SCP 4 (2) pp. 193–205 Intellect Limited 2019
Studies in Costume & Performance
Volume 4 Number 2
© 2019 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/scp_00004_1
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 produc-
tion, costume as film image and costume as artefact.
Textile Artist and Independent Researcher
Every stain a story: The many
dirty undershirts of John
McClane in Die Hard
Studies in Costume & Performance
© 2019 Intellect Ltd
Urs A. Georg Dierker
194 Studies in Costume & Performance
In 1988 Die Hard was released in 48 countries, establishing its reputation as a
classic of American action cinema. The film features New York policeman, John
McClane, who visits his estranged family on the West Coast, where he unwill-
ingly becomes a hero when forced to defeat the terrorists who take his wife
Holly and her co-workers hostage. The character was made famous by Bruce
Willis wearing a white undershirt in different stages of distress.
This article examines the creation and meanings of McClane’s undershirt
as mass-produced clothing, dirty film costume and celebrated museum arte-
fact. Research into the multiple phases of the Die Hard undershirt included
interviews and the analysis of objects and images. I interviewed the costume
designer Marilyn Vance and the curators Dwight Blocker Bowers and Ryan
Lintelman of the Smithsonian’s Division of Culture and the Arts. The journal-
ist Amy Crawford, who interviewed Willis in 2007, shared her insights with
me, as did Sheryl Garratt, who interviewed Vance in 2012. I also spoke with
the costume designer and historian Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis,
who was the senior curator of the V&A exhibition Hollywood Costume, and the
founding director and chair of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of
Costume Design at UCLA. It should also be noted that I bring my own profes-
sional experience as a textile artist who has worked in the costume depart-
ment of films for over a decade to bear in this analysis.
The Die Hard undershirts are a fascinating example of how an item of
fashion, in this case everyday men’s underwear, is adapted for film costume
and embedded with a variety of meanings before, during and after filming.
Below, I assess the life cycle of this iconic piece of clothing to show that film
costumes, beyond their status as celebrated objects of popular culture, are
evidence of material and cultural processes and histories, which can be used
to unravel stories of skill and labour, use and performance, and the construc-
tion of different authenticities. I first situate the undershirt within the contexts
of male fashion history and the use of fashion in the narrative of Die Hard.
I then assess the design and fabrication of the costume and the conver-
gence of the costumed bodies, character and performance on screen. Finally,
I examine the only available undershirt from Die Hard, currently in storage
at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Culture. My analysis
is correspondingly divided into costume in context, costume in production,
costume as film image and costume as artefact, all the while examining the
undershirt’s role in constructing a particular, authentic male body. However,
before proceeding to this analysis, there are some core concepts that must be
First, this costume biography takes into account creation and reception to
produce a nuanced understanding of the garment as a commodity, reflecting
Arjun Appadurai’s view that:‘the commodity phase of the life of an object
does not exhaust its biography’ (1996: 17). In other words, the Die Hard shirt
exists in various forms: the mass-produced undergarment is imbued with
different sets of meaning and significance as its context and usage changes,
moving beyond its role as a commodity. It was modified through artificial
ageing by the costume designer’s team and then through its wear by the actor
and stuntman, before being shelved in storage and finally gifted to a museum.
The simple white undershirt is repeatedly transformed, both materially and
symbolically, as it is physically modified, worn and viewed in different contexts.
Throughout these life phases, the undershirt is used to mediate changing
relationships. In retracing the biography of the Smithsonian undershirt, this
article outlines the dynamic suggested by Igor Kopytoff between the value of
Every stain a story
the‘homogenized world of commodities’ and memories of objects‘occupying
a particular social and personal niche’ (1986: 65). The Smithsonian artefact is a
complex conjunction of references to the cultural history of clothing, the social
and labour-intensive processes of filmmaking, and the personal associations,
reactions and memories that an object like the Die Hard undershirt can have
for its audience, reflecting Kopytoff’s dynamic.
