Unpacking the fashion in nihilistic cult classic Fight Club


Costume designer Michael Kaplan talks bringing Tyler Durden to life, being told there was no such thing as ‘too far’, and concocting a dye the exact shade of dried blood

The first rule of Fight Club might be not to talk about it, but few films in cinematic history have sparked as much conversation as David Fincher’s dark comedy, which turns 20 this month.  

Starring Edward Norton as the numb, nameless narrator and an unspeakably chiselled Brad Pitt as off-the-wall anti-hero Tyler Durden, Fight Club tells the story of an unmemorable man molested by mediocrity, who turns to violence to escape the humdrum of his meaningless life. 

A quick-witted critique of late-capitalist consumer culture, Fight Club cemented its cult-classic status before it even entered theatres, spawning countless think pieces about modern masculinity and Nietzschean psychology. And while the film flopped – at least in box office terms – its impact on fashion was almost instantaneous. 

Less than two months after the movie’s release, Donatella Versace premiered what she called ‘a Fight Club collection’ for AW00 (her words, not ours) and the New York Times examined menswear trends through a newly Fincher-ified prism of masculinity. Even now its influence can be felt on the runway: just look to Balenciaga’s runways and the fact the fashion industry is currently crazy for a very specific 00s aesthetic for proof of this. 

Though the Fight Club image that most likely springs to mind is one of Brad Pitt topless, (his workout routine has almost 5 million hits on Google), the costumes in the film were a case of understated excellence throughout, with the looks worn by Pitt, Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter, in the role of Marla Singer, adding to the overall bleak feel of the film. The man behind them was Michael Kaplan, who had previously worked on films including Bladerunner, Flashdance, and Miami Vice

Here, on the occasion of the movie’s silver anniversary, the costume designer talks us through the process of bringing three of cinema’s most memorable cult characters to life, being told there was no such thing as ‘too far’, and concocting a dye the exact shade of dyed blood.

TYLER DURDEN

It’s hard to pick the pinnacle Brad Pitt, but Fight Club’s rebel antagonist Tyler Durden is undoubtedly up there. Characterised in Kaplan’s eyes by ‘charisma’ and ‘colour’, Durden marked a distinct departure from the dark, muted atmos Fincher had conjured in the pair’s previous collabs Se7en and The Game, making way for the eccentrically-styled ‘wackjob’ that ignites the film’s darkly humorous narrative. “Brad’s character was very alive,” Kaplan explains. “There was an insanity there. And when David told me there was no such thing as ‘too far’ – I was excited.” 

With printed shirts, bright graphic tank tops, a teacup-embellished chenille ladies’ bathrobe and a pair of Gucci loafers found for 10 bucks in a Palm Springs thrift store, Kaplan moulded Durden’s character from things he came across online and second-hand. But owing to the number of fight scenes, stuntmen, and body doubles, many things had to be custom made – six to eight times no less. 

Beginning with the staple red leather jacket “the exact shade of dried blood’ and a visual foreboding of the violence to come, items were hand-crafted in multiples and then deliberately deteriorated and manually stained to imply wear. “I knew he had no money,” says Kaplan. “So I made him this mad-cap character who dressed out of thrift shops, but with a very discerning eye.” 

There was one particular look which, unfortunately, never made it into the film though. “I have a snapshot somewhere of Brad wearing a little tube top,” says Kaplan. “When we showed that to Fincher he was like, ‘Uh Michael… I know what I said, but you’ve crossed the line.’”

THE NARRATOR

Arguably ‘the real star’ of Fight Club (or so proclaimed The Face just two months after its release) Edward Norton plays the narrator – the dull, white-collar working ‘everyman’ enticed by the anarchy and violence of Durden, the ubermensch. “I knew that Edward was everything that Brad wasn’t,” says Kaplan – a fact that becomes abundantly clear from the characters’ contrasting appearance. “If you walked into the wardrobe trailer, you wouldn’t believe that these two characters were in the same movie,” Kaplan laughs. Pitt’s vivid wardrobe – complete with porno tank tops and HUSTLER print t-shirt – stood directly opposite Norton’s even less than vanilla choice of get-up. “It was just the most boring character you’ve ever seen, beiges and greys, terrible neckties, and awful polyester dress shirts that you could just fall asleep looking at.” 

Dressed in ill-fitting shirts and synthetic suit pants, the narrator lives, looks and breathes the nine-to-five that’s consumed his mundane life of late-capitalism – stuck in a slump that only a hard sucker punch to the face can awaken him from. Drab, dingy, and desperately sad, he dresses just as pathetically as his worthless existence. But while the narrator’s wardrobe was the antithesis of exciting, Kaplan insists that Norton’s character was still enjoyable to craft. “It was fun to make him so banal and dry and boring – with no fashion sense whatsoever – when Brad’s was so alive and stylish and tongue in cheek.”

MARLA SINGER

When Helena Bonham Carter was cast as Marla Singer, it came as a surprise even to her. Courtney Love had been gunning for the role and up until then, the British actress had been known for stately period dramas and playing Lucy Honeychurch in A Room With a View. But Fincher’s twisted anti-heroine signified the beginning of a grunge-era for Bonham Carter, who would go on to serve similarly dishevelled looks in villainous roles to come. Her rescued-from-the-trash aesthetic, including a ‘horrible’ black fur jacket and an ‘awful’ pink bridesmaid’s dress is aptly described by Kaplan as “just very sad.”  

Much like her burnout boyfriend Tyler Durden, Bonham Carter’s character was painfully broke, so all looks – bar one Rick Owens jacket – were foraged from the thrift store. With dark glasses, a rose ring and a wide-brimmed black hat to catch her slo-mo cigarette smoke, Marla Singer sits with brazen sass through the slew of self-help groups she’s using as a crutch for her no-hope existence. 

“Before filming, Helena called me and asked ‘so who the fuck is Marla?’” Kaplan remembers, “I said, ‘think Judy Garland but for the millennium’,” and that seemed to stick. Druggy, down-and-out and never without a cigarette, Marla Singer’s sickly pale complexion and hollowed eyes just about did the trick – by the end of shooting, David Fincher was even calling her Judy. 





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