Nobody loves their stuff as much as people who hate their stuff. Let me clarify: the people who place the greatest amount of thought, care, and effort into their stuff tend to be the people who are very seriously opposed to the concept of stuff. “It’s a prison, man,” they might say, or get very wide-eyed and talk about how the things you own end up owning you. These people have probably, at some point in their lives, watched or read Fight Club. The story that, as a very funny friend pointed out when I mentioned writing this article, is the literary/cinematic equivalent of wearing a fedora in your OkCupid profile pictures.
I re-watched the movie for the first time since I was about sixteen last week; I also read the book for the first time ever. Then I watched the movie with the DVD commentary. It was the longest six hours of my life. The whole experience reminded me of working at some fairs and shows where every other vendor was simmering with low-grade hostility towards me, because I was there with a fashion magazine. I was the enemy. I would be lucky if I escaped with some tight smiles and minimal eye contact, because every so often you would get some really pretty teen wearing an amazing leather jacket and vintage thigh-high Docs and this perfect shade of purple-red lipstick who wanted to lecture me on why I was shallow, or didn’t understand that material objects are meaningless, or that fashion with a capital ‘F’ was going to steal my soul.
Of course, if you watch the DVD commentary and read Chuck Palahniuk’s grating afterword on the recent edition of the book, you would know that Fight Club is actually a satire of those people. Edward Norton wanted to lecture me on my misunderstanding of the movie: “It’s so obviously about what goes wrong when a bunch of frat guys start taking themselves too seriously.” I mean, sure. There’s a lot of vitriol directed at Fight Club and maybe I would concede it doesn’t deserve some of it. I don’t hold Sofia Coppola responsible for the tragic misunderstanding of The Virgin Suicides that I see on my Tumblr dashboard, for example. Is Fight Club responsible for its own fans, a bunch of frat guys who have taken themselves too seriously, and think Tyler Durden and his narrator/host body is awesome? Is it Fight Club’s fault that a group of men in vintage heritage denim and department store shoes living in condo lofts want to lecture me on the irresponsibility of my publication? I don’t know!! What I do know is there are a group of people living in Western society who share a belief that the clothes you wear and the objects you own are the single greatest defining aspect of your personality and your very self, and that’s why you should reject all of it. These people, in my experience, are the people who hate fashion and will not hesitate to ruin a perfectly good cocktail party by telling me why. It’s an incredible disconnect; no one seems to step back and wonder if their overwhelming hatred is as powerful as the reverse, the people who believe so strongly in fashion that they attempt to buy themselves better. Fight Club might be used by its fans to justify this belief, but actually, if you do watch it as a satire, the wardrobe features one of the most satisfying sartorial punchlines of all time. Do I have to say ‘spoiler alert’ if this movie is fourteen years old? Well, I just did, so if you don’t know THE BIG TWIST and you want to save yourself stop reading now. Let’s talk about Brad Pitt’s wardrobe. Brad Pitt actually has a history of being the worst-dressed man in a film; my other favorite is his collection of silk shirts in Ocean’s Eleven. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden is dressed in the most absurdly awful collection of clothes I have ever seen, and that’s saying a lot, considering I actually lived through the 90s. Here he is in the background (of EDWARD NORTON’S CONSCIOUSNESS!!! :O), in his baggy jeans, just working out with some nunchucks. Manly things.
The twist of Fight Club is – brace yourself – that Tyler Durden doesn’t really exist. He’s a projection of the ideal man that Edward Norton’s unnamed character invents to work through all his emasculated #nomoms emotions. So, to me, it makes total sense that a weenie such as this narrator would invent an ideal man who looks like Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt is so stupidly attractive in such a trendy, 1990s kind of way – he’s like a Ken doll all grown up. Do you lift, bro?
Some of Tyler’s awfulness can be attributed to just being a character invented in 1999. His spiky blonde hair is an example; that’s just what men were doing, god help them. But the fact remains that Tyler only looks the way he looks because that’s how the narrator wants to see him. So when Tyler appears on a flight in red J.Lo-esque sunglasses, a red checkered jacket, and some sort of plaid or floral shirt, that’s because the narrator is visualizing the coolest man he can think of, and that’s what the coolest man would wear in his mind. Did you get that at the mall, the place on earth where Western civilization is decaying from the inside out, bro?