Second, analyzing different versions of authenticity associated with the
undershirt is key to understanding how and why the Die Hard undershirt is
transformed from clothing to costume to artefact. Here,‘authenticity’ refers to
the verisimilitude of the distressed look of the garment that unfolds over the
course of the film in relation to the main character’s actions and surround-
ings. It also refers to the construction of specific cultural and historical identi-
ties that read as authentic in relation to other representations of masculinity
in American fashion and film – the white, working-class, heroic masculinity
tied to the bodily amalgam of Willis-McClane, signified by the undershirt and
its textures. The undershirt’s place in the history of visual culture is further
legitimized based on its verifiable provenance as an artefact of Hollywood and
its inclusion in a national museum. These different authenticities, through the
processes of filmmaking and curation, also serve to conceal the authenticity
of production (Lees 2016: 203), what Kitty Hauser describes as the‘hidden
relationship between garment, maker and wearer’ (2004: 293). These cultural
Figure 1: Undershirt from Die Hard, courtesy of the
Division of Cultural and Community Life, National
Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Urs A. Georg Dierker
196 Studies in Costume & Performance
concepts of authenticity are relevant when describing the filmmakers’ efforts
to convey the narrative in images, the reception of those images by audiences
and the curator’s efforts to display the artefact in context.
Sarah Salih uses the term‘authenticity effects’ to describe the reconstruc-
tion of cultural beliefs when a film is made (2009: 24). These effects combine
existing shared understandings, in this case, a common American view of
white undershirts and dirty, bloody stains as signs of masculinity, tradition,
working-class identity, vulnerability and heroism. As Dominic Lees argues‘an
audience’s acceptance of a historical representation is based as much on belief
as on evidence. The filmmaker playing with the spectator’s cultural under-
standing of the past’ (2016: 203). The character costume has‘to look authen-
tic to the audience [to create] perceptions of authenticity’ using signifiers that
the audience is already familiar with (Salih 2009: 21).1 For example, the blood
and stains on the Die Hard undershirt are inventions by the filmmaker, which
relate to ideas of violence, in principle connecting images of blood stains
and dirt associated with real physical conflict to those on the costume. Real
wounds and artificial textures of blood and dirt on clothing may be repre-
sented visually in a similar manner, but the artificial stains signify more than
this formal sameness, not the trauma of real murder and violence, but the
intent of the filmmaker to create a product of mass entertainment.
The blood and dirt on the Die Hard undershirt are purely arbitrary
signs,‘not linked by any inner relationship’ beyond the visual to real blood
and dirt (Saussure 1959: 67). Both refer‘to the same reality, and yet they do
not have the same structure, because they are not made of the same substance
and because, consequently, these substances do not have the same relations
with each other’ (Barthes 1983: 3). In that sense, they are‘unrelated to histori-
cal practice, which nevertheless functions as a period marker and sign’ to link
Hollywood-made textures with culturally established images of death, hero-
ism and trauma (Salih 2009: 21). The apparent authenticity created by the
combination of‘reality’ and‘effects’ is a process aimed at creating a convinc-
ingly‘truthful’ costume. The Die Hard undershirt therefore combines at least
two authenticities: real-world phenomena, that is, real blood and dirt on a real
undershirt, and the‘authenticity effect’ generated by imitating mineral traces
and bodily fluids with paints and dyes.
This article draws attention to processes of costume making and builds on
a growing number of sources about costume design and production (Landis
2003; Cousins 2008); the body (Dean 2016; Barbieri 2017); communication
(Bruzzi 1997; Marks 2000); and artefact (Maeder 1987; Landis 2012); and the
literature on Die Hard itself (Ardis and Bauer 1991; Flanagan 2004; Zywietz
2016). Although these and other authors have assessed the cultural signifi-
cance of Die Hard and the McClane character, I focus on the significance of the
costume in communicating the film narrative and other meanings generated
through processes of making, filming and display. Having noted the theoreti-
cal issues at play, I now set the undershirt in its cultural context.
Costume in context
Vance’s choice of a white undershirt that becomes progressively dirtier
places McClane within recognizable traditions of male fashion and stereo-
types of masculinity related to physical activity, class and rebellion. In this
way, McClane’s identity as a male hero is legitimized and made authentic by
embedding historical and contemporary cultural references in his costume.
