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Tank GirlStill from Tank Girl (1995)

Tank Girl: the wild feminist anti-hero with a massive influence on fashion

Costume designer Arianne Phillips discusses creating post-apocalyptic looks for Lori Petty, Iggy Pop, and Ice T, collaborating with then-unknown designer Rick Owens, and the 1995 cult movie’s lasting legacy

“Lock up your sons!” quips Tank Girl somewhere near the beginning of the 1995 film of the same name, and it quickly becomes clear she’s not messing around. Leaping straight from the pages of alternative comic magazine Deadline, the fiery, foul-mouthed, tank-driving anarchist fights and fucks her way through the cult movie, asserting herself as a figurehead of the post-feminist wave that swept across the UK in the mid-90s in the process.  

If you’re not already familiar with Tank Girl’s story, the subversive character is the brainchild of artists Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, and comes to life through actress Lori Petty in Rachel Talalay’s film adaptation. Inhabiting a post-apocalyptic, drought-ravaged Australian landscape, where the only water that remains is monopolised by crooked corporation Water & Power, the movie kicks off as Tank Girl is kidnapped from the rebel commune she lives in by the company’s evil overlord, Kesslee – but, pretty unsurprisingly, she’s unwilling to go down without a fight. 

Like the best ones often do, the movie crashed and burned upon its release in 1995. In the time since, however, Tank Girl has become a cult classic thanks to its riotous, unrelenting storyline, its Courtney Love-curated soundtrack, it’s boundary-pushing, unfiltered depiction of feminism, and a truly wild cast, including A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell, a baby-faced Naomi Watts, Ice T in the role of a kangaroo-human hybrid, and Iggy Pop as the paedophile owner of a sex club named Liquid Silver (yes, really).

What Tank Girl is perhaps most famous for, though, is her visual legacy. With her peroxide blonde, tufty crop, slashed logo tees, oversized, punk pin-embellished leather jackets, and tiny mini skirts (not to mention her enormous bovver boots and the gold dipped Prozac pill necklace she wore around her neck), though you might not have even heard of her, let alone seen the movie, it’s likely you’ll have felt her influence, particularly when it comes to fashion. As creator Jamie Hewlett once put it, she was “Thelma and Louise before the fact, she was Mad Max designed by Vivienne Westwood, Action Man designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.” 

With some of Björk’s early 90s looks riffing on the protagonist’s signature style, and Gwen Stefani essentially ripping off her entire aesthetic, even now, 25 years after the film landed in cinemas, references to Tank Girl – unwitting or otherwise – can be seen on catwalks around the world: in Marine Serre’s futuristic, cyberpunk-inflected collections and Vetements’ tongue-in-cheek, irony-tinged offerings, to rising brands like Ottolinger’s subversively sexy, post-apocalyptic clothing. In fact, just this weekend, Fashion East designer Gareth Wrighton sent a Tank Girl doppelganger down the runway, dressed in a look it’s not hard to imagine hanging in her closet (or more likely, strewn across her floor).  

As the cult movie approaches the 25th anniversary of its release, here, we talk to Oscar-nominated costume designer Arianne Phillips about her work on Tank Girl, as she discusses dragging the costumes through the Arizona desert to make sure they looked authentic, Lori Petty’s willingness to try anything, and enlisting a then-unknown designer by the name of Rick Owens(!) to create a series of looks featured in the film.

“Tank Girl was Thelma and Louise before the fact, she was Mad Max designed by Vivienne Westwood, Action Man designed by Jean Paul Gaultier” – Jamie Hewlett, Tank Girl illustrator

Were you familiar with Tank Girl before you started work on the movie? 

Arianne Phillips: Yes, I’d seen it. This was the early 90s, so it’s not like it was accessible on the internet, but I had a friend who had a copy of Deadline so I knew a bit about her – I thought it was really cool to see a female protagonist like her! I was a fan of Love and Rockets, which was another graphic novel, this time American, and it’s about two amazing female characters, so it was really great to have another in the form of Tank Girl.  

How did working on the movie come about?  

Arianne Phillips: I can’t remember by who, but I was recommended for it – maybe by my early agent because at the time I was working as a stylist for music videos and I worked a lot with musicians and on fashion editorials. I know that Rachel (Talalay, director) really wanted the costumes to feel relevant in that world, so I think I was pursued for that reason. They really took a chance on me – it was the second movie I ever designed.  

What were your points of reference when you were creating the costumes, other than the graphic novel itself?  

Arianne Phillips: Everything was Jamie Hewlett’s character. The purpose of costumes in a film is to create character and move the story along, and there was no better reference than Jamie Hewlett’s characterisation of Tank Girl and all the characters, and when you watch the movie you can see that I brought a lot of his ideas to life: the missile bra, the ‘40 watts’ t-shirt, so many things. After that, it was just about building the characters around who they cast, around Lori Petty, around Naomi (Watts), and all the other wonderful people in the film. 

Coming from music videos, where you created looks from scratch, did you find dressing a character with such a distinctive and fully realised aesthetic intimidating? 

Arianne Phillips: I think the most daunting thing was keeping it authentic for the fans, because I was very aware there was a huge fanbase attached to this character. Fans of graphic novels and comics… they’re pretty unforgiving, and very attached to the DNA of who those characters are. I wanted to make sure this was just a 3D version of the graphics and comics they liked so much.

