The Gentleman Rebel

James Dean’s look–rugged, rebellious, masculine and androgynous all at once–inspired an enduring and uniquely American fashion iconography. Anyone with an appreciation for basic aesthetics can get behind a fitted white t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans–and the deceptive simplicity of Dean’s slouchy, considered look launched a thousand fashion ships in the years since his death in 1955.

What works about Dean is that his style is cultivated, personal and no-nonsense. He looks, in other words, completely comfortable in his clothes wherever he is. Every accessory is an organic expression that puzzles together perfectly all the elements of his style–giving him an understated confidence that both flies in the face and easily riffs off the suits that surrounded him.

Dean’s masculinity was both authentic and performative, a reflection of his most certainly queer private life. He liked racing cars and throwing sass at reporters. He was cool and charismatic. He knew what to wear to a party and what to wear on a Sunday lounging around his house–a respect for the etiquette of fashion combined with a keen sense of when to bend–or break–the rules. Knowing intimately the language of the genteel meant James Dean never looked like a fool. It also gave him the space to embrace a range of sartorial expressions from a grounded template and always look cool in the process.

Dean’s effortless style lives on today in the work of two of America’s best fashion designers–Thom Browne and Tom Ford–who connote images of rebellion rooted in a sense of the gentlemanly palette. Tom Ford’s incredible fashion fest/film, A Single Man, demonstrates his diverse range of midcentury style interests. The actors he dresses are detailed and particular in their expressions: from a Dean-esque hustler to Colin Firth’s buttoned up Englishman to his more-at-ease-slightly-ruffled American partner, Jim.

Matthew Goode as Jim

A hustler and a professor, 1962

But one need look no further to the man himself: Ford’s style is consistent yet interesting, lived-in but dynamic. Like Dean’s hair or tight white t-shirt, Ford’s trademarked his scruff and and suit combo to create a highly personal, unpretentious style: masculine lines with graceful drama. And he never looks like he’s wearing a costume, precisely because he seems to understand that he is.

Thom Browne, like Tom Ford, knows how to turn gentlemen into dissenters with the cut of a suit or the buttons on an overcoat. His perspective is a little more forward and androgynous–more 60’s, that is–but his exposed ankles and skinny ties still smack of that tailor/rebel mash up. Like Ford and Dean, what’s awesome about Browne is that he critiques and celebrates systems of style simultaneously and the result is that he highlights flair without a lot of fuss.

PHOTO: Daniel Garriga/WWD

Gentlemen know the rules and rebels question them. What interests me about fashion is the intersection of those two perspectives: where an awareness of the inherent power of tailoring and cocktail party etiquette runs headlong into the battle cry of individuality. Tattoos & wingtips, horn rims and v-necks: the result is always a little bit of fireworks and a lot of class.


About Thomas Page McBee

Gentleman first, always. James Dean is my patron saint, poet is my gender. More about me here:


  1. I love that picture where he's got his reading glasses on! So cute!

  2. Dreamboat extraordinaire! This was like reading what would happen if the world were a magical place where Don Draper and James Dean were a single person. That I could hang out with.

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