1. This article specifically
the undershirt and
its textures used to
create a character in
the contexts of the
film itself and the
Every stain a story
Barbieri explains that‘costumes that make use of both history and the here-
and-now [mean] that characters are not entirely unconnected from the audi-
ence in a newly defined time and space on stage’ (2017: 194). In the first half
of the twentieth century, male undergarments gradually changed from invis-
ible to publicly worn clothing. The distribution of media images of events
like the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, showing athletes in sleeve-
less athletic shirts, US soldiers in white t-shirts during the Second World War
and subsequently the advertisement of undershirts and t-shirts as under and
sports-wear helped to turn undergarments into every day, visible commodi-
ties. As a result, the meaning of the white undershirt or t-shirt changed in the
early 1930s so that‘the public exposure of the undershirt either beneath an
open shirt or without any covering layer was associated, in the United States,
Britain and most of Western Europe, with working-class men’ (Cole 2018: 62).
Hollywood picked up on these changes and fostered them by creating two
modern archetypes: the clean‘honest’ look of leisure wear and the‘dirty’ look
of physical labour that Cole suggests. In films of the early 1930s, male actors
dressed in clean underwear appear in comedic scenes such as the beginning
of Dance, Fools, Dance (Beaumont, 1931), or engaged in more athletic activities
as pictured in Dancing Lady (Leonard, 1933), which was released following the
Olympics. The‘honest’ look continued in films like Rebel Without a Cause (Ray,
1955), American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973) and more recently, Fast Five (Lin, 2011).
The addition of artificial dirt to white undershirts reinforced economic
hierarchies by signifying the subordination of male bodies through manual
labour. The dirty undershirt can be seen as a symbol for injustice and class
in Hollywood films such as A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, 1951), Rocky
(Avildsen, 1976) and Rambo: First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982). It is further tied
to male sexuality and violence in films like Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967),
Cruising (Friedkin, 1980) and in more recent action movies including White
House Down (Emmerich, 2013). Male heroism and active lifestyles are also
conveyed through the use of white undershirts in films such as xXx (Cohen,
The McClane character combines a range of long-standing portrayals of
masculinity found in these Hollywood films. He merges the persona of a New
York cop with that of an archetypical American soldier and cowboy, and the
script and use of fashion throughout the film make these comparisons explicit.
One notable example is when McClane speaks to the top terrorist, Hans
Gruber, on his walkie-talkie:
G: [B]ut who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies
as a child. Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John
Wayne, Rambo, Marshal Dillon.
Mc: I was always partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really like those
(Die Hard 1988, 00:58:55–01:00:49)
The jump between these fictional characters and real actors, each signifying
different ideas of manliness, shows how confident the Die Hard filmmakers
were in the audience’s ability to relate to this potpourri of American heroes
and to understand how McClane stood out from other Hollywood action stars
of the 1980s. The mélange also points to the obvious and ironic construction
of McClane. Rambo, returning traumatized from the war, is most famous for
showing his arm and torso muscles while wearing an undershirt, while all
Urs A. Georg Dierker
198 Studies in Costume & Performance
three western actors – John Wayne, James Arness (Marshal Dillon) and Roy
Rogers – wore the iconic costume of a cowboy. Both costumes form part of
a generic visual tradition of romanticized American masculinity, albeit from
Nevertheless, McClane seems to struggle with his male identity, depict-
ing a shift in heroic masculinity in Hollywood action films towards a humor-
ous‘everyday, imperfect guy who was vulnerable to physical and emotional
pain’ (Abele 2002: 449), ‘able to follow hunches, to seize opportunities and
think on his feet’ (Tasker 2015: 146–47). McClane performs above average in
his trained profession but fails greatly as a husband and a father according
to the social hierarchies of the time – he cannot adapt to his new role as the
husband of a financially successful wife. This different type of hero can be seen
as a response from Hollywood to questions of‘how masculinity can be repro-
duced successfully in a post-Vietnam, post-Civil Rights, and post-women’s
movement era’(Jeffords 1993: 247). In the 1980s, the long-lasting patriar-
chal stereotypes of the male as the economic, intellectual and physical supe-
rior of the nuclear family came into question (Sawchuck 1987, Butler 1988,
Mulvey 1975), and, although the Die Hard undershirt may pioneer an imper-
fect masculine heroism, it still ultimately seeks to re-inscribe 1980s patriarchy.
