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Every stain a story: The many dirty undershirts of John McClane in Die Hard

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Men’s upper body underwear and the depiction of grime, dirt and blood on costumes have a long tradition in Hollywood films. This article explores the 34 undershirts worn by Bruce Willis and his stuntman in the 1988 action film Die Hard from the points of view of the maker, designer, actor, curator and spectator. The image of McClane and the undershirt became iconic in their depiction of a white, working-class, heroic masculinity. One of the many undershirts used in the film was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Culture costume collection. This one artefact and the 33 ‘lost’ doubles hold more clues to the undershirt’s past than the obvious connection to a major star; the exhibited object also brings the viewer into physical proximity with the art of Hollywood filmmaking. This article queries the different ‘authenticities’ of the garment, from its material believability as evidence of the character’s progression through the film, to its cultural signification legitimized by the perspectives of the makers and audiences, to its role as artefact authenticated by the museum and/or viewer. Analysis is correspondingly divided into costume in context, costume in production, costume as film image and costume as artefact.

Keywords: ageing costumes; body; costume design; material; performance; textile artist

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Textile Artist and Independent Researcher

Publication date: December 1, 2019

More about this publication?
  • Studies in Costume & Performance aims to encourage, generate and disseminate critical discourse on costume and the relationship between costume and performance. It considers costume as a symbiotic articulation of the body of the performer which is visual, material, temporal and performative. Whether performed live, seen through the camera lens or found in an archive, costume embodies and reflects the performance itself.

    The journal will bring together experts in costume, scenography, performance, fashion and curation as well as critically engaged practitioners and designers to reflect and debate costume in performance, its reception in production, exhibition and in academic critical discourse. Submission will include visual essays. The journal is double-blind peer-reviewed in order to maintain the highest standards of scholastic integrity.

    Past and current practice is considered through the ‘reading’ of the costumed body as a communication of embodied, cultural, social, artistic and historical narratives. As such this journal is an articulation of practice, which, through this process redefines practice itself.

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