You may associate the franchise with comforting Christmas sweaters (because, yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie!), but there is more to the looks of John McClane (Bruce Willis) and his enemies than that!
Nice suit versus dirty tank top
When it came out in 1988, Die Hard dynamited the codes of the action genre: in a world saturated with over-the-top heroes who saved the world by flexing a bicep, seeing an ordinary cop caught in a hostage taking plot felt truly refreshing. John McClane’s misadventures start as he attempts to visit his estranged wife Holly at her LA office, and runs into a group of thieves led by German Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). McClane, a fish out of water in LA, is obviously unprepared for the encounter, and his clothes perfectly reflect this.
At first glance, John’s clothes are unremarkable, and that is exactly what sets him apart. Exit the cool military uniforms of typical 80’s action heroes, here, the protagonist starts with an unassuming jacket (still hiding a Beretta 92F, but don’t worry, he’s a cop) and a plaid shirt. Of course, what everyone remembers is McClane crawling into a ventilation shaft in pants and a dirty tank top – and spending much of the film without shoes! In a really cool interview, Marylin Vance, the costume designer of Die Hard’s first instalment, explained that she wanted McClane’s clothes to tell his story. She worked out how John would have to undress during his ordeal at the Nakatomi Plaza, removing his shoes to avoid jet lag and not having the time to gear up for the upcoming confrontation. McClane’s looks are those of a very ordinary man drawn into a very unordinary situation – and this realism makes him an ultimate action survivor. John isn’t a super human able to save the world all on his own – in fact, he only fights for the survival of a handful of people. His unassuming look perfectly illustrates the situation he is in throughout the film. Among his wife Holly’s snappily dressed colleagues, John sticks out like a sore thumb – one quick look at him and you can tell he is an outsider, giving us some nice visual storytelling.
The contrast couldn’t be more stark between John and sophisticated villain Hans Gruber (the unforgettable Alan Rickman), who has a self-confessed passion for men’s fashion and knows how to choose his suits. Gruber’s sharp style, ultimate 80s power suit and suitably Christmassy dark red tie ironically look much more in line with the office environment. And this makes sense, because Hans is much more in control of the story than McClane – until the very end, at least. Lo and behold, the ideas of costume designer Marylin Vance that clothes tell their own story applies to Hans, too: Gruber’s style is impeccable and complex, exactly like his plan. When he meets his infamous end by plummeting from the building’s 30th floor, the villain is still sharply dressed and barely has a hair out of place. He hasn’t had to go through a lot – unlike McClane. His ultimate looks only set Gruber up as a very sophisticated villain (just as refreshing as the hero’s normality), but also make his demise much more satisfying.
Dress well or Die Hard: the sequels
When ranking the franchise’s villains, Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) of Die Hard 2 (1990) is scarcely a fan favourite. The ex-military man’s ice-cold demeanour and rather stern personality are not as fun as Hans Gruber’s, and his fairly traditional combat gear reflects this. When he is not sporting a dark, wintery combat attire, Stuart is practicing martial arts entirely naked in his hotel room, in what is definitely his most iconic appearance. And what about John? Well, in Die Harder McClane is wearing some comfortable clothes, perfect to wait at an airport on a snowy day. Here, he sports a comfy woollen sweater (Christmas vibes, anyone?), and of course, a flannel shirt. Once again, his unassuming looks convey his unpreparedness for what’s about to happen – the years pass, but good old John stays the same!
But what happens when we catch McClane at home in NYC, and in the middle of summer? Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) gives us a very interesting answer. I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie, and its characters made a lasting impression on me as a kid – no doubts their iconic looks contributed to it! On this hot and sunny day, McClane has traded his sweater for a short-sleeved shirt. But don’t worry, the iconic tank top is still here, complete with NYPD tags – the perks of working in his home city. What I particularly like about this sequel is the sheer amount of damage that McClane and fellow protagonist Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) take. Much like in Die Hard, this is reflected in their clothes, but also in their wounds. They do not miraculously heal in between shots, and by the end of the movie, their bodies are bruised and battered.
The film’s main villain, Hans’ brother Simon Gruber (the amazing Jeremy Irons) also has a textile story to tell. Simon spends much of the movie in a tank top which could rival McClane’s (and illustrates the similarities between the men, let down by the system they work for). But the pun-loving terrorist’s most iconic fashion accessory is undoubtedly his tie, which features an apple dangling on a string. This has two meanings: first, Simon plans on taking control over the Big Apple – quite literally. Second, he likes to have fun and has a unique personality: in a video interview, Jeremy Irons mentioned that Simon likes to spice things up a little – and it shows! Gruber completes his ultimate villainous look with hexagonal shades, which deserve a special mention, as do the nerdy glasses sported by Zeus, which ooze 1990s. A final shout-out to the oval shades worn by Simon’s lieutenant Katya (Sam Philips), who is ridiculously cool as she enters a tunnel without them on. Who needs night vision when you have a karambit knife?
And… here comes painful the time to talk about Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). Yes, as most viewers pointed out, these films see McClane become an empty, soulless Hollywood hero and parody of his former self. Yes, his clothes unfortunately reflect this change. He now wears much darker colours, which do not outline his injuries as well. And it might be my bad faith speaking, but I could not find a single costume from McClane or Die Hard 4 and 5’s antagonists worthy of an ultimate label. Here, everything seems quite dull and bland – much like the content of the movies themselves. Despite this disappointing end, it is undeniable that the Die Hard’s unique looks helped it to redefine the codes of the genre, and reinforced its ultimate status. These costumes have aged like fine wine, and just for this, they deserve a Yippee Ki-Yay!