In Die Hard, clothing situates McClane as sartorially authentic in rela-
tion to place, time and the three main groups of characters: businesspeople,
villains and officials (members of the police, FBI and the fire brigade). In keep-
ing with the use of the white undershirt to signify working class, fashion helps
to distinguish these groups as white and blue collar, and to visualize the gaps
between the American East and West Coasts and between the United States
and Europe. From the start, McClane is in opposition to men in suits. When
he first appears in the film, he is on board a plane. He looks out of place,
dressed too warmly for the weather in Los Angeles. As an ordinary, working-
class guy from New York City, McClane does not belong with these stylish
Los Angeles businessmen and women, nor the ‘lifestyle-terrorists’, in their
European designer clothes (Irsigler 2014: 88). The working-class police officer
from New York is nevertheless portrayed as sensitive to style, as witnessed in
his reaction to the sport chic of the couple embracing when he lands at the
airport (Die Hard 1988: 00:05:27–00:05:32) – he in bright turquoise and red,
she in skin-tight, all-white leggings and top. This Californian leisure wear
stands in contrast to the continental style of McClane, a fact that is reinforced
by the East Coast cop as he walks by muttering‘f... California’, suggesting
that the McClane character can situate himself in the context of fashion by
commenting on clothing he identifies as West Coast styles.
Fashion is a construct of constant change, but the representation of fash-
ion in film is frozen in time. While the undershirt is just a fragment of the
snapshot of men’s fashion from this period, it communicates an authentic
narrative for McClane’s time, place and body, and it also represents an amal-
gam of bodies – those of Willis, and his stuntman Keii Johnston who created
the character on camera.
However, the concept of authenticity is complicated if we also consider the
bodies of the audience as part of this amalgam. They inscribe meaning onto
the garment based on their individual cultural ideologies, generating an entire
spectrum of‘authentic’ interpretations of masculinity that defies the connota-
tions of singularity and originality suggested by the concept of the authen-
tic. Similarly, the audience lives in a reality of continual evolution so that,
although Die Hard offers a glimpse of the fashion system of America in the
Every stain a story
late 1980s, the contemporary definition of the McClane undershirt is made by
viewing 1980s fashion through late twentieth- and twenty-first-century eyes,
and all the cultural shifts that entails. Thus, as Joyce argues,‘understandings
of authenticity are fluid and dependent on changing contexts of interpretation’
(2013: 54). The‘multiple, contradictory and uncanny visions that emerge […]
between the costumed actor and the audience’ further trouble a static vision of
the garment and the body it connotes (Monks 2010: 143). I will return to this
issue in the final sectionon the costume as artefact.
Costume in production
‘Aging’ and distressing costumes have been a vital part of Hollywood costume
making for many years. Every single costume piece in Die Hard, including any
decoration or staining of the textiles, is the result of research and negotia-
tion between numerous contributors who create the costumes by turning the
words of the script into imaginative objects of real-world existence. In Die
Hard the textures on the undershirts were intended as evidence of McClane’s
interactions with specific spaces and bodies. Everything seen in a film frame
(image), even the smallest details, like the blood stains of McClane or his
opponent (Die Hard 1988: 00:37:39), imprints of greasy elevator cables (Die
Hard 1988: 00:42:00) or the dust of an airshaft (Die Hard 1988: 00:50:58),‘is
the result of a precisely planned design process in which no stain is accidental’
(Donaldson 2014: 8).
