Ten On-Screen Denim Heroes

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River of No Return
River of No Return (1954)

In honour of #denimday, we celebrate our on-screen denim-wearing heroes, from James Dean to Julia Roberts

Ever since Levi Strauss started importing denim from France in 1853, its presence in fashion has been indelible – and that presence is thoroughly documented through cinema. From the cowboy westerns of the fifties, through the flares of the seventies to the stretch-denim miniskirts of the nineties, we look back at some of the greatest moments in cinematic history featuring one of the world's most enduring fabrics. From Julia Roberts to James Dean, Brokeback Mountain to Almost Famous, here are our favourite on-screen permeutations of the material.

Marilyn Monroe in River Of No Return (above)
Set in 1875, Fifties western River Of No Return shows the prevalence of denim way back when, worn both by Marilyn Monroe (saloon entertainer Kay) and Robert Mitchum (widowed murderer Matt Calder) throughout their treacherous adventures on the Northwestern rapids. The slightly bizarre love-story is riddled with problematic elements – but it does show Monroe in all her glory, decked out in indigo jeans and accompanied by fellow hearthrob Mitchum who wins her over and shows her the transformative power of love.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Few icons have stood the test of time in the same way that Audrey Hepburn has managed – and her role as Truman Capote's pearl-wearing, cigarette-holding society girl Holly Golightly has inspired a litany of glamorous merchandise from Ikea to Clinton's Cards. However, perhaps even more bewitching than her Givenchy cocktail gowns and enviable chignons is the outfit that Hepburn wears to sing Moon River on her windowsill; her jeans-and-headscarf combo is utterly charming and shows extrovert Golightly becoming a little more relatable, both in character and wardrobe. After the first preview of the film, the president of Paramount Pictures is reported to have demanded that the song be removed from the film because of Hepburn's limited vocal range – but she retorted "over my dead body" and it stayed, winning an Academy Award and 500 subsequent recordings by artists from Judy Garland to PJ Harvey.

Stillwater in Almost Famous
Almost Famous is essentially a scene-by-scene montage of seventies wardrobe inspiration, from Kate Hudson's fabulous fur-trimmed suede to Zooey Dechanel's air-hostess glamour. But the insouciant cool of Stillwater, Rolling Stone's (fictional, but brilliant) coverstar band, is the most defining sartorial element of the film; their long-haired rockstar good looks only enhanced by their well-worn Levi's and denim shirts. Although, it's not just Stillwater who wear the denim well: the anti-hero of the film is William Miller, music journo in training, who accidentally ends up on tour with a very limited (denim-heavy) wardrobe and warms even the coldest of hearts with his earnest approach to his new career. Plus, even if you hate denim, you've got to love a tour bus singlalong to Elton John.

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
Nobody has ever made teen angst look more painfully handsome than James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. His exploration of the inner turmoil and juvenile delinquency of a high-schooler in the 1950s is magnetically troubled and, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, makes hormone-riddled surburbia look like somewhere you want to be. It was only the decade previous that the concept of the teenager had been created – in fact, in 1945 the New York Times Magazine published A Teen-age bill of Rights including, "VI. The right to question ideas," and, " IX. The right to struggle toward his own philosophy of life." It is this relatively modern concept that Dean explores and, through his brilliant performance, constructed a teenage uniform for decades to come.

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise
The film that inspired a generation of feminists, Thelma and Louise is a fantastically inspiring testimony to the power of female friendship and turns the typical machismo of buddy road movies on their heads. With Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon re-appropriating phallic symbolism and wielding their own weaponry, Brad Pitt filmed through the female gaze and both women embarking on an intensely emotional journey of self-empowerment, not only do they look phenomenal in denim shirts and jeans but they also fight for their rights – and the rights for women everywhere. In fact, in 1991 when the film was filmed, spousal rape was still not considered a crime in the US or the UK, proving that the issues that were raised throughout the film were painfully relevant to its contemporary audience.

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich
Activist and legal assistant Erin Brockovich was a force to be reckoned with, fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised citizens of Hinkley who'd had their health seriously affected by pipeline construction in the area. When Julia Roberts took on the role of Brockovich for the 2000 film that documented the case, she did so with utter aplomb; armed with plenty of denim miniskirts and sassy quips, she epitomised the notion that appearances are not all that they seem. While you might be able to see Brokovich's bra an awful lot of the time, and she might be making (brilliant) retorts about blowjobs, it doesn't mean that she isn't a fantastic legal assistant (in fact, Brockovich drove the case to win an unparallelled settlement in 1996) as well as an utter inspiration when it comes to a sexy denim ensemble.

Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were
Sydney Pollack's seventies classic The Way We Were sees Robert Redford (Hubbell Gardiner) and Barbara Streisand (Katie Morosky) play a couple whose relationship is painfully doomed by their respective differences in priorities. While the film includes some of the most heartbreakingly tear-jerking scenes that have ever made it into a romantic drama, it also includes some exceptional sartorial ensembles: Katie's penchant for a denim shirt paired with Hubbell's propensity to walk around topless in jeans means that they have a thoroughly deserved spot on our list of favourites.

Garth Avery in Taxi Driver
In Scorsese's masterpiece Taxi Driver, Jodie Foster's wardrobe is a legendary incarnation of Lolita fantasies, but Garth Avery's outfits also deserve recognition for their brilliance: here, her high-waisted seventies flares are a particularly delight (and her sunglasses bear a brilliant resemblance to Miu Miu's S/S15 offerings). Both her and Foster's girlish florals and curls are the perfect foil for De Niro's aggressive masculinity, his mohawk and militarywear a stark contrast to their pubescent feminininty – and the tragedy of their occupation as prostitutes is further enhanced by their older-than-their-years sexuality.

Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
One wouldn't expect to find a great deal of fashion inspiration inside a mental hospital – particularly one overseen by Nurse Ratched – but Jack Nicholson manages to adapt the enforced uniform to his renegade persona in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by wearing his hospital vest over a denim shirt. His consistent bending and breaking of the institution's rules is one of the elements that makes the close of the film all the more tragic; seeing a man so thoroughly broken by barbaric 'treatment' is particularly poignant when it follows him wearing a denim shirt and winding everyone up in group therapy.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain
Brokeback Mountain could pretty much run as a denim commercial; seeing Heath Ledger (Ennis Del Maar) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack Twist) frolic around the American West in double denim is a dream come true. But perhaps the most emotive moment is when Ennis opens Jack's wardrobe after his death to find his own denim shirt, bloodied from their roughhousing on Brokeback Mountain, a shirt that he thought he'd lost years previous. Jack's mother gives it to him, and the film closes with us seeing it hanging in Ennis's own wardrobe, next to a postcard of Brokeback, a tragic testament to their relationship and the forbidden time they spent together.