Tyler Durden Isn't the Icon You Think He Is
Tyler Durden Isn't the Icon You Think He Is
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date September 17, 2019
Sometimes, when you look back, you don’t see much there at all.
Whenever a beloved film reaches a 10th, 20th or even 50th anniversary, the internet collectively feels the obligation to look back at its cultural impact. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Fight Club, a film that took America by storm and launched David Fincher into the directorial stratosphere, thanks to amazing DVD sales that salvaged a miserable box office performance.
The violent, anti-commercial nihilism of Fight Club resonated with a disaffected young audience in 1999. A malaise had crept into the culture, as young people saw little opportunity and little to look forward to other than their middle class purchasing power, as embodied in the film by “Jack’s” obsession with IKEA furniture and office drone propriety. Fight Club is not alone in expressing this particular feeling, as you don’t have to look too hard to see a similar theme explored in American Beauty, The Matrix and Office Space.
Despite how much of a phenomenon Fight Club became in the six-million-DVDs-sold afterglow of its release, the film hasn’t really endured in pop culture. People still watch it, but it is hard to trace its cultural impact The ideas of the film seem alternately quaint and problematic today; while many filmmakers ape Fincher’s low-light style, they don’t copy these themes.
Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, once heralded as a symbol of alternative cool at the dawn of the 21st century, feels like the harbinger of darkness for the American male more than an enduring fashion icon today. In 1999, everyone wanted to be Tyler Durden. Today, beyond wearing a few fashion-friendly Aloha shirts, it’s hard to aspire to be Tyler Durden.
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One way to gauge the cultural resonance of a cinematic character is to see if people dress like them. Other cult figures of cool have been aped on the runway and in the street, from Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Luke Wison in The Royal Tenenbaums.
For a while after Fight Club’s theatrical run, it looked like Tyler Durden might be headed for the same fashion Valhala as these silver screen favorites. Posters were all over dorm room walls and men’s magazines were publishing the obligatory guides to dressing like Durden. Over the years, this fascination with the character turned to mockery. Durden’s look was perhaps best sent up by the late, great The Toast, with a piece titled, “I am Jack’s Tacky Red Leather Jacket”. Today, the Tyler Durden’s look only really endures as an nostalgic Halloween costume. Sure Durden has gotten this treatment—but only with a twinge of irony. We are living in the era of the ugly sneaker and the highly printed, Hawaiian-inspired Prada camp collar shirt after all.
As Fight Club’s cultural cache dried up, few designers came along to save it. If a film or TV show sparks a fashion trend, you can usually find a number of runway shows that use the work as inspiration in the years afterwards. If the term “fight club” is mentioned in a runway review, it is usually referring to boxing or wrestling themes, or male models with black eyes and scars—not aping Durden’s look. Whether we’re talking about Gaultier’s 2010 Fall/Winter line or Sankuanz’s 2015 show featuring bruised models, critics aren’t talking about red leather jackets and adidas track pants when they say the words “fight club.”
Even a Versace show from early 2000, at the height of Fight Club’s cultural relevance, which named its show explicitly after the film, featured a collection that looked nothing like the wardrobe from the movie. A New York Times writer described the collection as one filled with “camouflage print suits,” and “low slung leather pants loaded with zippers.” In other words, these models did have made up scrapes and black eyes, but the similarities largely end with the scars.
If nothing else, Durden is a slight bastardization of the sexed up Tom Ford and Gucci designs of the 1990s. The difference is that while Ford manages to balance the line between over-the-top and top-tier tailoring (croc loafers included), Durden’s fashion overdrive shifts the aesthetic into sickenly sweet. There’s a slight connection, but you’re still going to look as crazy as...well, Durden, if you attempt to recreate these outfits.
Why did such an iconic figure as Tyler Durden fade from our cultural and style consciousness?
There is an obvious answer. Tyler Durden does not dress particularly well—or, at least in an easily recreatable way. Even style writers that try to frame Durden as a fashion icon do so with plenty of hand-wringing. One writer noted that it is “ironic” that Durden was even considered a style icon and that his clothing “breaks all the rules.” Another calls his style “unrepeatable.” A third admits that the look “doesn’t fit the fashion.”
That aforementioned The Toast article remarked: “Brad Pitt actually has a history of being the worst-dressed man in a film...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.”
We may remember Brad Pitt looking unbearably cool in the film. But, that is more thanks to Pitt’s unrelenting magnetism than anything he’s wearing. When women’s magazines write about how hot he is in Fight Club they write about him shirtless, not in one of his terrible outfits.
Even the film’s fashion designer didn’t think Durden looked particularly cool. Costume designer Michael Kaplan understood that Durden was not built to be a fashion icon, but rather superficially transgressive, a lame guy’s fantasy of what a cool guy would look like. Kaplan has given a number of interviews over the years, and never has he expressed admiration for Durden’s look, but rather he admires the character’s attitude.
In one interview, Kaplan remarked to Mr Porter’s The Journal that he wished he was “cool and cocky enough” to pull of Durden’s style. He refers to the look as “outrageous,” meant to look like it was hastily sourced from thrift shops. He says he sought out “strange, incongruous, ironic patterns” for Tyler’s shirts.