Vance and her team used the script to determine costumes and textures
for each scene and character. This information was then translated into how
many performers (one actor and one stuntman for McClane) might share a
character in a scene, which gave the costume team an indication of how many
costume multiples were needed and in which stages of ageing. McClane’s
outfit is mentioned only vaguely in the script, leaving it up to Vance to inter-
pret and help define the character through clothing. Vance explains how she
perceived McClane:‘He is not in his police uniform. We do not discuss that
or uncover things like that in the script. He was probably a plain-clothed
man’ (2017). Vance therefore relied on her own experience to create an appro-
I am from the East Coast, so you get a feeling about these family men
that served the cities, the cops […] and the firemen. They are a special
brand of people. They are very into their families. They are very chau-
vinistic for the most part. […] I gave him that everyman kind of look
with the resources he had and the type of work he did, the type of man
he was. He has a simple plaid shirt, he has the undershirt. It is safe
dressing. He has these heavier chino-type pants, he’s got everything he
would need for the East Coast and for the cold, as well as his job.
Vance’s words confirm the link between the white undershirt and a specifically
male, patriarchal, working-class, white identity in 1980s American culture.
The textile artist, in collaboration with the costume designer, imagines
the imprints of the places where the character will perform, and the imprints
of the character’s body while wearing the clothes. A first step in finding
the appropriate level of textures for the undershirt was becoming familiar
with the sets, then determining the right colours and ageing and distressing
Urs A. Georg Dierker
200 Studies in Costume & Performance
techniques:‘We played around with the cloth and the different types of dust
factors and colours of the steam room underneath the pipes, the ceiling, the
fans, the [loading] docks’ (Vance 2017). After looking at the dirt coming from
the environment, Vance concentrated on the body of the actor:‘[Willis] is also
sweating in the heat of those rooms’ (Vance 2017). Two kinds of ‘dirt’ were
therefore required: external and bodily substances. As Hauser describes it,
the textile artist takes into account where clothing‘become[s] worn, frayed,
thinned or odorous in places where body or world rub repeatedly against
them’ (2004: 298). By making tests on samples, it became clear to Vance
that a muddy green grey base colour and coat of dust were needed for the
desired texture. Vance remembers:‘There were seventeen [undershirts] made
for Bruce and seventeen made for the stuntman. And they were marked in
The relationship between the undershirts’ textures and McClane’s envi-
ronment was important because McClane’s character is largely defined rela-
tive to the hidden spaces of the Nakatomi Corporation headquarters, such as
the construction sites and elevator shafts that are‘invisible to the elite corpo-
rate users of the building’ (Tasker 2015: 149). Flanagan describes the signifi-
cance of these settings; they:
[S]eem to wait for the inevitable burst of action which will activate their
potential […] McClane evades capture by achieving an instinctive, inti-
mate understanding of the layout of the building, using its secondary
structures (access tunnels, air vents) to move around in. Surfaces and
objects become potential allies.
This again authenticates the cultural identity communicated through the
undershirt. Similarly, by painting, dyeing and ‘distressing’ the costume in
response to McClane’s surroundings, the textile artist‘activates’ the character
in the texture of the fabric, reinforcing the rough and dirty functional spaces as
extensions of McClane’s identity.
Four scenes in Die Hard illustrate the full spectrum of the use and evolu-
tion of the costume, from pristine, to first stains, to sudden changes of texture.
The first time McClane is pictured in the bright white undershirt, neatly tucked
into his belted pants, is in a bathroom (Die Hard 1988: 00:14:19) while talking
to his wife, Holly. McClane, refreshing himself in front of a mirror, is sartorially
signified as a conservative man playing the role of a jealous, macho husband.
