Celluloid Style: Paul Newman

Paul Newman in a polo shirt and sport coat
Image credit: Pxhere / Public domain

If you were carving out a Mount Rushmore of menswear, Paul Newman’s face — or, indeed, his wardrobe — would merit pride of place among the style icons of the twentieth century.

The sure mark of a sartorial superstar, Newman was one of those rare dressers who looked equally elegant and at ease in any given get-up. Both on and off screen he moved deftly across disparate styles, whether it be the look of a restless youth in a T-shirt, a dock worker in a deck jacket, a rancher in double denim, a yachtsman on the open ocean, or a tux-bound movie star on the red carpet. In the latter case, the word ‘bound’ feels appropriate when applied to Mr Newman since he is rumoured to have disliked black tie enough that he burned all of his dinner jackets in a bonfire on his seventy-fifth birthday.

Instead, Newman preferred more ordinary, practical, and casual attire. While he certainly was an all-rounder in matters of apparel, the style tribe with which he is most closely associated is prep, an aesthetic that, despite its associations with Ivy covered academic institutions and foppish country-club types, fundamentally offers a functional and varied wardrobe that no doubt appealed to Newman’s everyday off-screen persona. In his younger years, in particular, he favoured such prep staples as button-down shirts, V-neck jumpers, shawl-collared sweaters, slim-fit khakis, blousons, blazers, and tweed sport coats. Then there was his footwear — usually worn with some comfy athletic socks — which ran the entire preppy gamut from moccasins to Top-Siders to penny loafers

An outdoorsman at heart — he grew up working in his father’s sporting goods store, spent much of his free time fishing, and eschewed living in Hollywood by taking up residence in the remote setting of Westport, Connecticut — many famous photographs of Newman reveal his various active pursuits. These include shots of him at the beach, on the tennis court, swimming in Venice, playing ping pong on the set of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or kicking back on a boat in the Florida Keys. 

Paul Newman in a race car 1971
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Perhaps his most famous sporting pursuit, however, was racing, which was itself tied to his best-known bit of kit, a Rolex Daytona watch. His black-and-white Daytona ref. 6329, which he often wore on a bund strap, is so closely associated with the actor that it has long been commonly referred to as the Paul Newman Daytona. In 2017, Newman’s original watch became the most expensive wristwatch ever to sell at auction for a staggering $17.8 million. It had been a gift from his wife and he regularly put it to use for its intended purpose on the race track while presumably heeding the advice engraved on its caseback: ‘Drive Carefully Me’.

Newman first fell in love with motorsport while doing high-speed driving training for the 1969 film Winning and would go on to pursue a life on the race track. Among his many racing accolades were several Sports Car Club of America national driving titles, a second-place finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979, and another second at the 1995 24 Hours of Daytona at the age of 70. Incredibly, he competed at the same event again ten years later at the age of 80. 

This list of lifelong sporting pursuits no doubt accounted for his athletic build and svelte physique even into old age. His all-round good looks were, of course, the stuff of legend, but they never sat particularly well with Newman himself. ‘There’s something very corrupting about being an actor,’ he told the New York Times. ‘It places a terrible premium on appearance.’ Indeed, to avoid the pitfalls of his matinée idol persona he often grew a beard and famously wore large aviator sunglasses in public. When fans asked that he take off his glasses to offer a peek at his famous blue eyes he would joke that doing so would make his pants fall down. His good humour seemed to mask a more grave concern, however. ‘I picture my epitaph,’ he once said. ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.’

Paul Newman with his wife Joanne Woodward
Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Newman certainly seemed to work hard at being much more than a pretty face. He appeared in more than 65 movies in an acting career that spanned over half a century and was nominated for ten Academy Awards, eventually winning for Best Actor in The Colour of Money in 1986. For the same length of time — five decades — until his death in 2008 he was married to his second wife, the actor Joanne Woodward, famously saying in Playboy on the subject of his monogamy: ‘I have steak at home; why go out for hamburger?’

For all of his famed sex appeal and on-screen magnetism (film critic Pauline Kael described him as ‘peerless’ and wrote that ‘His likableness is infectious; nobody should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman’), he considered his true legacy to be philanthropy, much of which came from a decision to start selling salad dressing on a lark in 1982. He had been giving his signature dressing to friends as Christmas gifts, but soon realised the commercial potential of the brand which grew into a range of products sold around the world. To date, Newman’s Own has generated well over $500 million of profit, all of which is donated to charity.

Now, fourteen years after his death, a new memoir called The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man hit bookstore this month in which Newman paints himself as a far less confident character than an adoring public may have assumed. But while his personal life may have been more troubled and tumultuous than we realised, there’s another perception of Newman that seems unlikely to ever be altered: that of style icon. Few men have left as indelible an impression on the annals of menswear and, even as we move ever further away from the decades of his prime, it seems certain we’ll be looking to him for inspiration for many years to come.

You might say that when you’re talking men’s fashion, Paul Newman never gets old.

Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke
Image credits: monstersforsale, Tullio Saba / Public domain

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