With each passing decade, there seems to be that one movie that tries to define the highs and lows of a generation’s teen culture. Some succeed (Heathers, Clueless, American Graffiti), and others never quite get there (A Walk to Remember, Loser, and to some extent Bring It On). But the best ones are the ones that capture every single honest pore of living, breathing, teen existence without even trying. Movies like The Breakfast Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are perfect specimens, but the example that set the tone for true teen masterpieces to come is unarguably 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause.
Rebel Without a Cause is the story of an anguished teen, James “Jim” Stark, played by heartthrob James Dean in one of the most passionate and memorable on-screen turns ever. A 17 year old lashing out at the world around him through acts of public drunkeness, violence, and general melancholy, Stark’s turmoil is what propels the film’s journey. Confused by the pressure to conform from the world around him and parents who “don’t understand”, Jim meets his soul-mates in angst in Plato (Sal Mineo) and the beautiful Judy (Natalie Wood). Only through experiencing the tragedies of life on his own terms, particularly the loss of his best friend Plato, is Jim able to come to terms with his anger and quell it for good. Raw and real, the film immediately gained extensive critical acclaim, and catapulted young James Dean and Natalie Wood to superstardom. Now synonymous with the expression of teen culture, Rebel Without a Cause introduced the nation to the importance of the teen years in our culture, a precarious time that shapes the future creators of our nation.
Besides defining what it meant to be a teen, Rebel Without a Cause also set the standard for what it mean to look like a teen in 1955. James Dean and Natalie Wood instantly became cultural icons, with James Dean still posthumously recognized as one of the sexiest men in Hollywood. Dean’s wardrobe in Rebel spoke unimaginable amounts with just one look. His character defined cool simplicity, capturing the importance of basics to the wardrobe. Juxtaposing a solid, soft white and form-fitting T-Shirt (sleeves rolled just a bit) with the tough, red exterior of his leather jacket, Dean’s Jim Stark showed us that style was a form of expression paramount to fashion. As one of the first celebrities to (unknowingly) endorse jeans, the move from institutionalized fashion to casual comfort was what inspired millions of teens to slide their slacks to the back of the closet and invest their allowances in the longest lasting trend in history–denim. Besides jeans and leathers, the Stark character also relied on wardrobe basics like tweeded, square shouldered blazers, simple wide-legged pants, and crisp white button-downs.
Defining the new set of rules for teens, Rebel Without a Cause made a bold statement when it came to fashion that altered the way in which teens affected the industry. No longer a buy-your-way-in cult, Dean’s concentrated dose of style proved to teens–and adults alike–that whether poor or rich, understood or misunderstood, style was an ultimate form of expression that could be achieved with items as simple as a pair of blue jeans.
Top that, Clueless.
Image layout by the lovely Avee.
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