Welcome to our look at 80s Action Hero Style! When it comes to action movies, there’s no denying the 1980s was the decade of excess. It delivered bigger budgets, bigger guns, bigger explosions, bigger stunts and bigger actors than the we’d ever seen before. It was also the era that launched many of the world famous franchises that, unbelievably, are still alive and kicking today. Characters like Rambo, Maverick, Dutch, Foley and McClane all helped to make Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis the household names they are today.
To help us capture some of that testosterone fueled 80s action hero style, we turned to our friend Ryan Hall who runs the Iconic Film Style Instagram account (@iconicfilmstyle). Ryan has selected some of the key pieces we need to add to our wardrobes when we want to channel our inner ass-kicking ex-commando/rogue undercover officer/hot shot pilot. And don’t worry. We don’t have to be built like Arnold or Van Damme to wear them (although it wouldn’t hurt).
Chances are you already have some of the other key pieces in your closet. Break out your favorite black leather jacket (options in this post), Henley shirt (options in this post) and rugged boots (options in this post) and you’ll be well on your way to getting the look we want!
The M-65 Field Jacket
After being created for and getting a lot of wear during the Vietnam War, the M-65 field jacket began being adopted by civilians. In First Blood (1982), decorated but troubled former special forces Sgt. John Rambo has been home in the U.S since 1975. But he still has his M-65 jacket, which keeps him in good stead walking around cold and wet Washington State. The light but durable jacket works well layered over a jumper or a flannel shirt and a thermal long sleeve Henley.
Comic acting legend Billy Crystal pulled on an M-65 jacket as Detective Danny Costanzo in the 1986 movie Running Scared. The jacket (and the scarf) keeps him warm and also allows him to blend in with the colorful working class characters he meets in his job as a plain clothes detective in Chicago. And it helps to comfortably conceal his Smith and Wesson model 19 snub revolver in a shoulder holster.
To learn more about M-65s, check out this excellent article at Heddels.
Options for the M-65 Field Jacket
A basic 100% cotton option for those of us on a tighter budget. It’s missing the epaulets, which helps to tone down the strict military look a little. And it has a solid 4.4 out of 5 stars after 630 reviews on Amazon. Sizes small to XXL are in stock.
Rothco is one of the better known providers of tactical clothing and they tend to focus on performance over style. That approach is reflected in their take on the classic M-65. They’ve built the jacket to government specifications, using a water and abrasion resistant 55% cotton and 45% polyester fabric for the outer shell. Rothco jackets are available at a variety of retailers. But the best price I could find for this particular model is on Ebay, where they have sizes small to XXL in stock. If this one is in your price range, but you need a longer cut, also check out the Propper M-65 Field Coat for $89.99.
A decidedly more fashionable take on the iconic design, the J.Crew M-65 features a garment-dyed, 100% cotton canvas outer shell and a trimmer, shorter cut. You’ll find sizes XS to XXL on their website.
Alpha Industries M-65 Field Jacket in Olive Green: $219.99 to $225.00
Given its long history supplying garments to the U.S. Military, many people consider Alpha Industries to be the best source for Army and Navy inspired outerwear. With their M-65 we’re getting a vintage style oversized fit and water and wind resistant 50% cotton and 50% nylon outer shell fabric. Amazon has plenty of sizes in stock but you can also order it directly from the company’s website.
The Varsity Jacket
A sporty casual piece of outerwear, the Varsity or Letterman jacket is a classic “jock” garment. By the 1980’s we started to see it being worn more and more by action heroes as a way to help them blend into their more casually dressed environments.
Eddie Murphy wore a black and white Detroit Tigers varsity jacket in Beverly Hills Cop 2 in 1987. The jacket fits the laidback, casual and cool character of Axel Foley. Axel was most likely a jock in high school and a football fan as well so this jacket fits his athletic, nimble persona.
The sweatshirt underneath, the light wash Levi Jeans and sneakers complete the casual outfit. This look still works for a laid back Sunday at a football game or a visit to a museum or Zoo with the family.
Two years later, Mel Gibson wore a similar outfit for Lethal Weapon 2. The rough, tough Sgt. Martin Riggs has updated his wardrobe from the first film and looks cleaner and more pressed (thanks to now being able to get his laundry done regularly by partner Roger Murtaugh’s kind wife Trish). But the look is still very casual. Riggs only wears two jackets in the film: a dark blue padded Rip Curl windbreaker jacket and a blue and cream wool varsity jacket.
Riggs doesn’t look like a police officer in his varsity jacket and he’s able to sneak into the villain’s building with ease as he blends in with regular people on the street. A tactic I’m sure he picked up on during his years doing undercover work. The jacket is paired with a blue plaid check casual shirt, charcoal-black Levi jeans and, of course, the famous cowboy boots that give the 5’9 and half Gibson a more imposing stature (more on those below).
Options for the Varsity Jacket
It’s relatively affordable, the body is 100% wool and the sleeves are genuine leather. Will they be the best quality materials? Probably not. But it’s a budget friendly way to experiment with the style. And it comes in a variety of colors so you can choose the combo that works best for you.
The fashion option. Unlike the bulky, boxy fit of most varsity jacket, this option from Eleven Paris is lightweight and trim. They’ve used different types of synthetic throughout. So no genuine wool or leather. But if your main priority is style, this one is worth a look. Sizes small to XXL are in stock at Bloomingdale’s.
