Steve McQueen

Gentleman of Style: Steve McQueen

You may or may not be a fan of old movies, but if you are a fan of fashion through the ages then you are almost certainly an admirer of Steve McQueen’s effortlessly cool style. His appearances in a wide range of films in the 60’s and 70’s have made him an icon of that era for both his talent and his style.

Today, we take a closer look at the career, legacy, and style of one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.

Steve McQueen sunglasses were one of his defining accessories

Steve McQueen: sunglasses were one of his defining accessories

The Early Years

Despite his rugged good looks, cool guy reputation and Hollywood success later in life, Steve McQueen’s youth and early years were punctuated with struggle.  The actor known as SteveMcQueen was not, in fact, a “Steve” by birth. Born Terence Steven McQueen in 1930 at the dawn of the Depression, he was abandoned by his mother to be raised until age 8 by his grandparents and an uncle on a farm in rural Missouri. His uncle was one of the few adults in his childhood of whom he had fond memories. He would go on to live with his mother and two successive stepfathers, both of whom were physically abusive. Dyslexia and partial deafness in one ear were also a little-known disadvantage of his youth. In his teenage years, McQueen bounced back and forth between living on the streets, his mother’s home, and his uncle’s farm. His life was one of beatings, rebelliousness, and petty crime, and he was eventually sent to a boy’s home, the California Junior Boys Republic, where he stayed until the age of 16. The institution left a profound mark on McQueen, and he would go on to support the institution for the rest of his life.

McQueen eventually landed in the Marine Corps, a 4-year experience which was not surprisingly riddled with resistance to authority. After numerous scrapes, demotions, and even a month-long stay in the brig, McQueen committed to the discipline of the Marines and was eventually honorably discharged with positive memories of his time with the service.

on set

Steve McQueen on set

Hollywood Film Career

By 1952, McQueen decided to use his GI Bill funds to study acting. He supplemented his earnings by racing motorcycles, and even in his early days of driving, he was often successful. In 1955 he moved to Hollywood, where he landed bit parts in film and TV.

Throughout the 1950’s, McQueen work steadily in television, culminating in the successful series Wanted: Dead or Alive, in which he played a bounty hunter. McQueen’s first big break into film came in the early 1960’s when he was talent-spotted by none other than Frank Sinatra and given a small part in the film Never So Few. This quickly led to a part in The Magnificent Seven, which proved to be a hit, and the director would go on to cast him again in The Great Escape in 1963. His film career would span nearly every genre, style and character type for nearly 20 years.

In his personal life, McQueen’s rebellious, competitive nature proved to be a lifelong companion. He was famously antagonistic with directors and costars, and he considered Paul Newman as his professional rival. McQueen passed on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because he and Newman couldn’t agree on who would receive top billing. He also missed roles in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ocean’s 11, and Dirty Harry among others, some due to scheduling conflicts and others due to McQueen’s personal whims.

Steve McQueen mugshot

Steve McQueen mugshot from a DWI arrest in Alaska

He was married three times (his second wife was actress Ali McGraw, whom friends claimed was his true love) and had two children with his first wife, though he was connected with numerous other women and actresses in Hollywood over the course of his career. He was a prolific drug user, smoker, and drinker. His love for racing never waned, and he enthusiastically embraced every opportunity to drive and do his own stunts in his films. He would eventually own a collection of 130 motorcycles.

Steve McQueen Motorcycle Enthusiast

Steve McQueen Motorcycle Enthusiast

In 1980, at the young age of 50, Steve McQueen died from pleural mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. McQueen believed it originated from high exposure to asbestos while in the Marines.

Notable Films

A scene from the Great Escape

A scene from the Great Escape

The Great Escape (1963)

Steve McQueen’s role as Captain Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape cemented his stardom in Hollywood. Considered the most important performance of the film, McQueen’s costars included Richard Attenborough and James Garner, who were already movie stars in their own right. The film follows the escape attempt of Allied prisoners of war in a POW camp in what is now Poland. An international ensemble cast plots to dig three tunnels, named Tom, Dick, and Harry, and each character is given a task and a nickname. Though the film is based on real events, the story was heavily adapted for the screen to heighten the drama and the suspense of the escape.  In one famous scene, McQueen’s character jumps a high fence on a motorcycle; the stunt, which did not occur in real life, was requested by McQueen purely because he was an avid motorcyclist.

The film was a commercial and critical success, and today it is still considered a film classic.

Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles

Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles

The Sand Pebbles – nominated for an Academy Award (1966)

The Sand Pebbles, a lesser known film from Steve McQueen’s body of work, is notable in that it was the only role that netted McQueen an Academy Award nomination. The fictional story is centered around a rebellious Navy machinist’s mate aboard a navy vessel nicknamed the Sand Pebble in 1920’s China as the ship patrols the Yangtze river. China is in the midst of a revolution, and the ship and the crew must navigate a tense, evolving political situation and personal entanglements in which it is almost impossible to remain neutral. The drawn-out filming was fraught with bad weather, local government conflicts, illness, and equipment issues, and McQueen was heard to have said that he had paid for the sins in his life during the filming.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

There are some that consider the 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair to be the most stylish film ever made. Bored millionaire Thomas Crown, played superbly by Steve McQueen, entertains himself by organizing the “perfect” bank heist. An insurance investigator played by Faye Dunaway is sent to investigate the robbery, and she immediately suspects that he is the responsible party. A game of cat and mouse then ensues, and McQueen and Dunaway’s characters become romantically entangled despite their opposing goals.

Originally the part was offered to Sean Connery, but Steve McQueen’s smug confidence and dapper style (as well as the memorable score) made the film a cinematic triumph.

 

Steve McQueen with Bullitt's famous Mustang Fastback

Steve McQueen with Bullitt’s famous Mustang Fastback

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt was one of McQueen’s best-known films in terms of critical acclaim and commercial success. The film spoke to his love of cars and driving. The plot begins with McQueen’s maverick police sergeant character Frank Bullitt being assigned to protect a mob defector, Johnny Ross, from retribution before he can be called as a star witness in a hearing on organized crime. As assassination attempt is made, and through a series of aliases, cover-ups, and other twists and turns, the viewer is led to a dramatic conclusion. The film is noted for filming extensively on location and capturing realistic depictions of police procedural detail at the time. That being said, the most memorable scene in Bullitt is the car chase, in which Bullitt (in a Ford Mustang) chases Ross (in a Dodge Charger) through the streets of San Francisco. The scene is considered to be one of film’s best classic car chases and took nearly 3 weeks to film on location. At the time, it was certainly it’s ground-breaking even though it might seem slow compared to modern-day car chases.

 

McQueen tried in vain for years to buy the 1968 390 V8 Ford Mustang GT fastback he drove in the film, but he never succeeded. Nevertheless, Bullitt is certainly one of Steve McQueen’s most iconic works.

McQueen wearing a monochrome turtleneck with his jacket, a style that is popular again right now

McQueen wearing a monochrome turtleneck with his jacket, a style that is popular again right now

 

Steve McQueen’s Signature Style

Steve McQueen could not have been nicknamed the “King of Cool” without the requisite wardrobe. Steve McQueen could pull off casual work wear, western attire, and 3-piece suits while looking equally authentic in them all – not many men have that kind of range. He rocked a certain nonchalant confidence that is the envy of every man who has perused a style gallery of his most famous looks. He was one of the lucky few men that simply looked good in everything he put on.

Steve McQueen Casual Style

Steve McQueen Casual Style with 3-roll-2 sport coat, sweater, chinos and chukka boots

Here is the best part about Steve McQueen’s style: virtually any of his looks would pass for stylish right now, so you can draw inspiration from his aesthetic without looking the slightest concern of looking dated.

Steve McQueen in navy Harrington Jacket

Steve McQueen in navy Harrington Jacket

Why Steve McQueen’s Style Worked For Him

Here are some of the many reasons that Steve McQueen’s style just worked, and will work on you as well:

  • He kept his look classic and simple. Very rarely do you see Steve McQueen wearing more than one accessory or pattern; he stuck with well-combined solids in classic cuts that didn’t chase the trends of the time. His film career peaked in the 60’s and 70’s, but he didn’t embrace the trends of the time such as boldly printed jackets or bell bottom pants. As a result, he looks timeless, and not dated, in photos. McQueen also selected his accessories carefully, and his Rolex Explorer II Ref 1655 or Submariner Ref 5512 watches or a single signet ring were often his only accessories.
  • His fit was spot-on. Though clearly not one for fussy tailoring, whatever McQueen put on fit him well. Shirts were fitted but no too tight; pants are straight, slim but not too tight, and tailored with little or no break.
  • He mastered layers. McQueen was a big fan of jackets, and he used classics such as Harrington, bomber, and motorcycle jackets to great effect. He wore them over slim-fit sweaters, and ultimately they became one of his most identifiable style staples.
  • He knew what looked good on him. His rebellious nature might have played a role in rejecting the trends of the time, but when McQueen found something that looked good on him, such as tear-shaped sunglasses like Persols and Aviators, he stuck with them.
The king of sunglasses. Mr. Steve McQueen.