The undershirt in this scene is used to situate the character as a traditional
male stereotype in opposition to his more progressive wife. Soon after, the
European‘terrorists’ take over and McClane has his first close encounter with
one of the intruders (Die Hard 1988: 00:37:32–00:38:51). The pristine under-
shirt becomes stained with blood. Later in the film, McClane is hiding in an
air vent (Die Hard 1988: 00:50:58–00:52:54) wearing a well-stained but still
white undershirt. When he exits the air vent, the overall colour of the shirt
has changed to dark green. For the costume designer, the dark green is a logi-
cal result of her research. The texture of the undershirt is, as Vance claims, an
expression of McClane‘rubbing his shirt against the metal of the shaft while
crawling through it’ (2017). The shirt is a visual sign of the‘secondary struc-
tures’ that McClane comes to have an intimate understanding of and that he
uses instinctively to move around the building (Flanagan 2004: 113). The last
stage of the undershirts’ textures occurs in the final bathroom scene (Die Hard
Every stain a story
1988: 01:38:59), where McClane uses the blood-drenched undershirt to wrap
his wounded foot. This final scene is in visual contrast to the first bathroom
scene in which the clean, white, ribbed undershirt is introduced against the
flesh colour of Willis’ smooth skin. The undershirt is no longer a costume‘to
look at’ to understand what kind of man McClane is, but is now, drenched in
dirt and blood, a costume to look‘through’ (Bruzzi 1997: 36). In other words,
the Die Hard undershirt has transformed from a device that clearly differenti-
ates cloth and body to a costume that blends in and vanishes. By removing
the undershirt, stripping off the symbol of conservative, working-class mascu-
linity, the bare-chested character becomes an even more vulnerable person
making the rescue of his wife and his defeat of the enemy all the more heroic.
The Smithsonian undershirt is important as both material and symbolic
object, combining layers of references and new relationships between its
material present and the maker, wearer and audience. What started as a mass-
produced, generic undershirt gained cultural significance when Vance selected
the undershirts as defining elements of McClane’s costume. They went on to
play a significant part in creating the McClane-Willis hybrid on camera but
once captured on film, the costume itself was expendable. The 34 undershirts
created for the film were removed from circulation and stored in the private
Fox Studio costume collection. When one undershirt was selected for dona-
tion to the Smithsonian in 2007, its status changed again from being one of
many to a single museum artefact celebrated for its representation of the actor,
the film and its creation, a signifier of meaning. The Smithsonian undershirt
is authentic as an artefact of Die Hard but misrepresentative in that it contin-
ues the myth of one undershirt, worn by one actor, evolving throughout the
film, disguising the authenticity of its production. The other 33 shirts and the
costume-making process trouble the originality implied by according‘authen-
tic’ status to a single object, but these other elements remain unacknowledged
and invisible to museum visitors.
Alternatively, separating the costume from the actor’s body offers the
possibility to think more deeply about its production, or as Wilkinson and
Mallinson write, ‘lifting the garment off the actor and outside of the film
production, [...] [can make] the work of the film craftsperson [...] become visi-
ble in its own right’ (2014). Within the context of the museum, the under-
shirt becomes an object of academic study. When the curators retrieved the
undershirt from temporary storage, I was able to examine it in more detail. I
determined that it is most likely from the dramatic scene in which (Die Hard
1988: 01:39:04) McClane takes shelter in a bathroom, bare feet bloody from
an earlier scene when he walks on broken glass. The undershirt is from a
batch that was sponge-dyed with different greenish dyes. These base colours
were enhanced during shooting by using paint, coloured dust and film blood,
a sugar-based non-permanent substance used on skin and clothing, often
applied during filming so that it appears fresh. By comparing the artefact to
images of the film scene, the same textures can be observed, and there are
signs of usage such as ripped seams and broken threads. However, the artefact
appears to have been cleaned and looks quite different from that shown in the
film, muddying narratives of authenticity.
The Smithsonian curators Dwight Blocker Bowers and Ryan Lintelman
believe that a powerful connection exists between contemporary visitors and
Urs A. Georg Dierker
202 Studies in Costume & Performance
the Die Hard undershirt as a signifier of the film and Willis. This connection
exists because the film Die Hard and its successors in the franchise kept the
character portrait by Willis alive. In my interview with Bowers and Lintelman,
Lintelman:‘We try to collect […] the [artefacts] that really speak to the
Bowers: ‘To be as iconic as possible’.‘When you see that undershirt,
chances are that you know that it was Bruce Willis’ outfit. That is the
reason why I wanted it. I wanted it because it would say so much to the
audience looking at it, without a lot of explanation. And I do believe that
artefacts do not need a lot of explanation’.
