To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of American crime thriller, Bullitt, we review 5 elements of McQueen style that have endured 5 decades. The classic film is remembered by many for its dramatic car chase scene involving a 1968 Ford Mustang 390GT Fastback, driven by Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (played by Steve McQueen), pursued by hitmen in a Dodge Charger R/T 440 “Magnum” of the same year.
The Dodge Charger flying past the infamous VW Beetle
The film was directed by Englishman Peter Yates, the son of an army officer who, after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, worked as an actor, director and stage manager – he also spent two years working as a racing manager for British motoring legends Stirling Moss and Peter Collins. In the late 1950s, he acted as assistant to both of the first two James Bond directors (Terence Young and Guy Hamilton) and by the 1960s, he was directing Roger Moore in the television series, The Saint. His first feature film was Summer Holiday (1963) starring pop idol Cliff Richard, which became the second most popular film in the UK that year.
Peter Yates directing Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday (1963)
Yates’ reputation was sealed when he directed the 1967 UK heist film, “Robbery”, based on the 1963 Great Train Robbery, starring Stanley Baxter and featuring an extended car chase scene. The film was a critical success in the US and, most importantly, met the approval of Steve McQueen – which apparently led to Yates being offered the job of directing a movie in the United States for the first time.
Peter Yates meets Steve McQueen's approval
The director was appointed, the stage was set, the actors were cast, and the wheels were about to be set in motion for a classic movie. The finishing touch was the detail of McQueen’s wardrobe, which could neither upstage nor be outdone by the understated Highland Green livery of the undeniably handsome Ford Mustang. The result was a costume (and a motorcar) that most men of style would be happy to be seen in to this day.
Bullitt co-stars, Mustang and McQueen
Muted, masculine, practical, rugged, yet somehow refined, the star and his car were both perfectly clothed. The standout piece for McQueen is the brown herringbone tweed jacket. It is relaxed, but well-tailored. The natural shoulder and “button 3 - roll 2” front fastening hark to classic Americana, whilst the side vents and outside ticket pocket are a nod to British styling. The unique details are the suede elbow patches and simple, two-button cuff… supporting the philosophy that sometimes, “less is more”.
McQueen in the iconic herringbone tweed sport coat
Although the film was based in California, a state generally considered to be warm and sunny, San Francisco is a city that can strike a chill through the coolest of customers. In order to counter the cold, McQueen was furnished with a lightweight, navy blue, cashmere roll-neck sweater, that provided adequate warmth during the early morning and late evening, together with the necessary comfort and softness when being worn next to the skin during the warmer midday hours.
A relaxed moment in lightweight navy cashmere
McQueen’s trousers were cut slim with plain fronts and bottoms. They were made from grey flannel – a fabric that is warm and comfortable to wear. Flannel was originally produced in Wales, where it was well known as early as the 16thcentury. The cloth can be either a twill or plain weave, but the weave is usually hidden by the “napping” process which creates the soft, hairy finish that is characteristic of the material. It is the perfect choice for formal winter suits or occasional trousers.
McQueen's wife on set wearing fur trimmed shearling, suggests that it was flannel weather
Although the weather remained dry throughout the movie, a raincoat was worn to provide an extra layer of protection from the damp air and cold breeze of the chillier moments. It is a classic single-breasted Raglan style that is worn over the navy two-piece suit in the early scenes, and also together with the tweed jacket and flannel trouser combination. Its origin is unknown, but as McQueen was such a fan of the Baracuta brand, it is the company’s G10 raincoat that we would propose as a suitable candidate for creating the look.
Steve McQueen in classic single-breasted raincoat
Steve McQueen was also keen on suede “Playboy” chukka boots, wearing them both in his private life and on the set of Bullitt. It is always difficult to determine the precise shade of materials when studying historic photographs or film footage – the very same product can appear to differ in colour from one medium to the next, particularly when the lighting varies. In addition to the “Snuff” and “Chocolate” versions of the Sanders “Playboy” boots, a new shade called “Indiana Tan” has been introduced in an attempt to move a step closer to the original.
A McQueen staple - the "Playboy" Chukka Boot
The magic, and wonder, of McQueen’s iconic Bullitt outfit is that each element, in isolation, is a classic piece that works perfectly in its own environment, although convention would keep them apart. The tweed jacket is a country affair, whilst the flannels are generally more at home when paired with classic “town” blazers. The raincoat traditionally protects gentleman’s city finery from wind and downpours, whereas the roll-collar sweater is more suited to casual downtime. The rubber soled, suede chukka boots remain a law unto themselves, yet combined with the above, complete a look that is, somehow, totally balanced… and as relevant today as it was in 1968.