernstein’s music and Jerome Robbins’ choreography, is also a symphony of light and color, and a lot of the color is in the clothes. Costume designer Irene Sharaff (working with director Robert Wise) clothed her young toughs mostly in jeans but hardly just blue: The Jets standing by a chain-link fence are in tan, faded blue and navy blue, orange and more. It’s a shock when the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks, Bernardo (George Chakiris), is introduced in black twill, but his followers go the jeans route, their maroon and purple colors suggesting a rage that’s going to reach a boiling point as the movie’s story continues.

BLOW-UP, 1966

A savvy fashion photographer makes a statement with a penetrating pair of white jeans
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic film, David Hemmings plays a hot fashion photographer who’s one of the movers and shakers of swinging London, but the movie opens with him coming out of a British flop house, where, in his search for artistic and moral seriousness, he’s spent the night taking pictures of old drunks. Back at his overstuffed-with-supermodels studio, he changes into white jeans and a blue-and-white checked shirt, throwing a blazer over it every now and again. Aside from changing up the clichéd image of the young layabout in blue jeans, just by switching color, his character’s whole lifestyle is a fashion-forward denim statement. The then-cherubic Hemmings looks great as he embroils himself in a mystery that has no answer, along the way almost bedding an unwilling photographic subject, Vanessa Redgrave.

JUNIOR BONNER, 1972

Steve McQueen exudes classic Americana as rodeo rider Junior Bonner
Steve McQueen still reigns as the king of movie cool, although in a lot of pictures that cool was cut with unspoken tension and anxiety. Not so much in this movie, an easygoing and often poignant comedy-drama directed by, of all people, Sam Peckinpah. McQueen plays the title character, a rodeo rider who wonders, “Maybe I oughta take up another line of work,” before the opening credits are done. He looks great in various pairs of jeans and a particularly cool denim jacket, and his performance is maybe the most relaxed and flat-out likable he ever gave. This is the kind of movie in which a pickin’ country band breaks up a bar brawl by playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which prompts everyone in the joint to stand with hand over heart. Which is to say, it’s pretty awesome and deserves to be more widely seen.

BADLANDS, 1973

A young Martin Sheen takes a 1959 Cadillac on a cross-country murder spree in a look inspired by Dean
D.H. Lawrence described the archetypal American hero as a stoic, a loner and a killer. Terrence Malick seems to have based his still-exhilarating and upsetting directorial debut on the murder spree of real-life nonhero Charles Starkweather, but he clearly wants the viewer to have some empathy for his lead male character, a lost soul named Kit, played by a young Martin Sheen, who beguiles lonesome teen Holly (Sissy Spacek). “I got some stuff to say,” Kit tells Holly right off, but as the movie goes on words fail him. It’s hard not to feel for him as he stands before Holly’s dad (a great Warren Oates), wearing a kind of uniform of a denim jacket, T-shirt and jeans, staring at the ground as the father berates him: “What would you think would happen to her if she stuck around with you, Kit, a guy like you?” Badlands is one of the first movies to self-consciously truck in and recycle a particular kind of iconography: After Kit is captured, one of the arresting officers guffaws to a colleague, “I’ll kiss your ass if he don’t look like James Dean.”

ANNIE HALL, 1977

Woody Allen sports a casual blazer and jeans in a film most known for funky Diane Keaton in menswear
The movie is largely cited as touching off a mini-revolution in women’s fashion, with Diane Keaton’s loose, funky style—including wearing menswear by Ralph Lauren—defining a new look. But Allen himself made some strides for the sporty intellectual. While largely appearing in pleated trousers and tweed variations, he also sports a very New Yawk denim jacket as his character, standup comic Alvy Singer, entertains talk show host Dick Cavett, and convincingly rocks a sport-coat-and-jeans look intermittently. When he shows up in jeans to kill a spider in ex-lover Keaton’s bathtub, it’s an exemplary just-got-dressed-to-get-the-paper (or kill an insect in my old girlfriend’s bathtub, come to think of it) look.

ROCK ’N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, 1979

The Ramones in a musical? Only if they’re in CBGB-era ripped jeans and leather jackets
While Badlands and 1983’s The Outsiders looked back at a ’50s and ’60s America that was, in Neil Diamond’s phrase, forever in blue jeans, Rock ’n’ Roll High School parodied the rock-themed quasi musicals of the past while adding the edge of utter contemporaneity in the person of punk rock founding fathers the Ramones. Singer Joey and guitarist Johnny show up in blue jeans ripped at the knees, which was de rigueur for CBGB style (and in later concert scenes, the rear of Joey’s pants are revealed to be in near-disgraceful disrepair), while bassist Dee Dee, who never liked the jeans, T-shirt and leather-jacket “uniform” he says was imposed on the group by Johnny, keeps his denim nice and crisp. In any event, through the bad lip-synching and the super-awkward line readings that litter the Roger Corman–produced, Allan Arkush–directed film, the Ramones manage to stay, well, the Ramones.

THE OUTSIDERS, 1983

In Francis Ford Coppola’s coming-of-age film, a star-studded cast of characters looks tough but cares for one another in a way only they know how
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 young adult novel romanticizes teen anxiety in a way you’d expect from a movie brat who loved Rebel Without a Cause. And not just Rebel; a big peg in one of the character’s development is his reading of Gone With the Wind, so Coppola drenches much of the film in a fiery yellow that evokes old Hollywood Technicolor. And the sad but still menacing young Greasers, played by the likes of Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe and Ralph Macchio, are dressed in blue jeans and denim jackets practically to a man.

THELMA AND LOUISE, 1991

Brad Pitt attempts to lure Geena Davis in a rare moment with his shirt on
Providing a daunting lesson to any man who has a mind to strut around wearing jeans and no shirt, Brad Pitt, then in his late 20s, shows off perfect washboard abs and whatever you call the opposite of a muffin top while, using a hair dryer as a prop, he demonstrates his gentleman-bandit technique as a form of pillow talk with Geena Davis’ slightly naive Thelma. “I’ve always believed that done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be a totally unpleasant experience,” J.D. proudly tells her. Thelma coos that he’s a real-life “outlaw,” and unfortunately for her, he proves that by making off with her life savings a little later on.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005

Jake Gyllenhaal dons the ultimate cowboy look in a heartbreaking love story shot by Ang Lee
It says something that the best, and most affecting, Western movie of the 21st century was set in the latter half of the 20th century, and told a persuasive, moving and ultimately heartbreaking love story between two cowboys. Jack and Ennis are beautifully played by Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger, and these handsome characters sport denim beautifully throughout Ang Lee’s adaptation of a short story by Annie Proulx. But it’s the empty denim shirt at the movie’s lonesome finale that provides the story with its most profound moment.
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Longtime film critic GLENN KENNY reviews current releases for RogerEbert.com. His book Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor was published last summer by Phaidon Press as part of the Cahiers du Cinema series.