James Dean is Rebel Without A Cause. His untimely death, the result of a crash in his Porsche Spyder, just a week before the film was due to open sealed his status as Hollywood legend. But Rebel wasn’t just Dean’s film; it also belonged to director Nicholas Ray and co-stars Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper and, of course, Natalie Wood. Wood knew that the role of Judy would help her break into adult roles and, despite her relative youth (Wood was aged just 16 as rehearsals began) Ray was convinced that “there is only one girl who has shown the capacity to play Judy, and she is Natalie Wood,” he wrote in a Warner Bros. memo.
For Ray, creating an authentic ‘teenage’ experience was key. He appointed Frank Mazzola, part-time actor and full time gang-member, as a ‘technical adviser’. Mazzola provided information on everything from cars to clothes and even choreographed the knife fight scene between James Stark (Dean) and Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen). Mazzola advised the wardrobe department to buy the gang’s costumes at Matson’s, a department store on Hollywood Boulevard where his own gang (Athenians) bought their own clothes. The story behind Dean’s iconic red jacket is conflicted – some reports suggest it was bought off the peg at Matson’s whilst costume designer Moss Maybray claims he designed the jacket. “Even though the jacket looked simple,” Mabry has said, “it wasn’t. The pockets were in just the right place; the collar was just the right size.”
Wood’s costume was equally low-key, understated in an era of high voltage Hollywood glamour. The aim was to make the teenagers look like actual teenagers. Props and costumes were appropriated from Warner Bros. extensive costume department or bought cheaply – off-the-peg styles that were relaxed and natural. The film was originally set to be shot in black and white, but several weeks into production Cinemascope decided to switch to colour – a decision that was exploited in the costume choices. Wood is dressed in a palette of reds and pinks that emphasise her femininity and growing confidence – but not everyone was impressed. Jack Grinnage (who played Moose) remembers that the first time he saw Judy on set “they’d cut her hair, and they’d padded her hips and her butt. I remember Nick said to her, ‘What do you have on?’ She said, ‘Well, they padded me.’ He said, ‘Take it off.’ The wardrobe ladies got very upset because the things didn’t fit, so they had to re-do everything.”
In the opening scene at the police station Judy is dressed in a striking red A-line coat with an oversize patch pocket, a matching full skirt and blouse and a brown fur collar with tied with a red ribbon tie – unconfirmed reports suggest that this was a relic from the costume department. The colour, combined with a hint of red lipstick, creates a strong and dramatic visual statement, odds with Judy’s tearful and anxious persona. Although she looks evoke a self-assurance and poise, she is emotional and fragile, yet to grow into the character she has been assigned by society.
Judy’s ‘look’ in her second scene seems much more natural; a costume evolution that continues throughout the film. Clad in a lightweight green skirt suit and black top, accessorised with a jaunty orange neck scarf and a leather handbag, she looks young, fresh and carefree – attributes inextricably linked with ‘a teenager’ but an aesthetic that was only just beginning to develop in the mid-1950’s.
It’s Judy’s third costume however that best encapsulates her age and mindset. Her pink, form-fitting knitted polo shirt, complete with white trim, is prim and feminine. Tucked into a full blue-grey skirt it has all the hallmarks of a classic 50’s styling. Relaxed and casual, it’s fitting that this is the outfit that Judy wears for the rest of Rebel, as she ‘grows up’ and becomes increasingly sensitive and maternal in her actions towards both Jim and Plato.
Further reading: Dangerous Talents by Sam Kashner for Vanity Fair and Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause by Frascella and Weisel