Style / September 2016

The Most Influential Outfit of the Century

McQueen’s iconic look in The Great Escape first popularised a worn-in workwear aesthetic over forty years ago, but its extraordinary influence resonates even today.

It is endlessly quoted, endlessly emulated and endlessly on TV. The Great Escape (1963) may have had an all-star cast, but few could have predicted that what was otherwise a romp of a WWII war film (despite the true life heroism and bleak ending) would not only become a pop culture staple but also a benchmark of style. What is more remarkable still, is that the man who made it so, Steve McQueen - an actor then only just on his way up but already with a reputation for scene stealing by any means necessary - would do it by way of merely an A-2 aviator’s jacket, sweatshirt, khakis and M-43 rough-out service boots. Yet these simple, workaday garments made Captain Virgil Hilts a sartorial icon.

During filming McQueen was more McQueen off-set than on, of course - he was repeatedly arrested for speeding by the Bavarian police and wrote off six or more cars, while fellow Great Escape actor Tom Adams expressed his bewilderment at the star’s appeal. “I couldn’t put my finger on it,” he noted. “There he was, about five foot seven, skinny, but on nights out in Munich, if he walked into a bar, the women - whoomph - would be around him.” But on-set McQueen was just as ballsy - invited to view early rushes, and realising how thin his character actually was, he angrily declined to film further scenes until his were re-written.

"Steve McQueen - an actor then only on his way up but already with a reputation for scene stealing by any means necessary."

That’s what gave him the infamous motorcycle chase - while insurers wouldn’t let McQueen perform the actual jump sequence, the actor, an accomplished motorcycle rider and all-round outdoorsman, did play German riders in pursuit in a couple of stunts. That ballsiness - or bolshiness - almost also gave McQueen a change of costume. The character played by James Garner, already a huge star, was distinctive for his white sweater - “McQueen was upset about that sweater,” as Adams recalled. So director John Sturges offered to reshoot some scenes with McQueen wearing the sweater, and Garner McQueen’s sweatshirt. Thankfully - for McQueen’s reputation as the king of cool - his tantrum abated and the swap never happened.

Would McQueen be considered the exemplar of style he is today if it had? Many cite the mac, black polo neck and Hutton Playboy boots of Bullitt (1968), or the rather more dapper, tailored form of The Thomas Crowne Affair (1968) as the looks that made his reputation. But it’s unlikely he would even have been offered these parts had he not made such an impact in The Great Escape.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.