If ever a man lived up to his reputation, it was Steve McQueen. The so-called “King of Cool” more than earned his stripes as one of the smoothest cats in the game. It wasn’t always glitz and glamour for the big screen’s most beloved bad boy, however.
Things were rough in the beginning. He suffered from dyslexia and partial deafness, and endured abuse at the hands of his stepfather. His relationship with his purportedly alcoholic mother was rocky at best. She abandoned him briefly, and essentially relinquished her role as his guardian by enrolling him in a private school for troubled boys.
It took time, and the experience was not without its ups and downs, but McQueen eventually grew in others’ esteem and became something of a campus hero. It helped him grow, so much so that when he returned home he started working. Early jobs were brief: there was a stint at a brothel, a period at a carnival, and an effort on an oil rig.
None of these short-lived episodes quite had the lasting effect on McQueen as his enrollment in the United States Marine Corps. It wasn’t because of his marquee as a soldier – the coolest guy in the room confessed that he was anything but impressive. But upon discharge, McQueen embarked on something of a bohemian tour of the east coast. He moved from city to city, eventually finding himself in Greenwich Village.
It was here where things began to fall into place. His girlfriend at the time, an actress, encouraged him to join the local theater. His career began quietly enough – in fact, he was axed from his very first role after just a few nights on stage. But McQueen’s talent was abundant, and it eventually led him to study at the Actors Studio.
Style on Screen
The tail end of the 1950s saw McQueen venture from stage to screen, each time bringing a sense of incredible style along for the ride. In A Hatful of Rain, his first and only Broadway role, he kept it simple in crisp black slacks and a disheveled white button-front. The effect was sexy and moody – a harbinger of things to come on the sartorial front.
Still, there was more to McQueen than his incredible sense of style. When Frank Sinatra cast him in Never So Few, it sealed the deal: the man was here to stay. It cemented his place in Hollywood history, and what followed were roles in other enormously successful films, like The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, and The Magnificent Seven.
In each, he made his own version of a style statement – something that went beyond simply dressing well. The Great Escape saw him zipping from one point to another on a motorcycle. He was such an exceptional rider that he even portrayed a character being chased by his own character. Movie magic, indeed, but it also made for unforgettable on-screen moments that beautifully complemented his rugged ensembles. His character, an American soldier, became an instant fashion icon after the film’s release. The aviator jacket, short-sleeved sweatshirt that allowed him to show off his arms, famed khakis, and sturdy boots stole the show, with little fanfare but with incredible impact.
It was surprisingly this very look that established McQueen as something of a big-screen style hero. Sure, he was dapper in his sophisticated attire in The Thomas Crown Affair, and no one can deny the sex appeal of his all-black outfits in Bullitt. There was even a distinctive velvet-collar jacket in The Cincinnati Kid. But it was The Great Escape that helped catapult him into a very specific place in the realms of fashion. It was convincing. Relaxed. Authentic.
Bringing It Together
What made it all come together for the original Hollywood style icon? Perhaps it was his ability to make everything look nonchalantly perfect. Even on off-duty days, he could be spied in his trusty khaki pants, worn with everything from simple T-shirts to structured blazers. The secret “formula,” one could surmise, was his penchant for marrying the casual with the luxurious.
McQueen was an approachable enigma. His laid-back basics were everyman pieces. He was all about the clean lines, and his smartly tailored and sharp three-piece suits were characterized by masterfully flattering cuts. Sweaters were slipped beneath blazers. Rugged jeans were worn with classic chukka boots. He even made the humble turtleneck look otherworldly.
It’s to his credit, of course, that McQueen starred in some binge-worthy films, but ultimately he is largely remembered for his clothing. Many a modern man have emulated their own wardrobes after his in an effort to achieve the same sense of simple, effortless cool.
Could they, too, rock a leather jacket as in The Great Escape and make it look so unfussy? Could they pull off that tricky turtleneck, as he did in Bullitt, without looking foolish? Would it be possible to wear shawl collar sweaters of The Thomas Crown Affair and the infamous Persol 714 shades and look like it was meant to be?
To do so requires a certain understanding that there is only one Steve McQueen – but also that it’s entirely possible to bring your wardrobe to life by taking inspiration from what he did best and introducing a hint of that savvy dress sense to your own world. In short, it means glancing at his best looks without appearing as though you’re matching every piece from head to toe. You don’t want to look like you’re in costume or vying for first place in the Steve McQueen dress-up contest.
Instead, it’s about adding those key pieces to your existing wardrobe. These are some of the key elements that took McQueen’s own outfits into another dimension. They can do the same for you, so long as you commit to being discreet about your homage. Less is more, as is often said, and it’s never been truer where emulating this style icon is concerned.
Rock a Pair of 714s
The iconic Persol 714 sunglasses make continued appearances in McQueen’s lexicon of style. He wore them so well, and fortunately they’re still available even today. The foldable sunglasses are designed with the same precise features as McQueen’s own originals. The actor’s name is even branded on the inner stem and the included leather case.
Step Into Your Chukkas
If you don’t already own a pair of crepe-sole chukka boots, you’ll need them to truly honor the legend that is McQueen. He wore the sturdy Playboy chukka boots, which Mason & Sons replicates, both on the big screen and off. They’re versatile enough to wear with everything from your tailored pants to your rough-and-tumble jeans.
Slip On a Cardigan
The infamous shawl-collar cardigan may not seem the stuff of standard tough-guy wear, but McQueen made the unlikely companion his trademark, both in films and in his life. There was the thick and cozy brown model he sported in The Cincinnati Kid, and the equally warm version that showed up in Bullitt. Off set, he was sometimes found in a navy shaker knit with leather buttons and patch pockets. Fortunately this highly adaptable piece is still around today in many different forms, like this L.L. Bean Signature Cotton Fisherman Sweater.
Throw on Your Crew Neck
Talk about simple. There’s nothing simpler than a short-sleeve crew neck T-shirt, but there’s also nothing more complex than styling it. To wear it with shorts and flip flops would not quite honor McQueen, but to slip it beneath the aforementioned cardigan and throw on a pair of jeans could do the job masterfully. Any easy version, like this from Uniqlo, will work well.
Grab Your Harrington Jacket
It would be a crime to forgo a mention of McQueen’s most-worn and certainly most beloved piece of outerwear. McQueen wore his Harrington jacket in The Thomas Crown Affair, and it’s become synonymous with his hip style. The G9 Baracuta Harrington Jacket is made in England and remains true to the look with its original Fraser Tartan inner lining.
He had a certain preternatural gift that made it all seem so smooth and unaffected, to go from the sharply tailored gent to the lazily cool. He was a master of the fine art of dressing well, and many may argue no one will ever come close. If your ultimate goal is to channel that golden age of style over which Steve McQueen reigned, make it subtle. That’s how to honor a true icon who always kept it real.