Start with the basics. Start with simple colours, with versatile fits and with practical styles. And do them well. Only then should you move onto statement dressing, signature pieces and bolder, braver outfits. Or don’t — because sticking with the basics worked out pretty well for the six style icons below.
From Steve McQueen to Sean Connery, many of the 20th century’s finest fashion icons didn’t go in for flamboyant, showy dressing. Instead, they took the basics — simple sweatshirts, essential jackets, plain T-shirts — and perfected them. So, before you start dressing in vivid, vibrant cuts and colours, take some advice from the men who mastered wardrobe staples…
Steve McQueen was the king of cool white T-shirts
Where else would we begin? Steve McQueen had an elegant eye for the basics — preferring an all-white wardrobe over one busy with bold colours. And the bright white T-shirt was perhaps his most basic essential. Sometimes, he’d add a subtle motor manufacturer logo. But the majority of McQueen’s tees were plain, practical and effortlessly cool.
So what should you look for in a McQueen-style T-shirt? We’d start with softness, comfort and lightness — features of Sunspel’s and Love Brand & Co.‘s English-made shirts. Or, for added practicality, the small breast pocket or Oliver Spencer’s option — ideal for spare spark plugs.
Sunspel Classic Cotton T-shirt
Oliver Spencer Conway T-shirt
Love Brand & Co. Lockhart T-shirt
Sean Connery elevated the elegance of the simple polo
It’s not hard to look good in a dinner jacket. We know that. You know that. Sean Connery knew that. But the first official on-screen Bond managed to elevate another, considerably more humble garment during his tenure as the superspy. Simple of cut and soft of touch, Connery wore the staple polo shirt better than anybody else.
Above, you can see him in Dr No — wearing something similar to Hemingsworth’s ultra-breathable comfortable cotton ‘Comber’ shirt. But Connery also had a soft spot for Terry towelling; so would surely have approved of Aurélien’s retro option and Sunspel‘s beach-ready polo.
Hemingsworth Comber Polo Shirt
Aurélien Terry Towelling Polo Shirt
Sunspel Light Blue Polo Shirt
Alain Delon’s light blue shirts are the stuff of legend
Strike that; Alain Delon’s wardrobe in general is the stuff of legend. But, while we’re looking at the best basic pieces to take inspiration from, nobody else could shrug-on, button-up or pull-off a light blue shirt quite like Alain Delon. The famed French actor first made a splash with the style in 1969’s aptly-named La Piscine — a film that cut the light linen blueprint for the future of sun-soaked cinema.
And where better to buy from than Jermyn Street? If Delon knew how to wear these shirts, London’s expert shirtmakers know how to create them. Both Turnbull & Asser and Emma Willis both have excellently opulent options; woven with slightly open structures from lightweight linen. Or, for a slightly more affordable alternative, New & Lingwood’s tailored take.
Turnbull & Asser Turquoise Linen Shirt
Emma Willis Kingfisher Linen Shirt
New & Lingwood Pale Blue Poplin Shirt
James Dean gave the Harrington a bad reputation
But that’s a good thing. The first Harrington jackets were created in the 1930s — but it wasn’t until James Dean shrugged one on for Rebel Without a Cause that the design took the world by storm. With its iconic Fraser tartan lining, stars from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra began wearing Harringtons in Dean’s wake.
The original design, created in Manchester, was by Baracuta — a brand that still does a roaring trade on its ‘G9’ jacket to this day. But there are alternatives. Altea do a bomber that booms with the same outlaw energy, and Oliver Sweeney’s spin on the style is inspired by Clint Eastwood’s jacket of choice.
Baracuta G9 Harrington Jacket
Altea Cashmere Bomber Jacket
Oliver Sweeney Eastwood Harrington
Paul Newman was known for his statement, signature sunglasses
Carrera couldn’t have hoped for a better brand ambassador than Paul Newman. The actor was so attached to the brand’s ‘Champion’ frames that he was rarely photographed without them. By the race track? Champions. During a family hike? Champions. On a film set? Champions. And the style — a peculiar cross between a Wayfarer and an Aviator style with straight top, large lenses and curved arms — is well worth the investment.
There’s no better option than the originals; in ‘Dark Havana’ brown and with gold detailing on that prominent brow. But there are alternatives of a similar style — including Oscar Deen’s ‘Otis’ frames, with a softer lens shape, or this option from Persol, crafted with a wide fit from statement tortoiseshell acetate.
Carrera Champion Sunglasses
Oscar Deen Otis Sunglasses
Persol PO3260S Sunglasses
Marlon Brando stayed neutral and natural with his knitwear
Brando’s wardrobe was the most basic of all. Taking simple style cues from his time at a military academy in his youth, the actor wore work boots, overshirts and simple T-shirts for most of his life. He dabbled with denim, wore the occasional pair of Aviators and — when comfort was called for — went for functional (but fashionable) knitwear.
Whether it was a sweatshirt on its own (look to Hemingsworth for this style), or a more tailored V-neck to layer with a smart shirt (Aurélien’s extra fine merino option wins out for us), Brando’s jumpers achieved iconic status because of their simplicity. Even his chunkier pieces (Peregrine’s ‘Skiddaw’ knit would be a good option here) were natural and neutral in colour.
Hemingsworth Raglan Sweatshirt
Aurélien Extrafine Merino V-Neck
Peregrine ‘Skiddaw’ Waffle Crew