Lori Petty wears some pretty wild looks throughout the film – case in point, the missile bra you just mentioned. Was there anything she drew the line at? Or was she pretty much open to anything?  

Arianne Phillips: Lori was great, she was game for anything! There was a long process before she was cast, where we faced a lot of hurdles with different actors who weren’t willing to do certain things. That wasn’t the case with Lori. She let us cut off all her hair and she really just became Tank Girl, which was very inspiring, and there was no pushback from her whatsoever. 

What about the other actors you worked with, was it intimidating dressing Malcolm McDowell for instance? 

Arianne Phillips: Yes! I fit him two days before he started work as he’d been on another project, which was quite nerve-wracking because usually I’d have a bit of dialogue with an actor and let them know which direction we’re going in, but I had no communication with Malcolm as he was off in some distant location. When he came to the fitting room I was quite nervous, one because I was a massive fan and I’d grown up watching his films and two because I’d designed everything he was wearing – it wasn’t like I could shop for the stuff in this movie, so I spent a lot of time and a lot of my budget essentially budgeting these costumes from scratch.  

What was his reaction to the costumes?  

Arianne Phillips: When he came into the fitting room it was a case of me holding my breath and hoping he’d be aligned with what we were doing. He looked at everything very seriously to begin with, and it was difficult to know what he was thinking. Then he looked at me and said “Thank you so much. I haven’t had the chance to think about this character and you’ve really helped me to figure him out right away.” I learnt from that experience that I could help provide what I call a ‘beam me up suit’ for the actors I work with, with the tactile experience of actually putting on the clothes, if done well, transporting them to a certain time, place, and mentality.  

You said you designed many of the looks in the film from scratch. Were there any specific designers you looked to for reference, or any pieces you called in in the end?  

Arianne Phillips: To this day, Tank Girl remains one of the films I did the most costume design for. I would say Lori’s costumes were 100 per cent made from the ground up – same with Malcolm McDowell’s character and same with Jet Girl. For the people in the background, the clothes were either sourced and overdyed or distressed. The whole film was taking place in a post-apocalyptic, barren, water-starved world, so we really had to put that across with not only the set but the costumes too.

“One look was actually a collaboration I worked on with a friend of mine who’s now a very famous fashion designer called Rick Owens. Rick collaborated with me on a couple of costumes, back before he’d even launched his own line” – Arianne Phillips

How did you distress the clothes to make them look authentic? I heard a few rumours that you’d taken them and dragged them through the desert off the back of a jeep...

Arianne Phillips: That's so hilarious! But it wasn’t just me making the clothes: I hired what’s known as a ‘breakdown department’ in England, and an ‘ageing and dying’ department in the US. Their sole job is to break down the costumes, and yes, we definitely have attached old pairs of Levi’s and tin cans and rocks to a car and driven through the desert. At one point we also used a cheese grater, anything is fair game! 

This was also an exciting film to work on because I used a lot of techniques that were new to me, but seem pretty lo-fi now we have all this technology and 3D printing and so on. But I remember it being the first time I had images Xeroxed onto silk. Nowadays you’d probably digitally print, but at that point we still had those old school, DIY methods, which I really think adds to the aesthetic. 

What was the atmosphere like on the set? Was it as chaotic as the movie is to watch? 

Arianne Phillips: It was super fun, it was one of my first movies so I was just wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was so excited to be there. We were on location for most of the movie in Arizona and it was super hot and desert-like, but we had a great time. It was a dream project.

Do you have a favourite look from Tank Girl? 

Arianne Phillips: Well I absolutely love Tank Girl’s opening costume. It’s a coat and half of the coat is made of army fatigue pants, mashed up with denim and leather jackets, with different sleeves, kind of like a patchwork look. It was actually a collaboration I worked on with a friend of mine who’s now a very famous fashion designer called Rick Owens. Rick collaborated with me on a couple of costumes, before he’d even launched his own line, including another jacket and a skirt, and it was super fun to work with him. And of course, I love the gas mask with all the bits all over it, which was directly inspired by the comic. 

Did you keep any of the pieces you made for the film? 

Arianne Phillips: Yes! I have one of the jackets Tank Girl herself wore. I stole it actually (laughs).

What do you think it’s legacy, stylistic or otherwise, is? Why do you think it gained such a tribe of fans despite not being super successful in the cinema? 

Arianne Phillips: I think more than anything it’s the theme of what Tank Girl is about. Especially now, it doesn’t feel that farfetched, does it? When we were working on the film, it just seemed like total science fiction to me, but now, unfortunately, thanks to climate change, you see what’s happening in Australia with the wildfires, and what’s happening in LA, with these whole communities of people with no homes just roaming around with nowhere to go, and it feels like Tank Girl. 

In terms of the way people are dressed in the film and how people dress now, I feel like there’s a need to show your tribe. With Tank Girl, I was referencing a lot of music tribes: mods, rockers, punks – all those tribes we know from pop culture. I think the movie still resonates as it’s all about finding who you are as an individual. At that time, we were very disillusioned by the fact a female superhero was not going to be successful at the box office. Now, I feel like people are ready for female superheroes, and that Tank Girl herself is a bit more appreciated than she was. 

How do you feel about Margot Robbie planning to remake the film? 

Arianne Phillips: I’m actually looking forward to seeing the next generation of Tank Girl and I know there’s an audience for it. I would be really excited to see what the costumes look like, and her next evolution.