There are numerous flavors of XY-chromosome cool that a guy can ape and/or aspire to: the leather-jacket greaser chic that’s favored by’50s rebels from Marlon “Whaddaya got?” Brando to the Fonz; the bespoken dandy, pocket-squared to perfection; the rugged outdoorsman, all flannel and unkempt facial hair; the skinny-pants hipster, decked out in choice garb that’s equal parts ’60s mod (see Perry, Fred) and ’70s downtown (see retro, early ’00s). Most people would be lucky if they could successfully pull off one of those looks. One movie star aced them all over a two-decade period.
His name was Steve McQueen. The style was 100% sui generis. And sorry, but when it comes to timeless cool, the man has it sewn up. You still can’t touch it.
It helped that he knew not only knew how to look good in front of the camera but he’d figured out how to turn fashion statements into declarations of independence onscreen. Sure, dress this handsome blue-eyed devil in the tailored three-piece suits of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) or the proto-Reservoir Dog white-shirt/black-tie heist uniform of The Getaway (1972), and of course he’ll resemble a crisp million bucks. Yet watch the key films—the seven magnificent movies that are essential viewing for all McQueenologists—and you’ll notice how in most of them, his wardrobe doesn’t jibe with the project’s time period or his costars’ costumes.
Here’s the real secret to McQueen’s cross-generational appeal as a screen icon and a how-to template for masculine identity.
There’s no real reason that a P.O.W. stuck in a German WWII prison camp would be tooling around in chinos and a gray crew sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off at the elbow, or why an underground poker champ circa the Great Depression would be sporting a fashionably battered windbreaker straight out of the pages of a mid-’60s GQ. I’m pretty sure that a leather-patched tweed sportscoat over a black turtleneck was not standard-issue SFPD garb despite what Bullitt (1968) tells us. But damned if he didn’t attract attention all the more by going the sartorial road less traveled; he instinctively knew that he’d stick in the memory if he stuck out. (Try to recall what anybody else in The Great Escape  or The Cincinnati Kid  was wearing, and with the possible exception of James Garner’s Captain-and-Tennille-esque couture in the former, you’ll draw a blank.)
But even when he’s simply clad in dusty Western dungarees—compared to, say, Yul Brynner’s man-in-black outfit or Robert Vaughn’s riverboat-gambler get-up, McQueen may be the least stylish of The Magnificent Seven (1960)—the way he owns a space, still or in movement, tells you how comfortable this man is in his own skin regardless of what he’s got on. And therein lies the real secret to McQueen’s continual cross-generational appeal as both a screen icon and a how-to template for masculine identity. It wasn’t necessarily what he was wearing so much as how effortlessly and confidently he wore it, a notion that extended to everything the star did on- and offscreen.
He grew up hard—street gangs, schools for wayward boys, Marine Corps, odd jobs ranging from lumberjack to, ahem, brothel supervisor—and had seen a good deal of hard knocks before discovering Meisner, Strasberg and the cockamamie concept that he might get paid to pretend to be someone else. That seen-it-all life experience added an edge to his performances, one that made you believe this guy knew his way around a bar fight, an engine block, an anti-authoritarian insult. (McQueen was also fluent in the language of boho superstardom early on; first wife Neile Adams said she used to see him riding his motorcycle, shirtless, around Greenwich Village long before people knew his name). He’d already learned that less is more, and had started perfecting a laconic persona that suggested both casual indifference and a coiled-snake alertness. He could project honesty, bravery and faith in his abilities by simply lowering his head and giving the hint of a cocky grin—so why extend energy on anything more, until it was time to teach somebody a lesson?
The chase scene in Bullitt
Mostly, though, McQueen gave you the notion that he could handle whatever came his way. It’s the reason that everything else he did in his prime movie-star years, whether it was leading the Nazis on a high-speed chase or goofing around the beach on a dune buggy with Faye Dunaway, feels like the actions of a man in complete control. (It’s the reason his crack-up near the end of Papillon (1973), his last great role, guts you.)
Movie stardom is fueled by wish fulfillment, and most of us wish we could drive a ’68 Mustang Fastback like Frank Bullitt, play sexy-chess with Ms. Dunaway, drop a line like “We deal in lead, friend” with such casual menace, jump our Triumph over a barbed-wire barricade with such panache, star down Little Caesar himself over a five-card stud game and spar with our real-life karate sensei, Bruce Freakin’ Lee.
What we really want, however, is to take any situation we’re in with the same unflappable, don’t-let-‘em-see-you-sweat grace Steve McQueen showed every single time he walked into the frame. You can have your car chases and six-shooter shoot-outs. There’s nothing more masculine than simply playing the ups and down so straight down the middle. There’s nothing so neverendingly cool as never losing your cool.