Though Tank Girl first appeared as a comic strip in Deadline magazine in 1988, I got to the party kind of late. In fact, though it’s uncool to say, I had no idea who she was until Hollywood made a movie about her in 1995 – a film the comic’s co-creator Alan Martin apparently called a “shit sandwich” (though I have that quote third-hand). Shit sandwich or no, and even after years of consuming fashion images in art, films, and magazines, Lori Petty’s often-maligned representation of the indie comic icon stopped me in my tracks.
Originally written by Alan Martin and illustrated by Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl (TG) was described by her creators as “Mad Max designed by Vivienne Westwood; Action Man designed by Jean Paul Gaulthier.”* An ass-kicking, gun-toting, tank-driving anti-hero with a smart mouth and a punk-rock haircut, TG was , to me, a model of perfectly unselfconscious rebellion. She didn’t give a damn and, furthermore, she didn’t give a damn that she didn’t give damn – if you follow.
I was 23 when the movie came out, and TG was was the toughest girl I’d ever seen – but it was her aesthetic that made me a fan for life. A brilliant mix of push-up bras and motorcycle boots, wrecked tee shirts, military goggles, sweat-sock-armbands and vampy 50s makeup, her style was fierce and joyful and utterly unapologetic.
In many ways, the film manifestation of TG was a product of the 90s. Though the sci-fi action/comedy was set in the future, the wardrobe embodied that decade’s obsessions with rave culture, military style, and grunge androgyny – but stylistically, it went much farther. It borrowed from punk and retro camp. Naomi Watts’ sexy-yet-nerdish Jet Girl was a precursor to Geek Chic, while Malcolm MacDowell’s evil Kesslee was pure futuristic minimalist. And while these references occasionally appeared on their own, more often than not they were all jumbled together in a way that give live characters all the aesthetic potential of comic book illustrations. This playful, tough, irreverent mishmash would become an obsession of mine for many years and inspires me even now.
A few weeks ago, someone asked me if I could recommend a movie worth watching just for the clothes. I said, “Tank Girl,” right away. It’s a wonder for variety alone, considering Lori Petty changes costume 18 times in 103 minutes. No matter how many times I see it, watching that girl barrel through almost two hours of non-stop, chaotic, aesthetic rebellion always piques my sense of wardrobe adventure. Whatever the problems with the movie (I still love it unabashedly but, after delving into the original comics, even I realize there were many), they got the wardrobe exactly right.