Core: Denim Rebels

By Jo Phillips

The boys that made it bad and the girls that made it good.

Denim has had a pretty badass reputation since it was commandeered by teenage outsiders, ne’er-do-wells and rebels back in the 1950s. It was de rigeur wear for any rebel worth his cause, second only to the leather jacket in being a fashion by word for trouble throughout the latter half of the 21st century.  Here we explore denim through the iconic film heroes and anti-heros who have influenced the way we view the fabric.

John Wayne - Stageoach stet

Denim first began making a cinematic appearance in the 1930’s when it became the costume for b-movie favourite genre, the Western. Strangely the cowboys depicted in the films would never have actually worn denim as the dates don’t match up, but that’s history, this was cinema. The most iconic wearing by a Western movie cowboy (pre Brokeback Mountain) has to be John Wayne, in Levis 501’s, in John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach. At the time the film came out, denim was the fabric of the worker; farmers, ranchhands and factory workers. It was later used widely in America to clad workers during WWII, while back in peacetime it was once again put into wardrobe reserve.


After the war denim was picked up by the Beat Generation and was worn by icons of the movement including Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady as a kind of anti-fashion statement. Denim represented an alternative to America’s suburban suit wearers and became associated with their off-beat lifestyle. But it was James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, sporting Lee Riders and Levis 501s respectively, who brought the denim rebel to cinema screens.  Marlon and Dean become the poster boys for the live-fast-die-young rebellious new teenager and denim went hand-in-hand with the image. But the real mainstream heartthrob of the 50s in Elvis in Jailhouse Rock. After this denim sales soared and as denim continued to represent bad-attitude it was widely banned in American schools.

marlon brandoelvispresley jail house rock

However, it wasn’t all motorbikes and underage delinquents, as a somewhat chicer and less hormonally driven film lead began popping up in the 50s in denim jeans, she came in the form of Grace Kelly in Rear Window, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits. On these glamorous screen sirens of the time the boyish, tough appeal of denim was a contrast to their femininity and implied depth of character.


Charlies Angels were sexy in 70s flared jeans and the allure of 70s denim is used as a key touchstone of 70s fashion in films set in the era, such as 1993 film Dazed and Confused and 2010 film The Runaways about the glam punk band of the same name.

Charlie-s-AngelsDAZED--CONFUSED--006The Runaways movie image

Throughout the 80s denim continued to have enduring appeal for onscreen teen misfits. Appearing on the kids of John Hugh’s teenage classics, it was worn in The Breakfast Club by rebel Jocks and high school drop outs alike. The curfew breaking dancing kids in 1984’s musical Footloose did their worst in jeans and Baby in Dirty Dancing was an off duty girl-next-door gone wrong in cut off denim shorts.


In 1994 came TV series My So Called Life, which launched the careers of rockstar Jared Leto and actress Claire Danes, Grunge ripped jeans, dungarees and plaid all the way for the high school drop outs in this short lived but memorable TV series. It was closely followed in 1995 by Larry Clark’s 1995 observational drama Kids which made an It girl of Chloe Sevigny with her nonchalant 90s street style. As well as the less serious but none the less damn the man teen rom-com Empire Records, whose characters span a range of subcultures from punk to preppy and have the denim to match. And a year later you have Ewan McGregor in skinny jeans half way down a toilet in literal ‘heroine-chic’ skinny jeans in cult film Trainspotting.


artwork_images_424705927_497867_larry-clarktrainspotting TrainspottingAt the height of mainstream gangster rap and hiphop in the early 2000s Eminem’s baggy jeans and denim jacket hoody combo symbolised gritty life in 8 Mile, a look which later echoed by the delinquent drug dealing character Jesse Pinkman in HBO drama Breaking Bad, with his skate/rap jeans and hoody.But in recent years denim also became a symbol of normality, worn by all the ‘normal heathy American kids’, case in point Lindsey Lohan in Mean Girls before she get’s ‘Plastic-ed’ and Kristen Stewert as Bella in Twilight, whose blue denim symbolises just how normal and unremarkable she is before she’s vamped up by her undead romance.

mean girlsBella-Twilight-trailer-3-HQ-bella-swan-2558956-2185-1224With denim once again make waves on the catwalk for SS15 with up and coming designers such as Marques Almeida experimenting with the fabric, it will be interesting to see how cinema employs denim as a marker of fashion in the 2010s.

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