Revisiting the film, you realize that Pitt’s look is actually pretty cringeworthy. A loud red leather jacket, A busy shirt with massive lapels. A fur coat over an electric yellow tank top. An orange and yellow camo hoodie. A too-tight, too-cheap satin button-down. And most impressively awful, a beige blazer paired with a yellow button-down and a wide, ’80s-style tie. The thrift store combination of a raver and 1970s used car salesman could only be pulled off by a two-time sexiest man alive; the rest of us are better off dressing like Ed Norton’s drab “Narrator.”
What exactly does Tyler Durden stand for?
Fight Club is anti-consumerism. That’s clear. But what is the remedy for “Planet Starbucks” and the “IKEA nesting instinct” that Ed Norton bemoans in the film? Destruction. Durden’s wants to destroy his body, other bodies, his apartment, his career, his relationships and the United States banking system. But what does he want to put in its place? It’s hard to say.
Judging by the way the film treats women and people of color, the future society of Durdenistan wouldn’t be egalitarian. Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) is alternately an object of desire and abuse, while the person of color with the most lines is a bodega owner who begs for his life as Durden coldly puts a gun to his head.
Just as the film fails at levying a civil rights or humanitarian critique of society, it fails to offer a class critique as well. The movie blames corporations for creating a culture of consumption, but never takes a step beyond that simple assertion. The movie never articulates that there are people—politicians and executives—who are almost exclusively, like our protagonists, white men, who built this economic system and profit from the suffering of others.
The Politics of Fight Club
Some read Fight Club as an outright celebration of fascism. While a charismatic figure does put together his own mob of brown (here, black) shirts in service of violence through a secretive and authoritarian network, calling the film explicitly fascist might be giving it too much ideological credit. It never really gets beyond a theory of power more sophisticated than pointing out that IKEA furniture and khakis are boring, and so it’s hard to say that Fight Club was an ideological forerunner to the Unite the Right Rally in the same way that Ayn Rand or Tucker Carlson might have been.
The characters in Fight Club want to feel something. But, they don’t seem to want to take the time to reflect on their privilege or their position. So, they settle for beating the shit out of each other instead.
There is another movement that the film belongs more firmly in league with: Men’s rights activism. The Game would be published a half-decade after Fight Club was released.
The book, by Neil Strauss, introduced America to the men’s rights adjacent phenomenon of the pick-up artist. One of the tools of the PUA, a man who works out their rage at society by treating women as little more than objects, is “peacocking.” According to a site alligned with the movement, peacocking is, “the art of wearing a few garish, compelling items which draw attention...The key to peacocking is to make strong style choices. Wear clothes that are interesting, with aggressive cuts and patterned fabrics.”
That sounds an awful lot like Tyler Durden. Kaplan made an almost prophetic statement when he reflected on preparing Durden’s wardrobe. He said he “feared [Fincher] would nix my plan to adorn him like a peacock, in so much colour and outrageousness.”
Some of Durden’s more casual lines take on a sinister undertone when looked at through the rearview mirror, and see two decades of white male fragility between now and then. His point that, “We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off"—sounds like he shares DNA with PUA, MAGA, incels, Proud Boys, and the rest of the dregs of modern chauvinist society.
Tyler Durden is certainly not responsible for these movements, but he is an early product of the same kind of thinking that spawned them. Writing about Fight Club is often accompanied by a discussion of Susan Faludi’s book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man that argued that America was in the throws of a crisis of masculinity. In the book, also released in 1999, she lamented the loss of American masculinity. She offered the idea that masculinity was, “something to drape over the body, not draw from inner resources; that it is not personal, not societal; that manhood is displayed, not demonstrated.”
Just as the modern Proud Boys—with their billowing khakis, dorky polo shirts, and tacky red hats—don’t care about fashion beyond how it can help them perform their preferred gender role, so to does the pick-up artist find no need for style beyond immediate seduction. Similarly, the hyper-masculine Tyler Durden mocks fashion, looking down on those who want to look good with his Sugar Ray blonde tips and his bug-eyed red glasses. Why does he need to look like anything in particular when he can just rip off his shirt and punch you in the face? He’s too much of a man to look good.
Tyler Durden’s look comes from a place of muddled darkness. He doesn’t know what he stands for, but he knows that he’s mad. And you see this in his clothes. It’s not Italian sprezzatura with Durden, it is a random assortment of garish accessories that dare you to tell him he looks bad. Tyler Durden’s fashion has not endured because Tyler Durden has no fashion.
Towards the beginning of Fight Club, Ed Norton’s Narrator remarks that he had “a wardrobe that was very respectable. [he] was close to being complete” before he met Durden. It was a drab combination of unremarkable khakis and department store button-downs, but yes, he did have a wardrobe. But just because Durden rejects the concept of a dull, respectable wardrobe doesn’t make his look admirable. Just because the “Narrator’s” fit is weak, doesn’t make Durden’s lack of aesthetic cohesion impressive.
Tyler Durden cautions the Narrator, “The things you own end up owning you.” Durden acts like his anarchic style is somehow outside the bounds of fashion. But, looking at him we see the kind of guy we’ve all met: A guy who dresses so outlandishly because deep down he just wants someone to look at him. It is the same type of guy who yells over everyone precisely because he has nothing to say. It is the kind of guy who doesn’t want to actually bring down the system, he just wants credit for pointing out that there is a system.
It is possible to be provocative without being a provocateur. It is possible to be flashy without being interesting. And it is possible to think you’re leading a revolution when you aren’t saying anything at all.