Is it the Nudie or the Stetson you’d recognize first? Is the bandanna classic Wayne, or are the Lucchese boots his sartorial stamp? John Wayne’s ineffable personality is materialized through his classic film costumes, canonized in film stills. Although it plays a minor supporting role in the new book, John Wayne: The Genuine Article by Michael Goldman, the clothing he wore onscreen shaped the moviegoer’s view of American masculinity and defined the man himself as an “American Legend.”
This book, bound in a leather-like hardcover with a frontispiece featuring a photograph of stalwart and solemn American Western landscape, reinforces the Duke’s manly aesthetic. Not only rich in well-chosen photographs, the publisher has reproduced ephemera from the Wayne archives, from a laminated driver’s license and a marriage certificate to his correspondence with the White House and contemporaries like Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn.
A bit ironic, these copies of his personal effects, in a book subtitled The Genuine Article. But their inclusion is fun, bringing the reader a bit closer to the distant film star through objects otherwise only available in archival storage. What a shame that there was no dusty, sweaty bandanna folded up between its pages! Film enthusiasts are notorious for their love of memorabilia, and the objects reproduced here go beyond Wayne’s (very) public life, giving the reader a glimpse into the personal effects of a man. The driver’s license struck me most: did he have to line up at the DMV? Did the DMV worker have to tell him to smile for the photo? Even the man who tamed wild horses and corralled outlaws onscreen needed the government’s approval to drive a car.
While humanizing him, this book continues to lionize this American icon. With a forward from none less than Jimmy Carter and a preface from Wayne’s youngest son, Ethan, who manages John Wayne Enterprises, the book introduces two of his most important roles: family man and elder statesman. The book works hard to celebrate John Wayne “the person,” as his son reiterates in the preface, since so many can only think of the icon.
Born Marion Mitchell Morrison and called “Duke” after a beloved family dog, the short biography of John Wayne is that he took a job as a props assistant at Fox Studios in the 1920s, was used as an extra in a few movies…and the rest is history. “The rest” is nicely detailed here, with great friendships and gentle feuds, behind-the-scenes notes from film sets, and various other details of a rich and full life. Clothing is interspersed in this tale, beginning with his mother’s insistence that her sons be presentable, as recounted by Wayne’s son Patrick:
‘They might have been dirt poor, eating Saltine crackers and peanut butter for lunch, but my grandmother always had him in a clean shirt and shoes.” (25)
In addition to the great photographic evidence throughout the book, images of extant clothing owned or worn by the Duke, such as a late-twentieth-century baseball cap from his alma mater USC or military caps from various films, for example, showcase his allegiance to his roots (the title of the first chapter). Goldman indicates this as a “signature quality” of the man:
Once he liked a person, a place, or a thing, he maintained his allegiance, come what may. Such loyalty and unyielding constance with those he loved, respected, and trusted resulted in many life-long friendships and associations, but it also periodically led to business associations gone wrong and personal disappointments as well. (26)
The chapters begin chronologically and end thematically as the collection of Wayne artifacts swells to represent his later, more active years. The third chapter, “Western Man” examines those trappings of legend, origin story, and manhood that came to define Wayne’s American aesthetic, and how John Wayne became a posterman for the “cowboy star.” “In fact,” notes Goldman, “Western clothes, Western and Native American art, horses, cattle, and ranching were interest that went far beyond his movie work.” (44) Wayne appeared in more than 80 (!) Westerns, melding his personal style and costume pieces to maintain a realistic persona on screen.
Some of these costumes are enumerated and catalogued in a small book-within-a-book, taking almost a mail-order catalogue form. Various clothing objects from many of his Western films are grouped by type (leather vests, colorful shirt-and-khaki pant combos, cavalry uniform; hats and boots fill two pages each), and are accompanied by a small key with the date, make, and film (if applicable).
The back page of the booklet shows a unique collage of labels from the Western Costume Company, Hollywood, which outfitted many of Wayne’s films. Some have his name and size typed in; here he is a 49 chest, there a 45 or 46–the notations of a long career.
I was interested to learn that he wore some of the same clothing in many films, especially hats and cowboy boots: a practical man.
Wayne worked hard to make his costumes realistic and his riding and shooting skillful. How he wore his gun belt, hat, kerchief, how he rode a horse–all these things were based on observations of real cowboys or actors or stuntmen he knew, whose mannerisms or style he chose to emulate. (48)
In this way, Wayne became a palimpsest of what it means to be Western, “obsessive” about his clothing and how it defined him. But the point here is that Wayne lived and loved the West, he didn’t just wear it. Although he is best known for his costumes, they were more than disguises or the superficial layer of a film character. In addition to the Westerns, he was in 18 war movies and donned the uniforms of various armed forces, another hyper-masculine signifier of patriotism and pride in American citizenship.
“The lesson is that a single individual, even one constantly spotlighted under the bright glare of fame, can privately, personally, and deeply influence those around him in a way that far outshines even his impact as a global figure.” (19)
In his foreword, former President Jimmy Carter recalls describing Wayne as “symboliz[ing] the American ideals of integrity, courage, patriotism, and strength and has represented to the world many of the deepest values that this Nation respects.” (7) For many, Wayne’s iconic hats, kerchiefs, boots and belts do just that, honoring hand-made American craftsmanship and harkening back to what he considered America’s golden age.
For those in the field of dress history, this book is probably best suited to those who study Hollywood costume or are writing a biography, for while there is a dedicated section on Wayne’s costumes, it is small. The presentation of his costumes is creative and it is augmented by the wealth of photographs, some of which show Wayne wearing the selfsame clothing. I would have liked to see the extant costumes next to film stills or photos of Wayne on set, but that’s a different angle. This book is not about dress, or even film costumes, but about the man who came to be publicly defined by them. It’s important to consider a range of approaches to dress history in Book Reviews on Worn Through, and the use of extant clothing to describe a life is an valuable, underused tool in a biographer’s (gun?)belt.
Opening Photo Credit: Cover of “John Wayne: The Genuine Article” by Michael Goldman. San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2013.
*Full disclosure: former WT columnist Heather Vaughan works for Insight Editions and suggested Worn Through readers might like to read about this book!*
Read more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Personal Property of John Wayne Auction Catalogue. Heritage Auctions, 2011.
Bosworth, Patricia, et al. John Wayne: the legend and the man: an exclusive look inside Duke’s archives. Brooklyn, NY: Powerhouse Books, 2012.
Freedman, Carl. “Post-Hetero Sexuality: John Wayne and the construction of American” Film International 5: 2007, 16-31.
Wills, Gary. John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.
Wayne, Pilar. John Wayne: My Life with the Duke. London: New English Library, 1989.