There are a few constants in Tyler’s wardrobe: he loves red sunglasses, red leather jackets, and patterned shirts. Let’s take a quick break to consider how really, truly, hilarious this is, and a perfect example of how a subtle wardrobe choice can be used for some substantial psychological insight into a fictional character. The narrator feels trapped in his sensible khakis and button down shirt, so when the time comes for him to reinvent himself as the perfect man, he wants to go all out. Screw you, Dad! I mean screw you, boss man!! I’ll wear a pink robe with coffee cups or Adidas track pants all day if I want to!!! I’m eating an apple. But not because my mom told me to.
This is as far removed from ‘business casual’, or white upper middle-class tastefulness, as you can get, and that’s the goal. Also! Here’s another layer on this psychological onion of cinema: let’s talk about Marla. The image that launched a thousand Tumblrs.
Helena Bonham Carter is, spoiler alert, unbelievably sexy and hilarious in this movie. Oh, that’s not a spoiler alert, that’s just who she is. I spent the entire DVD commentary trying to will Brad Pitt to shut up and let Helena talk more about her experiences (because of feminism). By all accounts, the introduction of Marla’s character is what sets off the key events in Fight Club. When the narrator meets her he is so consumed by rageful lust, and he’s been castrated (because of society), so he invents Tyler as the kind of man who is worthy of fucking her. Tyler wears his red leather jacket the first time they ‘meet’. It’s my lucky jacket, bro.
Marla’s wardrobe looks like it’s pulled exclusively from thrift stores – a really random assortment of mostly dark and oddly shaped dresses and sweaters, textures like fur and feathers. In one scene – in the commentary Helena called it her ‘beauty shot’ – she wears a blue sequin dress with matching eyeliner; in another, she wears what she says is a discarded wedding dress. There she is, hovering in the background of our narrator’s consciousness.
She also has favourite items – namely, a fur jacket and dark sunglasses. I like her ‘bitch please’ face here, as the narrator is clearly mansplaining something to her. “Don’t you get that it’s a satire?!!” is probably what he’s saying.
Now let’s return to Tyler Durden. In the third act of Fight Club, the narrator realizes he’s had a psychotic break from reality and that he is Tyler Durden (:O!!!!). This isn’t enough to stop Tyler Durden and his pre-9/11 plans of demolitioning all the credit card offices in their big metropolis city, so, the narrator has to fight himself and destroy this alter ego he’s created. A part of the DVD commentary I actually loved was when they talked about how Tyler disappears for a bit while the narrator is figuring it out, but when he returns, he looks terrifying. Brad Pitt called it his ‘alien’ look; they wanted him to look like a monster. He’s shaved the spiky blonde hair and is wearing a fur jacket and some steampunk-ish sunglasses. He’s almost dressed…like…Marla?
After all that, I actually don’t know if the sartorial punchline is that Tyler Durden is dressed as the narrator’s ideal man (which is tacky as shit). I think the sartorial punchline might be that Tyler Durden is dressed as Marla. Let’s review: the narrator only invents Tyler after meeting Marla and seeing her several times. The impetus for creating Tyler comes from wanting to have sex with Marla and being unable to deal with his urges. And the reason he ultimately wants to destroy Tyler is because he’s finally ready to have a real sexual relationship without the help of an imaginary friend. They both outfit themselves in an extremely strange assortment of clothes, and they share the same favourite textures and accessories.
They don’t talk about this in the DVD commentary, and I couldn’t find anything to support my theory in any of the (MILLIONS) of essays about Fight Club. I did find a bunch of ‘How To Dress Like Tyler Durden’ articles which I will spare you and not include links to here. But if this theory is correct, and was done as a deliberate insight into the narrator’s psyche, it is an amazing use of wardrobe as first a joke and secondly as a narrative device.
There’s nothing I love more than an extremely close reading of clothing. I think it’s natural to believe we just like the things we like because we have good taste – but actually, we like the things we like and wear the things we wear because of where we live, because of our upbringings, our friends, our jobs, a million different factors. No one wears a fedora in their OkCupid profile picture ‘just because’; that choice represents a value system, an ideology, some sort of personal belief, and if you’re looking, it’s going to send either a positive or negative message to you depending on your personal beliefs. If you’re a fictional character trying to outfit your alter ego, you’re going to pull a look from the coolest person you know – and in Fight Club, that person is Marla. Fourteen years, two billion essays, some hilarious Twitter rants, and the world’s most annoying fan club later, Fight Club might be having the last laugh when it comes to their wardrobe. After all, the things you own end up owning you.
WORN Fashion Journal is a completely different kind of fashion magazine. An independent print publication based in Toronto, Canada, WORN discusses the histories, personal stories, cultures, and subcultures of fashion.