Celluloid Style: Harrison Ford

Image credit: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Harrison Ford. The name alone says it all, really. With a first name like ‘Harrison’ and a surname like ‘Ford’, how could the man not have been given that head of hair, that anvil of a jawline, that roguish smile? Today, it’s a title that reads like a superstar moniker written by committee, although when he first came to Hollywood, the suits were less than impressed. As the man himself tells it: ‘They wanted me to change my name when I was under contract at Columbia. I said, “Fuck you!” So I thought about it and came back the next day and said, “Okay, I’ll be Kurt Affair”. They said, “All right, all right, never mind.”’

Unlike his would-be stage name, Ford’s route to stardom was anything but a curt affair. The man who would become one of the film industry’s most bankable stars took a long while to make it to the big screen. After a few undistinguished school years (‘the kindest word to describe my performance in school was sloth’) the Chicago-born Ford headed to Ripon College, Wisconsin to major in philosophy. While at Ripon, he took a drama class initially to help overcome his sense of shyness, but soon the acting bug bit, leading him to move to California where he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures.

Things didn’t quite work out, at least not at first. For about a decade, Ford languished in minor TV roles and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it movie performances. Needing to pay the bills and feed his young family, Ford taught himself carpentry, which he proceeded to do professionally for twelve years including a stint as a stagehand for The Doors.

Harrison Ford in costume as Han Solo
Ford in character as Han Solo in Star Wars
Image credit: Dean W. Estes / CC BY-ND 2.0

It wasn’t until he landed a role in American Grafitti, directed by one George Lucas, that the tides turned for a 31-year-old Ford. He befriended the young director and the rest is cinematic history. Ford would beat out the likes of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray for the role of Han Solo in a little flick named Star Wars (1977), later subtitled ‘A New Hope’, which also pretty neatly describes exactly what the film brought to Ford’s acting career.

From here, the classics kept coming: Apocalypse Now (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Witness (1985), which earned him an Acadamy Award nomination, Patriot Games (1992), which was his first outing as Jack Ryan, and, of course, among many others in the decades to come, the leading role in the landmark franchise that is Indiana Jones.  

As Indy, Ford had a seminal set of kit that has become even better-known than the ecru shirt, leather vest, and leg holster combo of Han Solo. The character of Indiana Jones wore — as countless trick-or-treaters and Comic-Con attendees cosplaying as the world’s most famous archaeologist will be quick to tell you — a fedora, khakis, a safari shirt, a leather flight jacket, Alden’s eponymous ‘Indy’ boots, and a bullwhip (not to mention tweed ensembles and the occasional white dinner jacket when he wasn’t out treasure-hunting). If there’s a more iconic bit of movie costuming out there, you’d be hard-pressed to find it.

Harrison Ford in costume as Indiana Jones
Another role of a lifetime for Harrison Ford in the form of Indiana Jones
Image credit: puuikibeach / CC BY 2.0

Ford’s real-life clothing choices have been considerably simpler than those of his cinematic counterparts but equally timeless in their own way. He has long opted for the classics: simple T-shirts, well-worn jeans, work shirts, plain button-ups, blue blazers — actually, just a lot of blue all round. All of this he has worn with aplomb for several decades now to create a sense of style that Vogue once described as ‘quietly elegant’, which is tough to argue with.

While his wardrobe hasn’t exactly been cast in carbonite, it has been relatively consistent throughout his long career. Of that career, as it happens, he has said the following: ‘I think the reason I’m still here is that I was never enough in fashion that I had to be replaced by something new. I’m like old shoes. I’ve never been hip.’ Mr Ford and I might agree to disagree about just how in fashion he’s always been (I’d argue that box office receipts from the last half a century speak for themselves) but what we might call an ‘old shoe’ approach to dressing has certainly served him remarkably well over the years. 

Lest this sound a bit dull, however, I’d be quick to point out that on Harrison Ford these restrained but entirely respectable stock items look better than they could on just about any model or mannequin. What’s more, he has also been known at times to show a little unexpected flair. In a famous photograph taken around the time of the first burst of Star Wars mania and on the eve of the subsequent hype for Indiana Jones, we see Ford wearing blue head-to-toe in the form of a navy blazer, a lived-in polo that has almost been washed to violet, and indigo jeans. A bit boring, you might think, except that Ford accents the ensemble (as he so often does) with a Western belt and, on this occasion, a yellow daisy disarmingly tucked into his lapel.

Another celebrated all-blue combo sees Ford wearing aviator sunglasses (a further life-long go-to for the actor), what looks to be a cotton crew-neck jumper, and a simple dress watch. Seems like business as usual, right? Except that from the waist down he’s donning the perfect set of short shorts — a period-appropriate choice, I grant you, but a baller move nonetheless — alongside what look to be some well-worn and casually untied L.L.Bean blucher mocs, and, best of all, a promotional badge for the film E.T. incongruously but somehow impeccably pinned at the hip.

Also, need I remind you that Harrison Ford has been making the case for men wearing earrings since the ’90s? In case you were wondering, he got his left ear pierced back in 1997 to mark the occasion of his 55th birthday. 

Harrison Ford wearing a tuxedo and ear ring
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 3.0

Today it’s his 80th. Over his long career he has perfected playing a unique brand of action man, a hero with a twinkle in his eye. His typical protagonist is part swagger, confidence, and brooding intensity, part fallible, funny, and unexpectedly sensitive. He is the ultimate he-man/lovable doofus — a mould Ford set decades before Marvel and co. started replicating the selfsame on-screen persona countless times over. Harrison Ford effectively wrote the book on being a movie star in our time. At 80 years of age — impossibly — he feels every bit as charming, relevant, and magnetic as he did when he first came on the scene (An immortal Indiana Jones line comes to mind: ‘It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.’)

And now, more than a thousand words into this article, I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of the man’s talents and charm. I haven’t even gotten to his skills as an aviator (In brief: he only really started flying in his fifties, collects vintage aircraft, and has performed several successful rescues, flew medical supplies to Haiti in 2010, and once pulled off an emergency landing on a California golf course when one of his engines gave out), not to mention his philanthropic work, his real-life archaeological efforts, or the fact that, of all things, there is even a spider named after him.

When it comes down to it, there seems to be little to say about a man like Harrison Ford except to echo the sentiments of a certain Princess Leia in saying, simply, that we love him. His response — as I imagine it, anyway — no doubt delivered with a dismissive grunt alongside a disarming smile, is bound to be the same as it ever was:

‘I know.’ 

Right you are, Mr Ford.