Have men like Steve McQueen turned ‘cool’ into a four letter word? The actor defined the concept of cool in his heyday but does it hold up in a modern-day context today? We’re indebted to McQueen for his contributions to popular culture. However, his flaws should be equally as well-known for it sets a dangerous precedent otherwise.
To credit Steve McQueen’s legacy to his clothes does the actor’s cultural impact a disservice, but in a world where clicks come before context and pageviews before principles, he’s often revered for his Persol shades, chukka boots and Brioni suits. On Instagram alone, there are 281,000 posts hashtagged with his name and captioned with his moniker: the ‘King of Cool’.
In the biographical documentary I Am Steve McQueen, Gary Oldman comments that chronologically, ‘There was Steve McQueen, and then there was cool.’ McQueen set the standard in the Sixties, and even now coolness is hard to define, and much easier to personify. Arguably, cool was around long before McQueen (see Mercedes McCambridge single-handedly rolling a cigarette in Lightning Strikes Twice) – but it’s indubitably always been a positive attribute, something to be celebrated and imitated.
McQueen’s personal brand of cool consisted of being rebellious, mysterious, attractive – in reality and in character, he was the underdog-done-good; the anti-hero, the bad boy. And he could really, truly act (‘If you really want to learn about acting for the screen,’ director Sam Peckinpah once said, ‘watch McQueen’s eyes’). Sadly, though, he could also truly act out.
McQueen’s marriages were littered with substance abuse, domestic violence and adultery. He openly cheated on Neile Adams with a series of fans, colleagues and prostitutes, yet McQueen slapped her repeatedly and held a loaded gun to her head until she told him her own lover’s name. Later, he harassed her into doing cocaine, and when she fell pregnant, he refused to accept the baby was his. ‘He terrified me,’ she said, flying to London for an abortion, believing her unborn child wouldn’t have survived his physical abuse anyway.
On set for The Getaway, the on screen blow he delivered to Ali MacGraw (who would become his second wife) was unscripted – she didn’t consent to him hitting her, and her character’s tears and humiliation are actually her own. Later, McQueen forced her to stop working at the peak of her own Hollywood career. ‘He was tremendously insecure and dangerous,’ she once said. ‘When it was good it was very, very good, but when it was bad it was horrendous.’
His substance abuse doesn’t necessarily signify a moral failing, but the effects it had on the actor’s already raging temper and unpredictable ways were inextricably linked. Was it a byproduct of Swinging Sixties hedonism? Or an escape from his tormented childhood, raised (barely) by a sex worker and abandoned by his father? Does it matter? The irrational behaviour went hand in hand with an insufferably fragile ego: he once had scriptwriters ensure that he and Paul Newman had exactly the same number of lines. Curiously, Newman was faithful to his wife of 50 years and an outspoken advocate for gay and civil rights; he reportedly gave up part of his salary to bridge the pay gap between him and his leading lady Susan Sarandon; he marched in Washington with Martin Luther King. So where was his title as King of Cool?
McQueen was a sex symbol, but he’s also come to symbolise an archetype of toxic masculinity that the world seems bizarrely reluctant to let go of. Today, the coolest men who walk the planet aren’t the ones who treat women like service providers and blame their mistakes on traumatic childhoods rather than taking responsibility. Because, sure, cool can be an attitude – of which McQueen had buckets. But it can’t consist of that alone: nowadays, principles and politics matter as much as – if not more than – clothes and cars.
Just look at Obama, Harry Styles, Marcus Rashford. It’s never been cooler to be kind: it’s long stopped being cool not to care. So isn’t it time the King abdicates his throne? If not, what does it say about the way we let ‘cool’ men behave, and how we allow certain ‘mistakes’ to be erased from our collective conscience because they don’t align with what we want to believe? It’s OK to honour someone like Steve McQueen, but by only ever approaching his legacy from a style point of view, we gloss over the fact that men like him – and their infallible position on a pedestal – have set a dangerous precedent in Hollywood for men like Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer and Shia La LaBeouf to remain ‘cool’ whilst (allegedly) victimising women and treating those around them as inferior. The meaning of ‘cool’ has evolved since the Sixties – and so should its representatives.
– By Anna Prendergast
Here at Kirk Originals, we’re constantly updating vintage styles of eyewear and reimagining them so that they’re suitable for today. A lot of the time, that means stripping them back to their very essence, this being the frame’s architecture and nothing else.
The 20th century nurtured many iconic frame styles of which some have been given the Kirk Originals treatment. Reed is one such style, decidedly 60s with some 70s flare, while Mason harnesses the nature of great minds of early 20th century intellects.