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Working Titles: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Working Titles takes a closer look at specific films with a denim and workwear aesthetic with the goal of examining the material’s shifting cultural image.


In 1962, JFK was still alive, Muhammad Ali was still known as Cassius Clay, the counterculture was still confined to outsiders like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and a former night orderly at a psychiatric hospital named Ken Kesey published a novel called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Thirteen years later, when Czech emigre Milos Forman directed a film based on the book, Kesey’s time had already come and gone. The hippies and the beatniks had either straightened out and gotten jobs or retreated into communes, the few who remained were pariahs again. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest bookends the American countercultural revolution.

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Jack Nicholson and director Milos Forman on set in 1975.

Jack Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy, a criminal who feigns insanity in order to serve his time in a mental institution instead of hard labor. He soon discovers, however, that hospital life is no easy sentence. McMurphy is surrounded by delusionals, neurotics, paranoids, and the ward he’s in is run by the authoritarian and inhumane Nurse Ratched. But he adapts and soon inspires the other patients to dream about a life on the outside instead of just surviving while they are in captivity.

An alternative name for “Working Titles” (our series where we dig into movie clothing) could just as easily have been “Jack Nicholson Looks Deranged in Workwear in the 1970s”. We’ve already covered his turn as homicidal husband in The Shining, and Cuckoo’s Nest is no exception. With a watch cap, A-2 bomber jacket, chambray shirt, jeans, and workboots, his blend of workwear with military surplus represents the typical counterculture garb of the early 1960s.

His clothing also signals his individualism and defiant nature. The rest of the patients wear leisure clothes–robes, slippers, and pajamas–they expect to do nothing more than sit around. But McMurphy doesn’t fit the environment, he’s dressed to work a day on the docks or pave a road not watch tv and play cards. And considering the heavy Christ imagery throughout the rest of the film (he makes a mute man speak, “baptizes” the other men with a hydrotherapy machine, ultimately sacrifices himself for their freedom, and he even takes them fishing) it wouldn’t be shocking to learn McMurphy was a carpenter before his arrest.

The movie won five Oscars and is widely considered one of the best American films ever made. Kesey claimed he never saw it and disliked what he had heard about the production. In 1962 it was idealistic but by 1975 it was nostalgic.

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Left Field Tube Knit Tee

$75 for a 2-pack at Left Field

Big Yank 1935 Old Chambray Shirt

$217 at The Bureau Belfast

Juicy Fruit Gum

$14 for a 40-pack at Amazon

Red Wing 875 Moc Toe Boot

$260 at Nordstroms

General Quarter’s Watch Cap

$20 at General Quarters

Goodwear Leather Horsehide A-2 Dubow 20960 Jacket

$1549 at Goodwear Leather

Levi’s Vintage Clothing 1966 501 Rigid

$260 at Levi’s