As in life, teenager Jim Stark’s wardrobe is as definitive in defining his personality as his words are. Stark’s fashion transforms throughout the film to express his emotions. The audience first encounters Jim Stark at the local police station, where he was brought in for drunk and disorderly behavior, as he sits waiting for his parents to retrieve him. In this scene, Stark is wearing suit bottoms and an undershirt with a loosened tie, implying that he left his house in a full suit. This implication, in turn, signifies the influence his parents have had on him in the time frame before viewers have become voyeurs. He loosens the tie and cries about how upset he is with his inept parents, physically shedding their influence while simultaneously attempting to mentally shed it.
At this point, it is important to address how crucial the relationship between the setting of the scene and the costuming is. The costuming alone does not suffice; it is relative until the setting of the particular shot provides context. In this first scene, Jim is shown sitting in the corner of the interrogation room. Similarly, Judy sits in a corner of the detective’s office, also wearing red. The placing of the actors is linked to the costumes they wear, and the color red specifically, which is immediately established as the primary color of the film. Red represents different things for different characters. In Jim’s case, it will come to represent rebellion; in Judy’s case, anger; in Plato’s case, peace. Although each character wears the emblematic red at some point, it is displayed by the three in three different phases in the film: Judy wears it in the beginning, Jim in the middle, and Plato at the end. This progression adds a dimension of unity to the characters, something they lack when the film begins.
In the next scene, Stark loses the tie altogether, as he leaves for his first day at a new school. Losing his tie is the next logical step for Stark, who wishes to present to his peers the vision he has of his own personality. This is also the first scene in which he says (under his breath) he loves Judy, and in which he meets the Kids. This confession coincides with his fashion evolution, which is in an ambiguous, in-the-middle phase. Stark has not yet decided who to be or whose side to be on. Hence, he has not decided if he should wear a respectable suit or ditch it for some jeans. This battle of style is not concentrated solely on fashion, either. It is also a battle of tradition versus eccentricity. Where does Stark fit in? Should he strive to join the Kids, or should he oppose them? This stage of his fashion provides the audience with an ambiguous answer to these questions, because Jim himself is still undecided.
After a knife fight with the main Kid, Jim arrives for his confrontational car race wearing the striking red jacket for the first time. Taken in this context, the red jacket represents who Jim wants to be; to be accepted by and into the popular circle. Jim is using this jacket to give himself a cool aura. However, Jim’s ambition encounters a setback when the race ends in the death of a Kid, and he subsequently returns home. Ironically, this tragedy—and perhaps the jacket itself–gives Jim the confidence to finally confront his useless parents. Here, the jacket’s collar is turned up on one side and down on the other. The contradictory poses emphasize Jim’s dual identities up to this point in the film. Turned up, the collar represents defiance; turned down, it signifies vulnerability.
The setting of this scene plays as important a role in developing Jim’s identity as his jacket does. This screen shot (insert) provides the best photographic supplement to Jim’s identity issues—the internal struggle he faces as a result of a cowardly father, shown sitting on the couch, the closest one of the three to the floor; an overbearing mother, standing above Jim and his father on the stairs; in between, at the foot of the stairs, stands Jim. This portrait of family structure is repeated in this capture of Jim with Judy and Plato in a scene where they play house. With his jacket more fully zipped than it has been before, Jim becomes the father, Judy the mother and Plato the son.
The progression of Jim’s self-confidence manifests itself in the film’s pivotal scene, in which Jim and Judy attempt to rescue Plato from himself at the planetarium. As seen in this video clip, as soon as Jim sees Plato shivering, he offers him the jacket in an attempt to get Plato to give up his gun. Subsequently, Plato asks if he can keep it, voicing the audience’s thoughts of the symbol of ‘cool’ the jacket is. This simple gesture has two layers of symbolism. Firstly, Jim is offering Plato the object that gave Jim the acceptance he is now showing his troubled friend. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, Jim sheds the jacket that led him to self-discovery. He doesn’t need it anymore; maybe he never did.
The influence Jim embodies through his image is not lost on the audience. This role, apart from giving audiences a character who echoes their own lives, also gave popular culture its seminal icon in James Dean the actor. According to Stephen Tropiano, author of Rebels and Chicks: A History of the Hollywood Teen Movie, Ray’s film was not only one of the first films to portray “troubled” American teens, but it was also the film that solidified Dean’s status. It is because of the film’s image of Jim Stark that Dean, “the young man in the blood-red jacket, white T-shirt, and blue jeans” will endure in our minds. In other words, it is not only James Dean’s face that we remember, but his persona, his image—the one created by his costuming to track his progression from teen to adult (Tropiano 53).
In the film’s final scene, Jim, his parents, Judy, and Plato’s caregiver stand over Plato’s lifeless body, still wearing Jim’s iconic red jacket. This is the first scene in which Jim introduces his parents to friends of his, and the audience is left wondering whether this may, in fact, be the first time in his life he has done so. As such, this would be the moment in which Jim’s angst-ridden adolescent years have finally come to an end metaphorically, if not literally. Jim’s father articulates this observation as he comforts his son by calling him a man for the first time, saying “You did everything a man could.” Therefore, Jim’s jacket acts not only as his shield, but also as his gateway into adulthood.