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The best denim-on-film moments

The best denim-on-film moments

Though the history of denim begins in the 1800s in the French town of Nimes, its widespread functional use began with the American Gold Rush. But it was the stars of the silver screen that really brought this hard-working and hard-wearing fabric out of the goldmines and into the limelight. Denim’s transition from functional workwear fabric to everyday wardrobe favourite began in the 1930s when Hollywood’s cinematic cowboys wore denim jeans and jackets in the Wild West. By the 1950s, heartthrobs like James Dean and Marlon Brando had popularised the style to such an extent that some schools and theatres – taking denim as a symbol of counterculturalism – banned the style altogether. 

Now, though, you’ll know it as a versatile and timeless everyday classic that still serves as the centrepiece of contemporary trends from biker, to skater, to heritage style. For a whistle-stop tour of the fabric’s rise to popularity, we spoke to Thread stylist and movie buff Toby Standing about the iconic on-screen looks that influenced the way we wear denim today.

The cast of “The Outsiders”

“”The Outsiders” isn’t what I’d call a great movie,” Toby says. “But the looks are cool and it’s a stellar cast by today’s standards.” Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio, and C. Thomas Howell have something of a denim uniform, but the tonal blue pieces were picked to suit their own style. 

This combination of looks is a great introduction to how you can wear different denim pieces without falling into the typical double denim look (not that it’s something to be avoided, but we’ll get to that later). The bottom line is, the whole cast looks undeniably cool whether they’re sporting a tonal blue shirt and jeans broken up with a white tee, or a Mickey Mouse logo with slim-fit Levi’s 505s.

How to wear it now

With a cast this varied, you can pick the look you like best and make it yours. The best place to start with tonal denim is to pick the wash you like best and apply it to the fits that suit your personal style, whether that’s a straight-leg jean or slim-fits. Just stick to the tonal aspect that makes this look identifiable, and stay away from trainers. “If there’s one thing we can learn from the ‘80s, it’s that you don’t have to wear trainers with everything,’ Toby says. Boots bring a rugged workwear aesthetic and can be just as casual – and more hardwearing – than your favourite kicks.

Brad Pitt in “Once upon a time in Hollywood”

“Brad Pitt has had every haircut and tried every style, and there’s never been a point in time where he hasn’t looked cool,” Toby says. So what better excuse do you need to emulate his style in Tarantino’s latest release? “Brad’s looks are a highlight of the film,” Toby says. “He’s playing a regular guy, and he’s dressed just as a regular guy in the ‘70s might have looked – it doesn’t feel costumey.” 

As far as realistic interpretations of ‘70s style in contemporary culture go, it doesn’t get more accurate – or effortlessly cool – than this. “It’s such an authentic replication that you can see just how to pull it off without looking like a novelty take,” Toby says.

Photographed: A.P.C. Middle Standard Jean (£189)

How to wear it now

Though they seem instantly wearable, don’t just copy Pitt’s looks – take inspiration from each piece. The graphics, the colours, the worn-in boots: find the aspects that work best for you and apply them to your wardrobe. The blue denim with a yellow tee is a great colour combo but would work just as well with red and green if that’s more your thing. 

It’s a take on ‘70s style that’s perfect for spring and summer as it’s super simple and casual. And if you’re feeling adventurous, why not try a bootcut jean? As you can see, they look great with brown suede desert boots.

Robert Redford in “Little Fauss and Big Halsy”

“I’m not condoning some of the more problematic angles of this movie,” Toby says. “But when it comes to style, Robert Redford is his era’s Brad Pitt.” In “Little Fauss and Big Halsy” Redford exemplifies how to do double denim in the coolest way possible – and it’s not that intimidating. We often recommend easing in with contrasting washes, but this fully tonal look is the real deal. 

It’s a true workwear look that’s interesting for it’s time as slimmer fitting jeans were rare in the 1970s. In this context, it was the style worn by motorcyclists who found the extra fabric on flares impractical. Now, though, it makes Redford’s look feel super contemporary. “We’re moving away from skinny fits,” Toby says. “But there’s still a place for tapered and tailored silhouettes if that’s flattering for your shape – it’s all about matching them with the right pieces.”

How to wear it now

The trick to pulling off fully tonal double denim is to not buy pre-worn-in or distressed denim that already looks washed-out. It makes the pieces harder to pair with other tones and in turn makes double denim harder to pull off than it needs to be. Instead, stick to one authentic wash. The pieces will come together cohesively and will work together as they wear in naturally over time.

David Bowie in “Basquiat”

“Andy Warhol always wore Levi’s,” Toby says. “He loved American brands and, for an eccentric artist, his style was very low-key.” Bowie’s replication of his real-life friend Warhol’s personal style is on point in this movie. He had the crazy wig that made him stand out, but he just wore shirts, jeans, and trainers which, for his time and place in the New York art scene, was incredibly pared-back. “It’s like normcore before normcore existed,” Toby says. “Warhol just wore what he felt the most himself in.”


Photographed: Arket REGULAR Cropped Jeans (£69)

How to wear it now

“Thread’s whole mission is to show guys that the clothes you feel comfortable in can be as cool and iconic as statement-making pieces, and in this movie Bowie’s Warhol proves it,” Toby says. “Timeless style always looks great.”

Jeffrey Wright in “Basquiat”

“Basquiat and Warhol were friends, collaborators, and peers, but as people and as artists, they were very different,” Toby says. The painter jeans worn by Wright’s Basquiat in the eponymous 1996 movie could be seen on the streets of London today as easily as they would have in 1960s New York. The lived-in nature of painter jeans is a testament to the longevity of denim and proves you don’t need to be precious about your clothing. The takeaway: don’t be afraid to actually wear them and live in your favourite jeans – they might end up looking even cooler.

How to wear it now

Basquiat’s jeans perfectly showcase the cyclical nature (often known as the ‘20-year rule’) of fashion. These jeans were cool in the 1960s when Jean-Michel Basquiat wore them himself. They were cool in the 1990s when this film was made. And they’re cool now. 

You could emulate this entire look – you wouldn’t have a hard time finding the pieces – but it’s best to find the ways that it best resonates with you. “Look at Wright’s costume, and at the way Basquiat actually dressed, and see where you find commonality in the silhouettes and styles,” Toby says.

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Words: Ella White
Styling: Toby Standing