From Virgil Hilts to Frank Bullitt: The On-Screen Style of Steve McQueen
From Virgil Hilts to Frank Bullitt: The On-Screen Style of Steve McQueen
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date November 19, 2018
Ask a hundred (American) men to name a style icon and chances are the plurality will mention Steve McQueen. Born Terrence Steve McQueen in Beech Grove, Indiana in 1930, McQueen had a tumultuous upbringing that saw him relocate half a dozen times and suffer abuse at the hands of his mother’s various husbands. After dabbling with petty crime and being remanded to a Boys Republic, McQueen cleaned up his act in his later teens and eventually volunteered with the Merchant Marines—though he did abandon his post. In 1947, McQueen joined the Marines, oscillating between being rebellious—resisting arrest after going AWOL for two weeks—and commendable—saving the lives of five Marines and being assigned to guard President Truman’s yacht—before being discharged in 1950.
McQueen took up acting in the early ’50s, bouncing from acting school to small television roles before hitting his stride in the ’60s, when he developed a reputation as a stylish anti-hero who challenged the status quo—both in character and as a personality. He was good-looking, well-dressed, and exuded a laissez-faire attitude that, when combined, help explain why McQueen came to be revered as the epitome of masculine coolness. While McQueen received an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Sand Pebbles, in 1966, his acting skills had little to do with his rise to prominence or with his becoming the highest paid actor in the seventies. Instead, it was about McQueen’s silver screen style; and while countless blog posts and magazine articles have covered McQueen’s style exhaustively, what’s often overlooked is how McQueen used his characters’ style to build his brand and raise his profile as an actor. McQueen is often lauded for his seemingly effortless style, but, when you look at the bigger picture, it becomes apparent that it was actually born out of a concerted effort to shape his “brand.”
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There are three seminal films in McQueen’s body of style: The Great Escape, Bullitt, and The Thomas Crown Affair. The fact that these three films are often the most cited when McQueen’s name is brought up is proof in and of itself that his reputation had little to do with his acting. McQueen’s first break came in Never So Few, when he was tapped by Frank Sinatra to replace Sammy Davis Jr. Never So Few’s director, John Sturges, is, without a doubt, one of the most influential figures in the story of McQueen’s rise to stardom. It was Sturges who recruited the young actor to his 1960 film, The Magnificent Seven, and later to the now-iconic The Great Escape. It’s important to note that, at the time, McQueen wasn’t the undisputed king of cool that he is today, nor was he an out-and-out movie star—he was recognizable and popular, yes, but his name didn’t carry the gravitas that it later would. To that end, if you’ve watched The Great Escape—and paid attention to the plot while setting aside pre-conceived notions about who McQueen would eventually become—you know that McQueen’s character, Captain Virgil Hilts, is not the undisputed main character.
McQueen’s fellow actors “couldn’t put [their] finger on it,” Tom Adams recounted, “He was, about five-foot-seven, skinny, but on nights out in Munich, if he walked into a bar,” he’d be the centre of attention and there was no doubt that he wanted to be the star of the film. McQueen’s role would have actually been smaller had he not threatened to stop filming unless his character became more prominent. Thanks to the incessant complaining, McQueen scored the final act’s famous motorcycle chase; but, what he didn’t manage to secure was a wardrobe change. McQueen had set his sights on the white turtleneck that made James Garner’s character so easy to spot in the movie. Garner’s character was, arguably, more central to the plot and it made sense for him—the scrounger who could get his hands on anything despite being locked up inside a POW camp—to have a crisp white turtleneck, but less-so for McQueen’s, a downed fighter pilot who had a propensity for attempting messy escapes and spent an inordinate amount of time in the “cooler.” Apparently, though, such a logical inconsistency wouldn’t have dissuaded McQueen had his wish been granted. Josh Sims, in an incredibly insightful study of McQueen’s silver screen style, points out that the actor “flouted any attempts at authenticity to suit his own ends,” choosing to set aside replicas of Air Force-issued uniforms in favor of more contemporary garments that he would wear in real life. It’s ironic, then, that McQueen’s wardrobe in The Great Escape is revered for what’s seen as authentic Americana, because it was disingenuous to the role and period.
That’s not to say that McQueen’s sartorial sense shouldn’t be celebrated—on the contrary, it’s a testament to the power of style to shape perception and how it can be used to build a visual brand. Even though McQueen lost out on the white sweater, he was consciously thinking about style as a way of getting noticed and it showed that McQueen understood that he could use style to position himself in Hollywood—if he infused a contemporary style into his characters that was markedly different, they would be more noticeable and, by association, he would be too.
While The Great Escape was McQueen’s first stylistic coup, his garb in a pair of 1968 films cemented his status as a veritable men’s style icon, but also proved beyond all doubt that he was using style in a concerted manner to rise to the ranks of the world’s most popular actors. The Thomas Crown Affair was the first of two McQueen-headlined films to come out in the second half of ’68 and tells the story of a currency arbiter-turned-brilliant heist mastermind who may or may not fall in love with the woman investigating his criminal endeavors. That McQueen relied on style over substance—and that his notoriety was tied to his outfits rather than to acting exploits—is most evident in The Thomas Crown Affair. Outside of the first 45 minutes, the film lacks any real plot or character development, consisting essentially of McQueen and female co-star Faye Dunaway—who is cast as an equally stylish foil—replaying the same scenario in different settings and different outfits.
