‘Die Hard’: the everyman appeal of John McClane’s iconic undershirt

Bruce Willis in "Die Hard." Screenshot: YouTube (Fair Use)

Certain garments instantly conjure cinematic icons, like James Bond’s signature tux or the Ruby Slippers worn during Dorothy’s adventures in "The Wizard of Oz." A little bit of razzle-dazzle is a Tinseltown calling card, but even the most ubiquitous and affordable items can take on new meaning when the moment calls for it. 

Before 1988, the humble white undershirt had been sported on screen by the likes of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro, which laid the foundation for this Hollywood symbol of masculinity. Enter Bruce Willis as John McClane and the unexpected box office success of "Die Hard," which together transformed the white tank (or A-shirt) into a symbol of triumph over terrorists wearing tailored fineries. 

Before breathing life into John McClane’s closet, costume designer Marilyn Vance was responsible for several notable cultural touchstones such as "The Breakfast Club’s" group of misfits, the Oscar-nominated chic Prohibition-era suiting of "The Untouchables" and Molly Ringwald’s unforgettable "Pretty in Pink" prom dress. Two years later, Vance not only reunited with Willis on "Die Hard 2," but she also designed Julia Roberts’s indelible (and influential) "Pretty Woman" cut-out mini dress and fancy crimson gown. 

Watch: Bruce Willis in "Die Hard"

It is the distressed "Die Hard" undershirt, however, that resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Donated in 2007, then museum director Brent Glass called John McTiernan’s hit "a quintessential Hollywood action movie." What better representation of this blockbuster could there be than the garment John McClane ultimately uses to bandage the cuts on his bare feet?

But why did he face off against Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his henchmen without any shoes on? 

John McClane’s state of undress

Before he is forced to adapt his outfit into a field medical kit, McClane’s discomfort is the result of his estranged wife’s work party at Nakatomi Plaza. He has flown from New York City to Los Angeles for the holidays and his lack of shoes and socks are the result of following his seatmate’s advice about relieving post-flight tension. 

He also removes his windbreaker and plaid shirt to quickly wash up during a quick moment alone with estranged wife Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia), a scene which gives the strained relationship room to breathe away from her tipsy colleagues celebrating the festive season. Separating McClane from his shirt and shoes is one thing, but his gun is still accessible when the unexpected guests make their arrival known. 

Sprinting up the stairwell barefoot and crawling underneath furniture in charcoal slacks and the white A-shirt isn’t particularly arduous. It is only when he engages with Gruber’s motley crew that his wardrobe (and feet) suffer. 

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Unlike the men he is facing off against, he didn’t come to this party prepared for resistance — well, beyond his current combative dynamic with Holly. It isn’t long until the once-white garment is stained with flecks of blood and dirt; after his journey through the air ducts, the A-shirt turns a muddy brown. McClane only has one tank top, but Vance and her design team track the progression through multiple versions until it becomes a bandage.

Even if you don’t realize how much McClane has gone through across this one evening, his battered undershirt makes it impossible to ignore his travails. His shredded feet can only take so much and he salvages what he can from the (extremely unsanitary) rags to stem the messy (and slippery) flow of blood.

‘Die Hard,’ masculinity and class

Even before the party at Nakatomi Plaza is broken up early, McClane looks out of his depth. 

Flying in from the frigid East Coast winter explains why he has doubled up with a lighter zip-up jacket and the herringbone overcoat he carries. Whereas everyone else is sporting tuxedos and expensive suits, McClane’s casual plaid shirt denotes his outsider status in this corporate environment. 

It also signifies to the audience that he’s an everyman, and the sartorial references and choices scattered throughout the film reinforce his class and masculinity. His rippling biceps, a tuft of chest hair and tattoo are prominently displayed during a battle he should, by all accounts, lose. In the present day, using his lack of interest in the finer things to depict a no-nonsense attitude feels somewhat cliché, but in the late ’80s, Vance’s costuming served as a contemporary take on cowboy movie legends like Gary Cooper

Rather than using a white hat to denote his goodness, his shirt reflects his hero status. 

WATCH: Bruce Willis in "Die Hard 2"

But that’s not the means by which the story is told through clothing. Gruber talks about suits from London — suggesting the famous bespoke Savile Row tailoring — leading McClane to deduce that members of this terrorist group are European based on their clothing labels alone. 

Sadly, he is not trying to figure out where to buy a chic gray tracksuit of his own when he takes a closer look at the outfit brand of the first terrorist he eliminates. 

When McClane kills Tony Vreski (Andreas Wisniewski) and tries his shoes on he quips, "Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister." This very specific insult toward a man much taller than he is a way to reinforce his machismo. He feels emasculated by Holly using her maiden name (Gennaro) at work and the overt wealth of her co-workers, but this dangerous scenario lets him flex once again: He doesn’t need a fancy suit to save the day. 

Villains are often the best-dressed characters in a film, and Hans Gruber is no exception. Yet in "Die Hard," it’s those in off-the-rack pieces who survive this encounter. The coked-up Ellis (Hart Bochner) is decked out in a manner comparable to Gruber; however, his arrogant assumptions about his own safety are unfounded and his expensive suit cannot save him. 

Holly’s Rolex watch (given to her by Ellis, which he brags about) is emblematic of yuppie culture. It also ends up being Gruber’s downfall (literally) — this is what he is clutching when he falls to his death. John McClane is unhampered by this level of excess, and unlike James Bond, his signature look doesn’t require dry-cleaning when the day is done. 

About the writer: Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. You can find her talking about all of these things on Twitter

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In the years since Vance turned the white tank into an action hero emblem, it has been a staple of this genre, from Nicolas Cage in "Con Air" to Vin Diesel in the "Fast and Furious" franchise. Class and masculinity are entwined in this garment, which is perhaps best depicted by the prominent place it has in Ryan Atwood’s (Benjamin McKenzie) "The OC" closet. 

No, he is not an action hero per se but he does have noted fists of fury. 

The tank is not alone in undergarments that take on prominence in this genre as Keanu Reeves can attest in his "Speed" white T-shirt (initially worn under a plaid shirt, another link to "Die Hard"), followed by the henley he wears in "John Wick" before returning to fine tailoring. In fact, henleys are the go-to shirt choice for teen stars on CW shows and action stars, and this garment began life as working-class underwear.

Commando (1985): The large-armed Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in this one-liner heavy action classic, in which "a former elite soldier goes after the criminals who are holding his young daughter hostage in a compound in South America." Dir: Mark L. Lester. Also stars Alyssa Milano and Dan Hedaya.

Army of One (2020): Tank top action flicks aren’t exclusively about men. This revenge story, which stars Ellen Hollman, sees a solider set out in pursuit of the drug runners who killed her husband and left her for dead — and luckily, she’s got a bow and some arrows. Dir: Stephen Durham. Also features Geraldine Singer

The Marine (2006): John Cena and his shoulders anchor John Bonito’s revenge thriller. His undershirt has short sleeves, but there’s still plenty of arm action. Dir: John Bonito. Also features Robert Patrick.

Natural Born Killers (1994): Quentin Tarantino wrote the story for this disturbing Oliver Stone drama in which two young lovers (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) become media darlings while on a cross-country killing spree. Dir: Oliver Stone. Also features Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Sizemore and Rodney Dangerfield.

Fist of Fury (1972): This iconic action movie stars the great Bruce Lee as "a student who fights for the honor of the oppressed Chinese people and to avenge his master’s murder." Dir: Wei Lo. Also features Maria Yi, James Tien, Robert Baker, Miao Ker Hsiu.

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