Varsity Base Letterman Jacket: on sale for $189.00
The real deal. Varsity Base specializes in (you guessed it!) varsity jackets for high schools, colleges and universities and presents itself as a successful mom-and-pop operation. And they’re very proud of their designs. The jackets are a slightly trimmer fit through the sleeves and body, but they still retain the classic look we want. As for the materials, they use 24-ounce melton wool for the body and a heavier genuine leather for the sleeves. There’s also no shortage of color combos you can get (you can even custom design your own jacket if none of their off-the-rack options catch your eye).
Vintage F Varsity Jacket: $248.00
When it comes to Letterman Jackets, going vintage can be a lot of fun. Whether you hunt Ebay or Etsy or turn to a specialized dealer for a more curated selection, a vintage jacket comes with a lot of character and history already built in. And there are so many options out there you’re bound to find one that speaks to your personal style. The example above comes from Wooden Sleepers, one of the best sources I know of for high quality vintage work, military, outdoor and ivy wear.
The Cowboy Boots
Whether it was a rough and tumble character like Jack Cates in 48 Hrs or Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun or a wildcard loner like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, cowboy boots seemed to be standard issue for an action hero in the 1980’s.
Aside from the obvious height benefits they provided for average sized actors like Gibson or slightly shorter stars like Cruise, cowboy boots give the image that the wearer was rugged and individualistic.
Cowboy boots also make 1980’s action heroes natural heirs to the iconic stars of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s Westerns like John Wayne, James Stewart and Gary Cooper. They look great with denim to complete the urban cowboy look, but also look great with tan or khaki trousers in a slightly heavier material.
Options for the Cowboy Boots
Note from John: Much like the jeans with which they’re frequently worn, cowboy boots come in a nearly infinite variety of styles. And the ones you choose are as much a matter of personal taste as anything else. You can go with plain and simple calf leather Ropers or more elaborately stitched and colorful models in exotic skins (like the ones Cruise wore in Top Gun and Days of Thunder). Or anything in between.
But I would strongly suggest exploring options from well respected brands. In my personal experience, nothing is more uncomfortable than a pair of poorly made cowboy boots. Check out Luchesse, Justin, Tony Lama, Ariat, Dan Post, Tecovas, Corral, Roper and Durango for a broad selection of models at a wide range of price points.
A budget friendly option to add some Western style to your wardrobe. The dark, distressed leather uppers and black rubber soles give them a work boot vibe. But the stitching details on the front and shaft add some visual interest. They currently have 5 out 5 stars on Zappos after 12 reviews, with most of the comments praising their comfort right out of the box.
Of course we needed to add a wilder pair to the list. And while these are by no means the craziest option you’ll find, the combination of the intricately stitched bright green shaft, embossed lowers and bright soles certainly make a statement! Zappos once again has the best price I could find. But you can also order them (in different colorways) directly from Durango.
Tecovas The Earl in Bourbon Calf: $245.00
Founded in 2014, Tecovas is a relative newcomer in the world of cowboy boots. But the company has already earned a strong reputation for delivering comfortable, quality footwear at a reasonable price. The Earl is a pretty classic Roper style, with a rounded toe and minimal stitching. If you like Chelsea boots and want to start experimenting with variations on that look, these would be a great place to start.
When you’re ready to invest in cowboy boots, it’s hard to go wrong with Lucchese. The company was founded in 1883 in San Antonio, Texas by Italian immigrant Salvatore Lucchese. And in the nearly 140 years since they opened their doors, they’ve supplied boots to everyone from hardworking ranch hands to foreign heads of state to the royalty of Hollywood Westerns. Expensive. But they’re beautifully crafted and will last for decades.
The Sport Coat
When you’re a cop in the 1980’s, there are times when you have to look presentable but still blend into the crowd. A classic tweed sports coat in grey Harris herringbone tweed, lighter weight earth toned Donegal or even corduroy will serve that purpose. Rough, tough and rugged Nick Nolte as Detective Jack Cates in 48 Hrs (1982) wore some tweed sports coats with some sports shirts and beige gaberdine trousers or boot cut blue jeans for a dressed down but casual and presentable look that helps him fit in on the street and at the station.
A year before 48 Hrs, Burt Reynolds would also slip on a sports coat with jeans as Vice Detective Tom Sharky in Sharky’s Machine. Tom Sharky is a style of similar rugged street cop that needs to blend in on the street rather then dressing to impress his boss.
A more modern take on the classic corduroy sport coat. The lightly structured and unlined design, patch pockets and 3-roll-2 button front combine to give it a decidedly more casual feel. But the thin wale Italian corduroy helps to keep things looking polished. You’ll find sizes 34 to 50 in short, regular and long lengths on their website.
A staple in Orvis’s line-up, they’ve used a lighter-weight tweed woven by a small, family owned factory in Scotland. This is more of a “country coat”. Which means it will pair well with more textured fabrics like denim, corduroy, flannel and heavier cotton twills. I’ve focused on the Blue/Gray Herringbone tweed above. But it comes in three other colors so you can pick the one that works best with your personal wardrobe.
Using fabric from the Italian Lanificio di Pray mill, Canadian company Spier & Mackay has used a Neapolitan cut for the jacket, with higher armholes, a more suppressed waist and wider lapels. It’s a look that’s very on-trend right now and when combined with the more casual patch pockets and red, blue and yellow flecks in the material, it creates a sharp and versatile piece that’s easy to dress up or down.
The Tank Top
You can’t be an 80s action hero …
Without a tank top.
Grey or white or black …
Plain or with a graphic …
It doesn’t matter. Just go …
And buy one!
A big Thank You to Ryan for his help with this post. Make sure to follow him on Instagram at @iconicfilmstyle! Have some suggestions for the key pieces we need to capture that 80s action hero style? Share away in the comments! And remember you can always find style inspiration on our Instagram profile, Facebook page and Pinterest boards.