Remember when Bruce Willis’ character in “Die Hard” fought terrorists at a Christmas party in a tank top?


Written by Megan C. Hills

Digging through the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a series offering a nostalgic look at the outfits of celebrities who marked their time.
Remember when the Bruce Willis character in “Die Hard” fought a group of terrorists at an office Christmas party, barefoot and wearing a tank top?

Throughout the film, Willis, who played John McClane, wore a white undershirt that grew increasingly dirty and bloody – a sight so legendary that a version of the garment worn on screen was acquired by the Smithsonian. in 2007.

The film, which spawned four sequels, changed the narrative of invincible “Rambo”-style action heroes and paved the way for more grounded protagonists. And that was thank you, in part, to his clever costume design.

The deliberately simple attire was a far cry from the tactical gear worn by Col. John Matrix in “Commando”, or the impeccable costumes favored by James Bond. Instead, McClane – wearing a staple item found in most people’s closets – represented the everyday Joe in an extraordinary situation.

In a 2016 interview with the entertainment platform Home theater forum, the film’s costume designer, Marilyn Vance, said the outfits “must serve the story and serve the character.”

“How was he going to undress?” she is quoted as saying, discussing how the plot unfolds. “How did he end up without shoes?” “

Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” (1988).
Credit: Peter Sorel / 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

When we first meet McClane, the New York detective has just arrived in Los Angeles and is inappropriately dressed for the scorching weather with a flannel shirt and corduroy jacket. He watches sports-clad Californians as he walks over to his wife Holly’s office for an unhappy Christmas party, his costume thrown over his arm.

Surrounded by Holly’s colleagues, all dressed in power suits, he heads to the bathroom to freshen up and change, briefly removing his shoes to Relax and curling his toes on the carpet. But as he gets dressed, terrorists led by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber storm the building.

With no time to grab his shoes, McClane confronts Rickman’s gang who, as co-writer Steven E. de Souza described in “Script Apart” Podcast, are dressed like “the Eurotrash guys you see in the nightclubs”. McClane’s outfit, on the other hand, expresses his unpreparedness.
Bruce Willis as John McClane in franchise third film - "Die Hard: With revenge."

Bruce Willis as John McClane in the franchise’s third film – “Die Hard: With a Vengeance”. Credit: Moviestore / Shutterstock

From underwear to everyday basics

White tank tops have become ubiquitous in fashion: an often inexpensive item that can be worn by anyone, and a fitted silhouette that is both functional and sexy.

Mass-produced by clothing brand Jockey from 1935, and originally intended to be worn as an undergarment, the garment eventually became associated with athletics, according to textile artist and costume researcher Urs Dierker. .

In his paper 2019 “Every stain is a story: John McClane’s many dirty underwear in ‘Die Hard’,” Dierker suggested, suggesting that the shift from underwear to outerwear occurred as footage of 1930s athletes competed in tank tops at the Olympics and US servicemen wearing white T-shirts during World War II (instead of wearing them under their uniforms) entered the mainstream media.

Over time, the article would also become associated with the working class and immigrants in America, particularly Italian-Americans.

Marlon Brando wearing a white tank top in "A tram named Désir" in 1951.

Marlon Brando wearing a white tank top in “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951. Credit: Warner Bros / Kobal / Shutterstock

Hollywood helped cement this idea through films like “A Streetcar Named Desire”, with Marlon Brando, and “Bonnie and Clyde”, with Warren Beatty, where the tank became a “symbol of injustice and class” as well. that of “male sexuality and violence”, according to Dierker.

The garment was also loaded with connotations of white masculinity and fast-paced action, worn by Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull”, Paul Newman in “The Sting” and Sylvester Stallone in “Rambo”. (Bruce Lee also wore one in “The Way of the Dragon,” but it was a rare exception in the white American action hero genre.)

By the time “Die Hard” hit theaters in 1988, the undershirt’s visual vocabulary was well established, quickly communicating McClane’s working-class rebellious character, while also emphasizing his strength (like his predecessors, the fitted figure accentuates toned silhouettes).

Vance revealed that she created 34 of the tank tops in total: 17 for Willis and another 17 for her stuntman, Keii Johnston. As the film progresses, they come to reflect the record of McClane’s heroism – going from pristine white to dirty green, discolored by fake bloodstains and actual Willis sweat during production.

The character’s transformation into a flamboyant, all-American hero of the 1980s peaks when the top is completely stripped down. (McClane uses it to wrap his bloody feet towards the climax of the film, as he realizes how he failed with the ex-wife he was trying to win back. “She heard me back. say I love you a thousand times, but she never heard me say ‘I’m sorry,’ “he said fondly into a walkie-talkie).

The now shirtless “cowboy” is ready for a final confrontation with his enemy.

A modest legacy

Today, the tank top continues to symbolize male heroism in movies, from the muscular tops worn by Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto in the “Fast & Furious” franchise to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed in “Creed”. Chris Evans as Captain America and Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine anti-hero in the “X-Men” movies also wore them to fight evil.

But as female protagonists entered the action hero space, the tank top came to represent the empowerment of women as well – in the late 1970s with “Alien” and later in “Terminator 2” and the “Tomb Raider” series. The characters in these films battle alien creatures, escape murderous robots, and explore ancient ruins, all dressed in basic attire. The tradition of longshoremen also continues through characters such as Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Kristen Stewart’s Sabina Wilson in “Charlie’s Angels”.

Bruce Willis presents the National Museum of American History with props from the "Die hard" series in 2007, including a tank top from the first film.

Bruce Willis presented props from the 2007 “Die Hard” series to the National Museum of American History, including a tank top from the first film. Credit: Win McNamee / Getty Images

When one of Bruce Willis’ “Die Hard” tank tops was donated to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, the item retained its legacy alongside cinematic costumes, most notably Dorothy’s ruby ​​slippers from “The Magician. Oz “and the wide brimmed fedora from Indiana Jones. and coat.

And while many costumes from Vance’s legendary career will be remembered – like Molly Ringwald’s chewing gum dress from “Pretty in Pink” or Judd Nelson’s trench coat from “The Breakfast Club” – the tank Willis’ grime-stained will remain among his most recognized, with the top even being sent to the V&A Museum in London for an exhibition in 2012.

“It’s funny,” she said dazed magazine that year, “the range of films that I made, that I am represented by a white vest!”


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