McQueen’s style was limited to one core outfit—with a couple pieces thrown in to change things up—in The Great Escape; The Thomas Crown Affair cast a wider net in terms of his character’s wardrobe. Crown, McQueen’s character, wore three-piece suits by day but opted for casual menswear on weekends that was a close reflection of McQueen’s personal preference. Again, countless pieces have been written about the stylistic influence of The Thomas Crown Affair, and the outfits McQueen donned have been carefully outlined previously, but what’s interesting is how different Thomas Crown’s style is from any other character in the movie. McQueen is revered for his workwear-inflected menswear—and his casual looks in The Thomas Crown Affair are what earned the film the (unofficial) title as the most fashionable movie—but it was the smart tailoring worn by Crown that helped set McQueen apart from his co-stars. In business-related scenes, Crown is seen wearing a three-piece suit while the other men wear more classical two-piece get-ups. To boot, the details of Crown’s tailoring only exacerbated the differences between McQueen and other actors—the Prince of Wales suit seen in the movie’s opening scene is bold, but celebrated as one of the best in film, while collar pins and atypical shirt-tie-suit color combinations added to the distinctiveness of his wardrobe. Even if you muted the dialog, or paid only fleeting attention to the plot, that McQueen was the anti-hero was evident simply through his clothing.
smaller wardrobe, but, along with The Thomas Crown Affair, helped position the actor as someone who eschewed more formal menswear when it was seemingly appropriate. As Thomas Crown, McQueen offset tailoring with suede chukkas and a mock neck turtleneck on the golf course, flew a plane in a cap and a smartly tailored Harrington jacket, raced across the beach in a cream aran knit sweater and outsmarted a would-be intruder while tip-toeing around in Sperry CVOs and a blue track tracksuits. In Bullitt, the first time we see McQueen’s namesake character, he’s roused from his sleep by one of his detectives and appears in silky, paisley pyjamas—a strong sartorial statement, indeed. It’s the first in a series of great, but wholly unnecessary sartorial moments—again, this isn’t an indictment of McQueen, but instead illustrates how he used clothing to differentiate himself.
Take the mac coat Bullit wears to meet Chalmers, played by Robert Vaughn: the scene is set in the middle of a beautifully sunny Californian day and those attending Chalmers’ event are all dressed for warmer weather. The mac coat was unnecessary, but it made McQueen’s character easy to pick out and gave him something that others didn’t have. Later in the film, Bullitt sheds the mac and it’s the Chicago gangsters who are pictured wearing them. It leads one to consider what happened previously with The Great Escape: Was McQueen envious of the coats, pushing him to demand a scene with his character wearing one? It’s impossible to know, but with his penchant for wanting to be the center of attention, it’s not unthinkable. Elsewhere in Bullitt, McQueen eschewed “traditional” police garb in favor of more casual clothing—when his peers were wearing shirts, ties, and suits, Bullitt was wearing a shawl-collared sweater or a navy turtleneck under a brown tweed jacket.
All of this, though, was part of McQueen positioning himself as “different than”—he wasn’t a movie star who happened to be stylish, he was a movie star because of how he dressed. Today, in a world dominated by the internet and social media, the type of deification heaped on McQueen is commonplace, but, at the time, the public’s window into McQueen was through film, so his characters had to reflect who he wanted to be. In 1963, LIFE photographer John Dominis tailed McQueen for three months. One of the most famous photographs of McQueen —sitting in a polo, beige slacks, and Jack Purcells, with a pistol in hand—emerged from the assignment, and proved that McQueen’s characters were merely an extension of himself, down to the wardrobe. That McQueen’s characters became stylish anti-heroes who exuded a refined machismo is no coincidence—in fact, he almost came to be typecast: his characters became cool just because he played them.
That McQueen’s style has been discussed so exhaustively is fair, Audrey Hepburn may be the only other star that shared the same inextricable ties to fashion as McQueen. McQueen parlayed his distinctive style into a brand. Besides becoming the world’s highest paid actor in 1974—moreso off the back of his undeniable cool and stylish swagger than his acting skills—McQueen’s stylish inclinations allowed him to become one of the first great pitch men for brands. Brands like Barbour, Persol and Tag Heuer enlisted McQueen as an ambassador.
Like being lauded for authenticity, it’s ironic that McQueen’s style is so widely emulated. After all, his status as a style icon was forged on the back him dressing differently than his contemporary costars. What should be emulated when looking at McQueen’s style imprint is his commitment to his personal aesthetic. McQueen stuck to what worked for him and consistently found a way to inject his own style ethos into the characters he portrayed. How you dress shapes how people see you, and Steve McQueen proved that you can build a persona around style.