Examining the Style Icon that was Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen. As soon as you see his name, you can picture those piercing blue eyes, his clean-cut good looks, and no doubt a stylish, minimalist outfit being worn by the man himself. Famed for his skill as a stuntman and driver, his wide range and powerful gravitas as an actor, and for always keeping his cool on screen despite a turbulent life behind the scenes, McQueen is truly one of the standout male icons of the entire 20th Century.

Once the highest-paid movie star in the world, the so-called King of Cool didn’t get to the top by accident. Though many facets of his public persona made him an icon to the general public, one of his best assets was his timeless sartorial style. McQueen was a guy who could rock just about any piece of clothing effortlessly, from his cut-off sweater in The Great Escape to his shawl lapel cardigan in Papillon. He allowed the movies he starred in to impact his own day-to-day wardrobe. He also made efforts to incorporate his taste into his films, always insisting on wearing stylish semi-tailored pieces like tapered jeans, muted sweaters, and short bomber jackets.

Over time, this strategy allowed McQueen to build up a memorable profile of simple, striking outfits that firmly cemented his image in the wider cultural imagination. It’s an image that’s been passed down from generation to generation, and here in this article, you’ll find an examination of just how and why Steve McQueen became the style icon that he remains today, over 40 years after his death.

What Made Steve McQueen a Style Icon?

When you examine Steve McQueen’s style game, the first thing that strikes you is his consistency. McQueen came to the height of his fame in the 60s, and while many of his most memorable films were made in these years, from The Cincinnati Kid to Bullitt to The Magnificent Seven, McQueen’s style always stayed the same. He wore high-quality, simply cut clothes on and off the screen, with semi-tailored fits that accentuated his lithe body and streamlined features. He wasn’t the biggest guy around, but he still managed to look great in all of his clothes, always choosing outfits that suited his slim overall build and lean musculature.

McQueen also saw the value in picking out a few statement pieces and making them work with many different outfits. He frequently wore iconic pieces like Harrington jackets and Persol sunglasses, giving himself a recognizable silhouette while also leaving himself room to remix his style with ease. He never let a good movie appearance go to waste, either. After the success of The Great Escape, for example, he made sure to wear cropped leather bomber jackets and jersey sweaters frequently, further cementing the memorable status of the items he wore on-screen.

Beyond these elements, there’s one more thing that allowed Steve McQueen to become a style icon, and that’s something simple. It’s the fact that he’s damn good-looking! You know a guy’s a cut above the rest when he touts Paul Newman as his professional rival, and it’s no coincidence that McQueen’s blue eyes and charming smile are part of what people remember so well about him. Still, while we can’t all wake up looking like Hollywood heartthrobs, the key is that McQueen made his looks work for him, which is something any well-groomed man can emulate in their own way.

McQueen’s Enduring Fame

So now that we know how McQueen became a style icon, the question is, just why has he remained one for so long? If you take a look at some of his most iconic outfits, from his double-denim getups to his three-piece suits to his mixed-tone brown-on-brown bomber combinations, you’ll realize that they are all pieces you could see being worn today. The thing about McQueen’s style is that it really is timeless, and that’s why it has stuck around for so long.

But what makes an outfit timeless? First things first, McQueen often avoided wearing clothes that dated him to the decade he was in. He never went in for bell-bottom pants in the 60s or printed jackets in the 70s but instead stuck to plain designs that had been around for years and years. He opted for simple, undecorated pieces with small accents like straight-leg blue jeans rolled up at the cuff or white Harrington jackets with contrasting linings.

McQueen certainly had an eye for what suited him, and his approach to style reflects many elements of modern-day minimalism. His outfits always hone in on a few key pieces – a short jacket, a pair of blue jeans, suede chukka boots – and then mix and match the rest. They never go overboard, and they revolve around high-quality, well-cut items. This minimalist approach to fashion has only grown more popular in recent years, acting as an alternative to the reiterating fashion cycle of recycling old trends. In this sense, McQueen’s look represents an enduring philosophy as much as it does a timeless style.

The Steve McQueen Style Playbook

As with any fashion icon, McQueen really knew how to make a statement with a movie appearance or press photograph. Some of his best fits are the ones he wore on-screen, and here on this list, you’ll find a selection of his greatest fashion moments compiled for your perusal. If you’re looking to match his style yourself, this is a great place to start, and here are a few simple Steve McQueen style tips to remember as you go along.

First off, always choose high-quality materials as the quality does show on the outside, especially after a few washes and folds. For example, a low-quality mixed-material pair of pants will crease far more easily than a high-quality 100% cotton pair. Secondly, opt for well-tailored fits that suit your body type, rather than pieces that look good on someone else but not on you. Not everything McQueen wears will look good on every man, but the point is that everything he wears is chosen because it looks good on him. Last but not least, if you’re trying to get the McQueen look, remember that a stylish, simple statement piece can make just as strong an impression as something flashier, especially when you pair it with a variety of different underlayers and outfit combos over time.

So, with all that in mind, check out the iconic looks below, and soon enough, you’ll be thinking up your own McQueen-style looks to try out.

