What is cool?

by Michelle Padilla, Museum Editor / Content Manager

Well, according to my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition:

cool (kool) adj. *8 [Slang] very good, pleasing, etc.; excellent

A small amount of online research suggests that the term “cool” used in the slang sense above, was born sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century within black American culture. Although the first recorded instance doesn’t show up until the 1940s. But by the 1950s, “cool” became the buzzword of the Beat Generation, then was used by hippies in the ‘60s and eventually embraced by teenagers everywhere! It is one of the few examples of slang that has maintained its popularity across generations.

James Dean ... the epitome of cool.James Dean, 1955. James Dean® is a trademark of James Dean Inc., licensed by CMG Worldwide, Inc. www.JamesDean.com

James Dean … the epitome of cool.
James Dean, 1955. James Dean® is a trademark of James Dean Inc., licensed by CMG Worldwide, Inc. http://www.JamesDean.com

So that’s all academic and everything, but it doesn’t really say what makes something cool. One of our current exhibits at the Indiana State Museum is Eternal James Dean. For many, Dean represents the epitome of cool — a good-looking young guy in a leather jacket leaning very nonchalantly against a wall seemingly without a care in the world. But cool is so subjective. You know … one person’s cool is another person’s cheese.

For me, “cool” is creative, edgy, thought-provoking, surprising, fun. And often, I just use it to describe something I like. Here is a short list of some things that I think are cool: The Beatles, Cirque du Soleil, Will Ferrell, hikes in the woods, Michelle Obama, almost anything by Stephen King, London, Smart cars, greyhounds (the dogs), the Muppets, Rene Magritte, Sting, Pixar films, dark chocolate.

I know your list would be way different than mine. And so, in an effort to define cool, the Indiana State Museum is going to attempt to assemble a Dictionary of Cool! We will compile this dictionary from what you tell us you think is cool. Look for blog, Facebook and Twitter posts asking for what you think is cool.

Let’s start now … today, Jan. 18, would be A.A. Milne’s 131st birthday. You probably know Mr. Milne best as the creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. In the 1960s, Disney started producing animated shorts featuring Pooh and friends. As you well know, Disney has produced many Prince Charmings, evil stepmothers, loveable sidekicks and heart-melting characters since the 1920s. In your opinion, who is the coolest Disney character?

Remembering the king of cool!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean was killed in a car accident. He was only 24 years old and, though he made only three feature films during his short career, Dean became a Hollywood icon. He has had a tremendous and lasting impact on every phase of American culture. Even now, 57 years later, we still reminisce about his brief yet impressive career and mourn the tragedy of lost potential. But why James Dean? What is it about this young Indiana farm boy that has so captured our imagination?

One of the reasons that James Dean has endured, I think, is not so much for what he has done as an actor, but more for what he represents. Because for many, James Dean marks the birth of “cool.” But what exactly does cool mean? Is it an attitude or a look? Can cool be manufactured as a persona, or is it something that has to be earned and bestowed by others?

You say James Dean’s name and immediately conjure Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause: blue jeans, red jacket and brooding teenager. That character set the blueprint for cool: the tough but tender hero that everyone wanted to be or befriend. And over the years there has been a lot of blurring the lines between the actor and the character. So that may be part of it, part of the legend-building. But for the true fans – Deaners as they like to call themselves – there is more to it. There is no superficiality with Deaners. This is not a vague worship of a film character. For them, the appeal is not just for Dean, the Hollywood icon, but for whom Dean was as a person. There is a fond appreciation for the way he chose to live his life.

Eternal James Dean is a new exhibit opening at the Indiana State Museum on Nov. 23, 2012. In it we will reconnect the iconic image of James Dean with its origin by looking at both the man and the icon, engaging visitors in the life and legend of the Hoosier star. Personal artifacts, family snapshots and professional photographs will shed light on who James Dean was, both the actor, the man and the epitome of cool.