She arrives at the support group just as the hugging begins. “This is cancer, right?” she asks, her pallid skin and sunken eyes suggesting she could well be a sufferer. Except this is a support group for testicular cancer and Marla doesn’t have any balls, not the kind that can be removed by surgery anyway. Mischievous Marla Singer: black fur coat, sunglasses, squashed black hat and breathing through a cigarette. On the surface Marla looks like a femme fatale, though in truth she is not manipulative enough to fit the mould. In Tyler Durden’s words she is “rock bottom”. Once mislaid, now gone for good.
As an embodiment of affected audacity, Marla gives off the impression she could not give a damn. She walks in front of traffic, stands in front of traffic, takes a “cry for help thing” overdose of sleeping pills. Yet look at how she dresses; layered black thrift store cool and shades. If Marla really didn’t care less she would wear a tracksuit and flip-flops. Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter) is far and away the coolest character in Fight Club, cooler even than Tyler and what’s more she actually exists. Although to Fight Club’s costume designer Michael Kaplan, here reminiscing exclusively for Clothes on Film, Marla exists in her own bubble, “I do not believe Marla thinks she is cool (or uncool)” he points out. “I don’t think she’s that self aware. She is determined and in a strange way, a survivor.”
Nearly 14 years have passed since Fight Club (directed by David Fincher) was released. Michael Kaplan was justly rewarded with a Costume Designers Guild award for his work on the film. Two of his outfits worn by Brad Pitt and Edward Norton were recently on display at the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition. We see the porno vest, red slacks and snaffle loafers and immediately think of Tyler. We see a black fur coat, flimsy dress, bird’s nest hair and omnipresent cigarette and think of Marla. She sits at the back of our mind like a filthy, sexually aggressive parasite. In this respect Marla is a femme fatale because she embodies the heterosexual male fantasy; she is a woman who has ‘let go’ of everything.
However Marla is not dangerous, certainly not to the Ikea and coffee house crowd she inhabited in 1999. Okay, she steals jeans from a laundrette and sells them to a vintage shop. Well from Marla’s point of view you shouldn’t leave your clothes unattended in the first place if you didn’t want some lowlife to steal them. Her own wardrobe consists of strappy dresses, geo-pattern shirts, skirts, high platform heels, the aforementioned fur jacket, a leather and suede reefer and a man’s tweed coat – something she probably just felt looked warm on a cold day. Hats too, hats give Marla what Madonna might describe as ‘good face’. “There is a scene at one of the 12 Step meetings where Marla is chain smoking” notes Kaplan. “I put her in a wide brimmed hat to trap all the smoke around her. It is beautifully shot. That really sticks in my mind.”
All costumes worn by Helena Bonham Carter were from a mix of sources. “Some made to order, some found in second hand and vintage stores and ‘reinvented’ and ‘distressed’. Nothing was new, with the exception of a jacket from my friend Rick Owens (American fashion designer), who, at the time was still living in Hollywood”. Marla did not necessarily exist this way on the page; in fact Bonham Carter had some difficulty locating her character at first. Kaplan continues, “Shortly after Helena was cast as Marla, She phoned me from London. ‘I’m gonna need your help – who the fuck is this Marla Singer? I haven’t a clue!’ Slightly surprised, having never met the Miss. Merchant-Ivory, I believe my response was ‘think Judy Garland, for the millennium’. Anyway, it kind of stuck – during the shoot, David Fincher was calling her Judy.”
This tiny charlatan rarely strays from her mournful signature look established at the support groups. Marla is the dark female tourist in a bright animal kingdom of men. “Close” Kaplan ponders. “I felt that Marla needed to be dark. I dressed Tyler brightly. I costumed both Tyler and Marla in contrast to Edward Norton’s character.” Taking her cue from the Judy Garland reference, Bonham Carter was completely receptive to Marla’s outlandish ensembles, “’Hel’ was open to my insight into her character. I find British actors are far more respectful of the role of costume designers than American actors.” Those statuesque shoes were a different matter, however. “Helena was a bit peeved at the extremely high platform shoes I expected her to wear – she kept ‘falling off’ them!” Ironic how well this works for Marla; she totters about in a haze for most of the film; barely awake or standing up most of the time.
Marla tries to be all doom and gloom, though really she is searching for an excuse to be happy. When she begins her (sexual) relationship with Tyler, soft shapes and soft colours creep into her rotation; she genuinely loves that $1 dollar bridesmaid’s dress, even if it does make look like a fluffy pink reanimated corpse. Marla likes to be pretty, it signals letting her guard down, which after being snubbed by Tyler/The Narrator she slams up again pronto. Michael Kaplan describes the thrift store bridesmaid’s dress as “pink chiffon and seed pearls…falling apart”, but something that Marla “recognises and rescues”.
Her only other notable use of colour comes before the bridesmaid’s costume, a blue sequin dress worn with matching eye shadow as she rolls around contemplating her “death rattle”. It seems like a purposeful choice, a highly unusual colour in the animal kingdom reflecting unique Marla. Although Kaplan considers focus lies more with the appliqué, “I just thought it was a beautiful colour with Helena’s pale Dresden skin and dark hair. The sequins were the thing; they were homage to Judy and her later stage performance costumes.” This dress foreshadows the chintzy, seemingly off-model bridesmaid’s gown. Deep down Marla is yearning to relive a past life.
For Marla, rescuing a pretty dress would be like fixing a bird with a broken wing. Marla’s innate sweetness comes from her confusion at life. She is quick to temper because she does not understand things; people, motivations, bitterness. The crop girdle briefly seen when yelling at Tyler down the telephone sums up her whole way of thinking. “I found the old girdle with hanging garters in a junk store” Kaplan recalls. “I thought, ‘if Marla came upon this, perhaps she’d think it was a tube top with straps’.” And that is Marla: if in doubt, try it anyway. She is free in a way that most of us will never be.
It is fun to contemplate what Marla would think of all the magazine spreads she occupied as inspiration for rebellious middle class bohemians (see also Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum). She would probably be flattered. Like most people living on the fringes of society she aches for acceptance. Michael Kaplan created a character for Fight Club not a look-book, yet when someone like Marla, connects with an audience, especially a young audience, she transcends the screen and becomes something else. Modestly, Kaplan doubts her influence on the world of fashion, “I tried to dress Marla from the inside out; a dimensional character, not someone merely wearing cool or beautiful clothes. This is my job and what I always attempt to do. I don’t know about Marla being a fashion icon, although the character as well as the film has become quite iconic.” The Marla clone has never quite left us. Follow the plumes of smoke and you will find her. She may be cheap but she’s worth every penny.
With thanks to Michael Kaplan.
NOTE: Images have been screencapped from Blu-Ray and cropped to better highlight the costumes.
© 2013, Christopher Laverty.