The king of sunglasses, Steve McQueen in Persol frames

How to Get Steve McQueen’s Signature Look

To replicate the key elements of Steve McQueen’s effortless cool-guy look, do the following:

  1. Keep it casual, but not too casual. Steve McQueen was not a dandy by nature, but he also was never a slob. In the 60’s and 70’s, khakis were casual, and unless he was filming, you’d never see Steve McQueen in gym clothes. Keep your clothing choices well-fitting, simple, and casual to emulate his style.
  2. If you wear a suit, make it count. Even though Steve McQueen’s core style is more casual when he did wear a suit he took it seriously. His suits are tailored, well-fitting, and he clearly considered all the details.
  3. Layer jackets over simple layers. Jackets over thin sweaters are a quintessential McQueen choice, and the combination looks great on most men.
  4. Find a signature pair of shades. They may not be Persols, but never hesitate to keep wearing a classic frame if it looks good on you.
  5. Stock up on sweaters and khakis. Sweaters and chinos are the backbones of a great casual wardrobe, and in classic cuts, they will look good for years to come.
  6. Invest in a classic watch. McQueen was partial to Rolexes and Tag Heuer watches, and they paired well with his style. Find a great watch that suits your aesthetic and it will be a worthwhile investment.
McQueen in a classic white t-shirt

McQueen in a classic white crew neck t-shirt with short sleeves

Conclusion

What do you think of Steve McQueen’s legacy and style? What would you replicate from his wardrobe?

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Gentleman of Style: Steve McQueen
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Gentleman of Style: Steve McQueen
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A closer look at the career, legacy, and impeccable style of one of Hollywood's most enduring stars, Steve McQueen.
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Gentleman's Gazette LLC
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16 replies
  1. Andrew Billek says:

    I was in college in the early sixties and McQueen’s style of dress was the norm for the kids who were conscious of what they wore. We didn’t trace it to McQueen specifically, if I remember. It was simply ‘in the air.’ However, his hair style was unique for the times and we all tried to copy that.

  2. Dan Jackson says:

    The the car chase in Bullitt was Steve McQueen’s character, Frank Bullitt, driving a Ford Mustang, chasing 2 unnamed mob hit men, in a black Dodge Charger, who were trying to kill Johnny Ross. Bullitt was not chasing Johnny Ross in the car chase sequence. He did chase Ross much later in the movie, when Ross tried to escape by flying to London, but is stopped by Bullitt, who chases him from the airplane, through the airport, and finally kills him in a shoot-out in the terminal. Bullitt looked great doing that in a sweater, sport coat combination.

    • Eric H. Ericson III says:

      The chase on foot at the end of the film is a classic, ducking under planes as he chased Johnny Ross over the airport. As an aside, none of the airlines that were in that shot are in business today

      • Scott Bunker says:

        I like your article on Steve McQueen.s life and wardrobe.I would probably adopt his entire collection,save sweaters and jackets to a minimum since I live in Las Vegas and temperatures have been hitting 116 and 117 F recently,and even though it’s june, the winters are very mild here. I enjoy your views on so many different things for men, and wish I was more affluent to enjoy most of them. Thankyou for sharing so many varied topics. 🙂

  3. Terry says:

    In high school and college (late Fifties, early to mid-Sixties) we usually wore windbreakers and sweaters, button downs or polos and chinos, and often desert boots. This wasn’t de rigueur, just “just clothes.”
    The windbreakers included Harrington style, but MacGregor was the usual label. The style still survives among many of us, though we never knew it was McQueen’s as well.

  4. Mark in OZ says:

    Dear Raphael ,
    Steve McQueen was a fine actor with very wide scope ; one of his best films was The Cincinnati Kid also a Norman Jewison film . Set in the ’30s he played opposite Edward G. Robinson ( Emanual Goldenberg ) one of the most stylish of all actors . It is a ripping good yarn of young learning from the old .
    The Great Escape and Thomas Crown Affair , superb.

  5. Brian says:

    Great article. Steve McQueen certainly lent his hand in personifying effortless cool when I was a kid.

  6. D J Smith says:

    Steve McQueen participated in the film “Le Mans” and in the first “On Any Sunday”.
    Both films showcased his skills.
    Both films provided enjoyment to this spectator.

  7. Terry says:

    On a different note, when McQueen was filming “Bullitt” in San Francisco, a friend of mine who worked for a local TV station was “loaned” to the film crew as a set advisor. He says McQueen was extremely friendly and outgoing to the various offstage workers, and spent considerable time with them during the shooting. He seemed as interested in them as they were in him.

  8. Ron says:

    Steve McQueen loved his Persol 649s and 714s, his Baracuta G9 “Harrington” jackets, and his Sanders “Playboy” snuff suede chukka boots. He wore them in his movies and his personal life. I have several Baracuta G9 jackets and one of them, the official name of the color was McQueen stone fro the archive collection.

  9. Rafe says:

    Steve McQueen is a legend. He was not only known for his acting but also for the sense of style. His choice of motorcycles to clothes everything is classic.

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