The Legend of James Dean - Live fast die young

The Legend of James Dean - Live fast die young

James Dean - born on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana. His mother, it was claimed, was part Native American and his father, Dean claimed, was part of the lineage of original settlers from the Mayflower. By 1955, Dean was dead, but he left a legacy that is far out of proportion with his time on earth.

James Dean’s Life

"Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse."

An only child, James Dean was born in an apartment on the corner of 4th and McClure Streets in Marion, Indiana. His father left farming when Dean was six, and the family moved to Santa Monica, California. 

He was very close to his mother, the only person who truly understood him. Sadly, she was struck down by uterine cancer when James was just 9 years old. Dean was then sent to his aunt and uncle’s home in Fairmount, Indiana, to be raised in a quaker household. 

He became close friends with a Methodist pastor, the Rev. James DeWeerd. DeWeerd taught him his love of bullfighting, car racing, and theater. James Dean’s complicated sexuality and illness may have resulted from this time, when, it is reported (by Elizabeth Taylor), he was sexually abused. 

He was an outstanding athlete, studied drama, and excelled in public speaking throughout high school. As soon as he graduated, Dean went back to California and enrolled in pre-law at Santa Monica College. He transferred to UCLA for a semester, changed his major to drama, and enrolled in James Whitmore’s workshop.

January 1951, the world changed for James Dean and the rest of us when he quit college to pursue a full-time career as an actor.

James Dean the Actor

TIDLÖS James Dean sitting in chair
“An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.”

Like many legendary actors, James Dean’s first role was in a TV commercial. His was for Pepsi Cola. 

He struggled to get roles, but had several walk-on parts. His first speaking part was as John the Beloved Disciple in Hill Number One, an Easter special about the resurrection of Jesus.

Dean played many roles on television, bit parts that got him noticed. 

His big break came with East of Eden in 1953. The director and producers were looking for an actor that could handle the emotional range of Cal Trask, a son in a family from Salinas Valley, California. The character is aloof, but worldly, business savvy, and troubled. This described James himself. 

Interestingly, much of Dean’s part was unscripted, letting the actor improvise his way through the character. Dean surprised everyone by choosing actions, positions, and lines that seemed out of place for the character, but when taken as a whole, showed a complex character played by a brilliant, unknown actor. 

In 1955, Dean played in Rebel Without a Cause. This role, the rebellious teenager, would become the one that would typify Dean to millions of fans for decades. 

That year, he also played Jett Rink in Giant, where he was a Texas ranch hand that strikes oil and gets rich. 

This would prove to be James Dean’s last role. 

He was posthumously nominated for Best Actor Oscars for both East of Eden and Giant. His nomination for East of Eden was the first official posthumous acting nomination in the Academy's history.

James Dean’s Personal Life

“Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that's all you have. "

There is still a great deal that we’re learning about James Dean and his life off-screen. He had a complex life filled with sexual ambiguity and uncertainty. 

His relationships with women were fraught with a sense of unreality. It seemed he was trying to do what was expected, but that his relationships were often publicity stunts and covers for his true self as a gay man.

Race Cars and Accidents

James Dean Article Tidlös Magazine
"Take it easy driving– the life you save may be mine."

Dean was a huge fan of auto racing. He owned a Triumph Tiger T110 and a Porsche 356. He raced professionally for the first time in March 1955. He was actually an excellent racer and finished first in the novice class and second in the main event. 

On September 20, 1955, James Dean was riding with another man in his Porsche Spyder to the racetrack in Salinas, California. A Ford Tudor pulled out in front of him while making a left turn. Dean wasn’t able to stop. His car bounced across the road. The passenger was thrown from the car, but Dean suffered multiple injuries, including a broken neck.

James Dean was dead at 24.

James Dean’s Death

“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live after he's died, then maybe he was a great man. Immortality is the only true success. "

Dean died as a hugely popular actor. He was posthumously nominated for two Best Actor Oscars, and he had become a cultural icon. 

At 24, he was gone too early and much of Hollywood mourned the loss of a potentially life-changing actor. His performances, particularly in Rebel Without a Cause, have gone on to inform how generations of teenagers express their dissatisfaction with life. 

His demeanor, the sound of his voice, and the way he carried himself have been duplicated and revered for over 65 years. 

When you look at the outsized impact of James Dean, with only three films completed and only 24 years on earth, you realize he was someone extraordinary.

The Fashion of James Dean

James Dean Fashion
“An actor must interpret life, and in order to do so must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet.”

Every fashion magazine from Vogue to GQ to The Guardian has done articles on the fashion icon that is James Dean. His look, that ranged from seaside casual to street-smart biker, has informed the clothing and attitudes of millions. 
“He took basic items, such as denim jeans and white T-shirts, and made them look sophisticated through confident (and unconventional) styling, as well as immaculate accessories.” - GQ Magazine

His use of a white men’s t-shirt and a pair of jeans has created a subculture. Handsome and sophisticated, James Dean is a middle-calls icon. His fashion sense was to allow the clothes to be a part of his swagger, not have the clothes make their own statements. 

By adding accessories, like a leather belt, a fine watch, or a Western hat, Dean could create a style that was quintessentially his. It was practical without looking ragged. It was stylish without being pretentious. 

Many other actors of his time, from Clark Gable to Rock Hudson, with whom he acted in Giant, were and are icons of high style. Fancy suits, tailored shirts, and expensive shoes are their hallmarks. 

Dean occupied a different space. His style was achievable by almost everyone. The middle-class hero that embodied the angst of youth wore his clothes well-fitting, but not tight, clean, but not over-the-top. 

His films help to build his style. In East of Eden, we see him wear comfortable sports coats, dress slacks, and nice shoes. Not ostentatious, he adds those clean accessories, like a quality leather belt and a nice watch.

Rebel Without a Cause is where he created the persona he would be for life and beyond. Light jackets, white t-shirts, jeans, and work boots become the stereotype of a “James Dean look.” If you wear that style on the street even today, everyone will know where it comes from.

The Western hat and boots, vests, and denim shirts that would be his other major look came from his screen time on Giant. This look still informs his more Western-influenced fans.

The theme that runs through all of his styles is a look that is haughty, confident, and slightly struggling. Each style provides a strong persona that everyone can see clearly, but still shows that one is vulnerable and approachable. 

Match any of these looks with the right accessories and you have a style that says, “I splurge where I should and keep my style achievable.” Jeans and a fine watch, a nice shirt with a knit tie, or clean slacks with a nice leather belt, each uses accessories to turn ordinary into extraordinary.

Honouring James Dean

For those of us who are touched by his life’s struggles and his strong, yet vulnerable, personality, we can best honour James Dean by letting ourselves be touched by his kindness, his sweetness, and his strength. 

James Byron Dean was taken away much too soon, but he’s still with us every day in his wise words and the images and performances that give us all hope that we can be that interesting, while still being understated.

The TIDLÖS team salutes James Dean the forgotten Hollywood rebel.

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