What does it take to become the king of cool? For Steve McQueen, the answer never boiled down to an equation scribbled in chalk on a blackboard, though he sure as hell made it look that simple. When you hear the American actor’s name you might first think of the iconic styles he pioneered throughout his decades long career—the blue faced Monaco Ref.1133 sported by McQueen in Le Mans, for example, carried the Swiss watch brand Heuer to cult status among watch aficionados. Or his trademark Persol 714 blue-tinted sunglasses and Harrington jacket from The Thomas Crown Affair (though McQueen’s friend and elder James Dean first popularized the brand bomber in Rebel Without a Cause). Or, the Sanders “Playboy” Chukka Boots he seemed never to take off.
Though his various iconography became a thing of tremendous influence on fashion, helping to define a distinct All-American style, McQueen established a rule of thumb that shouldn’t be overlooked when discussing his legacy: “cool” isn’t something to be worn, it’s something to be embodied. McQueen was a Hollywood rockstar in all aspects of his life, which, depending on whose perspective of those who were closest to him you would like to peer through, can be either a thing of greatness or destruction. In the case of McQueen, and many in that era who touched the stratosphere like he did, it’s a fair dose of both. There was a side to him that leant into the charm of the leading man—the Hollywood heartthrob who men would want to emulate and women would swoon over.
And then there was the maverick, a persona that carried its own dual narrative. On one hand he was the anti-hero of the counterculture, a true rebel on the screen and off. A motor enthusiast, he routinely performed his own stunts, including the car chase of all car chases in Bullitt and the famous motorcycle getaway in The Great Escape. He was a Tang Soo Do black belt and a student of Bruce Lee, who once described his protege as “that son of a gun [that] got the toughness in him”. McQueen was also known for his unusual artist riders, asking for razors, jeans and other miscellanea in bulk from film studios, of which it was discovered that—like the Robin Hood of Hollywood—he would donate to the Boys Republic, a reformatory school for delinquent youths that he spent time in as a child.
On the other hand, the rebellious nature that made McQueen such an icon sometimes backfired on himself and those he loved. In 1972, his frequent cocaine and alcohol abuse led to his arrest in Alaska, and his various extramarital escapades would bring ruin to his marriage with Fillipino actress and dancer Neile Adams.
In the modern sphere, due to the sheer infinity of the internet, there are more variations of the heartthrob than ever before, though the aforementioned rule of thumb set by McQueen has remained more or less the same—that is, if one hopes to attain his longevity.
The rugged older man archetype has kept a firm chokehold on mainstream pop-culture, with Pedro Pascal, Tom Hardy, Willem Dafoe, Mads Mikkelson and Ethan Hawke just a few of the figures who men and women alike have christened the new generation of fetishistic fathers—as long as there are daddy issues, then the “daddy” will remain a sacred and hallowed institution. The nerdy-cool, ironic, self aware comedian has chiseled its own lane in the conversation; while many swoon over jock-shouldered clean-shaven hunks like Jacob Elordi and Glen Powell, there are plenty whose knees buckle at the sight of a stubble-covered Bill Hader, Nathan Fielder and John Mulaney.
There are a few of the older guards who have followed in McQueen’s footsteps: Chris Pine, and Simon Rex, for instance, carry the same classic American charm, mysteriousness, and brooding sexiness that the counterculture legend once did. Ironically enough, though, the true modern lineage of McQueen might come in the form of his physical opposites: the likes of pretty loverboy Timothee Chalamet; rising superstar Paul Mescal; the awkwardly charismatic oddballs Lakeith Steinfeld and Robert Pattinson, and the future of the leading man, Steven Yeun, Austin Butler and Daniel Kaluuya, who all represent a softer, more balanced masculinity but embrace the quintessential McQueen energy of an all-encompassing self-confidence. Whether any of the above can live up to the powerful aesthetic fingerprint left behind by McQueen will remain to be seen.
As for McQueen—after his retirement from film and in the years before his death in 1980 at the young age of fifty, he became a recluse, seeking out a life of relative quiet on the fringes of Malibu and converting to Evangelism. He grew his hair and beard out and let it run wild and unkempt. Of course, in true McQueen fashion, even when he was actively running from his legacy, he was unintentionally carving new avenues for it to leave its footprint, with his “Hermit-look” becoming an epochal moment in his iconography. Trust the king of cool to make a mid-life crisis look sexy.