Cool, of irritating teenage slang origin, has become a serious currency in today’s world; however indefinable, we all crave to be labelled and lavished with it. The icons of style we regularly place on a pedestal – McQueen, Dean, Newman et al – all had it, whatever it is. A roguish masculinity perhaps? The ability to be the best-dressed man in the room whilst wearing just a white t-shirt and jeans? A gift of being able to seduce any woman alive? An impeccable taste in cars and an impressively unflappable manner behind the wheel? All rank highly in any theoretical scoring system.
In the pantheon of cool, Steve McQueen and James Dean are cast in marble, standing taller than most, but who stands the highest? Today’s shower thought, in written form, gentlemen is just that. In a Royal Rumble of cool, mano a mano, who emerges unscathed, sunglasses intact, not a hair out of place, McQueen or Dean?
The case for James Dean
A pinup for teenage disillusionment and archetype for disobedience through his iconic role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean is far more than the embodiment of sullen adolescence.
Ranked as one of the best actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, despite only taking a starring turn in three features, he was also the first to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The legend of Dean though is cemented in his tragic early death, just 24 years of age. His youth thus preserved in a myriad of iconic photos, his cheekbones forever chiseled, eyes eternally squinted and wardrobe perpetually on point.
Dean’s iconoclastic nature is symbolic of his time. Post war, teenagers became liberated influencers and Dean was the leader of the clan. His style broke the mould, it was rebellious yet he never once looked off-kilter. The tousled quiff, the Harrington, the white t-shirt: they remain relevant and well, cool, today – over half a century since his passing.
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The case for Steve McQueen
Born a year before Dean, McQueen also rode the same anti-establishment phenomena of the 1960s and it ultimately immortalised his moniker as “The King of Cool”. His theatrical chops are just exalted as his rival in this ring with credits including Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Great Escape. He wasn’t the highest paid star of the 1960s for no reason after all.
Well-dressed and transcending archetypal styles – he was able to rock a suit as well as he did double denim or a simple white t-shirt – his wardrobe however, was not the only quality he had that made him an icon in the eyes of men everywhere. He blended rough masculinity with an edge of sensitivity, he once publicly threatened to break producer Howard Hughes’ nose if he didn’t stop harassing Mamie Van Doren, a women they had both had an affair with. Hughes never bothered her again.
He was a car and bike enthusiast, in fact he did all of his character’s driving in Bullitt. His personal collection of cars, at one time or another, included a 1962 Cobra, a Ford GT40 and the Porsche 917, Porsche 908, and Ferrari 512 race cars from the Le Mans film. McQueen was previously a motorcycle mechanic and even, coincidentally, worked on James Dean’s bike when he bought it in for repairs. He once appeared, helmeted and uncredited, as a motorcyclist in the 1976 B-movie Dixie Dynamite just because he wanted to. Nobody at the production was aware it was him until they wrapped and he kept a low profile throughout, picking up a day’s payment of $120 before he was recognised.
McQueen died aged 50, his illness believed to have been primarily caused from his time in the marines as well as the asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and race-drivers’ protective suits and helmets.
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A close call but for us, Steve McQueen edges the contest. McQueen was cool in his twenties and maintained it throughout his life. James Dean’s tragic early death cemented his prominence as a cultural icon but there’s no telling how he would have been later on in life. For longevity alone and the fact you don’t get the nickname “The King of Cool” without earning it, McQueen takes the belt – just.