(Bowers and Lintelman 2017)
In the museum, the costume is present in the viewer’s gaze for as long as
the viewer chooses, but it requires seeing the costume on its own as a static
object. Its authenticity is tied to a specific moment in the film, but it has been
altered by time and its removal from the performing body and the context of
the film, again creating a fluid understanding of authenticity that depends on
the viewer (Joyce 2013: 54).
The Smithsonian undershirt contains indications of bodies – the hands
of makers and textile artists, the acting body, the costumers who cleaned the
garment and stored it away – and the museum display allows the viewer to
connect with them, through memory, guided content and fantasy. The contem-
porary museum visitor has the power to authenticate the artefact; the textures
on the undershirt likely refer to memories of a performance that they may
have observed, or at least know of. As Barbieri states, costumes are‘mnemonic
devices […] deeply connected to the physical and cultural memory of the
performance’ (2017: 17).
This article explored the changing role and meanings of the Die Hard under-
shirt as costume in context, in production, as film image and as artefact.
Unravelling the Die Hard undershirt from the points of view of the maker,
designer, actor, curator and spectator, 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. The museum, and with it the curator, is in the
interesting position of having an artefact that‘speaks to the audience’. The
aura of this one public undershirt and it 33 hidden doubles holds more clues
to its past than the obvious connection to a major star; it brings the viewer
into physical proximity with the art of Hollywood filmmaking.
Through the artifice of film, the combination of physical costumes, textures
and bodies before the camera creates an array of meanings bound to the film,
artefact and performances. The amalgam is distinguished by the ‘stamp of
time’: the way in which it reflects the period in which it was created (Maeder
1987). The film, the materiality of the artefact and the bodies of Willis and his
stuntman Johnston reflect cultural and social habits and the practice of film-
making in 1980s Los Angeles. These ‘time-stamped’ perspectives are embed-
ded and identifiable in the McClane undershirt.
Every stain a story
As an artefact, the costume is a direct, physical connection between the
viewer and the film’s production. It is historical evidence of the specific times
and places of the creation and use of the costume, of its provenance with
multiple institutions and owners, and of its status as a cultural icon, legiti-
mized by museum visitors and their memories of the film, actor and costume.
Faded over time and stained by the actors’ bodies, the undershirt no longer
resembles the artifice of the film image but has acquired a patina that links
the visitor directly to the body of the actor and to the makers of the costume.
These versions of authenticity can be highlighted or suppressed by the film
studio and how it treats the costume after filming, by the museum and how it
chooses to present the costume, and by the museum visitor’s own interpreta-
tion when faced with the costume in person.
The film and the museum complement each other’s presentation of one
undershirt by erasing the other 33 and with them the labour of the costume
department and the stuntman. This creates a believable, continuous visual
narrative, moving from white to dirty in the film, and from Willis’ body directly
to the display case in the museum. However, the viewer’s relationship to the
undershirt changes once confronted with the physical artefact and details
not visible in the film image, which may disrupt the viewer’s memory. The
undershirt as artefact embodies traces that the viewer sees with a coeval mind.
The authenticity of the garment on display depends not on the verisimilitude
of the costume, but rather its place in contemporary culture and its prove-
nance, and in that sense,‘[the object’s] authenticity comes from now, not the
past’ (Joyce 2013: 54). This contemporary view is not only informed by the
intentional design of the film’s narrative, but the layered meanings that build
up around the artefact. The Die Hard undershirt and its textures developed
beyond the intentions of the filmmakers and design team to become an icon
of pop-culture that has lived on in other media. Three decades after the film’s
release, countless images of the actor–character–costume palimpsest continue
to circulate independently in online publications and social media, reinforcing
the iconicity of the undershirt and its authenticity as a signifier for masculinity
and class identity.
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Contact: Servin Maijan Tie 1 B 16, 02150 Espoo, Finland.
Urs A. Georg Dierker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that
was submitted to Intellect Ltd.