Bullitt (1968) – Mackintosh Coat, Navy Turtleneck, Chukka Boots

Bullitt (1968) - Mackintosh Coat, Navy Turtleneck, Chukka Boots

McQueen’s performance as Lieutenant Frank Bullitt became an instant classic at the time of Bullitt’s release, not least because of the epic San Francisco car-chase sequences in the film. However, when he wasn’t behind the wheel, McQueen was strutting around in style, most notably in his beige and brown mac raincoats, a navy blue turtleneck sweater, and desert brown chukka boots that add a mellow feel to the outfit. This classic look has cropped up time and time again on TV detective shows since, and the sweaters and jackets worn in the film were a clear source of inspiration for Daniel Craig’s Bond.

The Great Escape (1963) – Black Leather Bomber, Half-Cut Sweater, Beige Chinos

The Great Escape is perhaps McQueen’s most iconic film of all time, and it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to forget the daring fence-jump he performed on his motorcycle in the role of Captain Virgil Hilts, and it’s even harder to forget the fantastic outfit he was wearing while doing it. The weathered black bomber jacket he wore throughout much of the film is one of the most iconic Steve McQueen jackets of all time, with a single light brown accent on the pocket to offset the creased blue-black sheen of the rest of the jacket. Masculine and practical, this outfit wouldn’t be complete without McQueen’s blue cotton sweater – cut at the elbows per his request, and the classic beige chinos that he was so often seen wearing both on and off-screen. 

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) – Three Piece Suit, Persol Shades

In The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen brought immense gravitas to the screen as the charming, seductive, and above all cunning millionaire Thomas Crown. But just how would a man who has everything he could ever want dress on the day-to-day? In a dazzling three-piece suit, of course. Here, we see McQueen at his absolute sharpest, wearing a light grey plaid suit with contrasting blue elements, including a pale blue shirt and ultramarine leather driving gloves and tie. Of course, the piece de resistance is the Persol 714 shades with blue lenses – a highly sought-after pair of shades even to this day.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) – Grey Stetson, Blue Jeans

The Magnificent Seven is an iconic film spawned from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and subsequently remade in 2016. Playing gunfighter Vin Tanner, Steve McQueen appeared in the movie clad in classic western attire, including a grey Stetson, a pale pink button-down shirt, and a pair of blue denim jeans. This outfit is itself an homage to John Wayne’s classic cowboy getup, and McQueen brought it into the real world on many an occasion, keeping the blue Stetson but trading out the shirt for a denim jacket and white undershirt, creating another great iteration of this timeless look. 

The War Lover (1962) – Shearling Leather Jacket, Combat Boots

The War Lover is one of Steve McQueen’s lesser-known films, but it still represented a great opportunity for the actor to try out a new style. Here, McQueen can be seen rocking a WWII pilot’s jacket with shearling trim and cuffs, along with a huge shearling collar. This piece certainly slots right into his cropped-jacket collection, while the bombastic addition of such a bold trim lent McQueen a romantic airman’s look that was sure to make a fair few wartime dames swoon.

Papillon (1973) – Shawl Lapel Cardigan, Blue Denim Shirt

A film about a French prisoner’s trial-filled escape from a penal colony might not sound like fertile ground for fashion inspiration. And yet, McQueen managed to find time to whip out another great outfit on the set of this 1973 epic. The shawl lapel cardigan might not seem like the most masculine piece of clothing at first glance, but as soon as McQueen slips it on, you can see just how well it can work as part of the right outfit. 

A fan of knitwear in all its forms, McQueen could often be seen sporting Aran cable knit sweaters and cozy turtlenecks, maybe because they showed off one of his greatest assets rather well. The tight-fitting fabric only served to accentuate his powerful, lean physique. You can see another great Steve McQueen sweater look in The Honeymoon Machine, where he wears a baby blue V-neck with no undershirt – another simple, sexy style that wouldn’t be out of place on the streets of modern-day LA.

The Cincinnati Kid – Black Waxed Jacket, Burgundy Sweater, Brown Cotton Pants

In his turn as professional poker player Eric “The Kid” Stoner in The Cincinnati Kid, McQueen brought another fantastic outfit to the table. This permanently rain-slicked black waxed jacket looked effortlessly cool on McQueen’s shoulders, a blend between modern simplicity and classic noir. Throughout the film, it’s seen paired with both burgundy and navy blue sweaters, for soft and warm tones respectively, and brown cotton pants that lend the outfit a seamless finish. It’s the inverse of McQueen’s Thomas Crown suits, with largely formal underlayers that belie the rough-and-tumble statement piece worn on top. 

The Blob – Camel Suede Bomber, Beige Button-Down Shirt, Blue Slate Pants 

Here we have one of McQueen’s most traditional outfits, this time from his early 1958 sci-fi horror movie The Blob. Playing teenager Steve Andrews in the movie, although he was already 28 years old at the time of filming, McQueen wore a stripped-back outfit consisting of a camel suede bomber, a cream beige button-down shirt, and a white shirt undershirt, and blue slate pants. This is one of my favourite McQueen outfits, owing to the simplicity of the 1950s style and the mellow blending of multiple shades of brown and grey. It could easily come off as boring, and yet the short-cut jacket and beltless shirt-tuck give it a youthful, fun feel – all without the need for any extra accessories. 

McQueen’s Harringtons

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