With the release of Birds of Prey this month, Emmie Cosgrove explores the fashion history of one of DC’s beloved anti-heroes, Harley Quinn, and how an all-female production team can allow more creative freedom for character costume design.
In 1992, Harley Quinn made her debut in Batman: The Animated Series. Despite the mixed response fans of the animated Batman series had towards Harley Quinn, and the fact that the creators of the show were considering having Harley Quinn as a one-episode one- shot, she is now one of the most popular DC characters. Not only did Harley Quinn provide The Joker with a romantic partner, changing his character line, Harley Quinn gave the female DC audience a feminist anti- hero.
Harley Quinn’s first costume was an iconic black and red court jester outfit. This one-piece jester costume is one of the most stand-out Harley Quinn looks. The choice of a court jester themed costume for Harley Quinn’s first appearance provides audiences with a visual hint of her personality. The archetype of the Jester is a care-free person who thrives off spontaneity and living in the moment, but behind the care-free mannerisms, they’re also the devil’s advocate with a lack of impulse control. Harley Quinn falls right into this character type. It may have been the perplexing mannerisms of Harley Quinn that caused fans to be unsure of her, but her jester characteristics and costume provided the show with a unique female character who spiced things up.
Her black and red jester one-piece was the statement piece of Harley Quinn’s identity for around two decades until her wardrobe underwent a couple of changes, one within the DC comic universe and another within the world of video games. 2009 saw the release of Batman: Arkham Asylum, an action adventure game inspired by the DC comics. Though this game wasn’t released by DC themselves, audiences loved it so much that it even won a BAFTA Games Award for the Best Game.
Of course, being a game inspired by the comics meant that the most beloved characters were featured, including Harley Quinn. However, instead of the game designers opting for the classic DC comic-book look, they gave her style quite a few alterations.
The prominent costume adjustments that Batman: Arkham Asylum made to Harley Quinn can easily be linked to the sexualisation of characters in video games. Male video game characters appear hyper masculine and female video game characters have a lot more exposed skin and a more feminine appearance, even if the character is pretty hardcore, like Harley Quinn.
In the video game her outfit consists of a low-cut white shirt, tight red corset, a miniskirt and fishnets paired with thigh-high boots. Though the costuming choices in the game still are on brand for Harley’s Jester like mannerisms, in the game she
became a character viewed through the male gaze.
When 2011 came around DC relaunched and revamped their entire line of superhero comic books. This was known as The New 52. The relaunch also meant a new outfit change for some of the characters, Harley Quinn included. The creators of DCs The New 52 stated that they wanted to give Harley Quinn a more edgy and modernised look. They drew her in a cropped jester-like corset and she changed between red and black hot pants with thigh high socks and tight black and red leather looking trousers
In The New 52 comic books, there is a scene in which Harley Quinn is in her mind palace, a place where her former self lives: Harleen Quinzel, a smart psychiatrist. Whilst in this mind palace Harley Quinn has a conversation with her former self. She spins out of the one-piece jester suit, and it becomes the modernised two piece, with her blonde hair in pigtails, no longer covered, and red and pink eyeshadow placed on her eyelids. This indicates that she is breaking free of her identity that was heavily associated with the Joker, who spent a lot of time in the previous Batman comic book series and shows manipulating and abusing Harley Quinn.
This transformation of Harley Quinn as she breaks free from the Joker and the difference it makes to her costumes can also be seen when comparing Suicide Squad to Harley Quinn’s Birds of Prey.
As the increasing hype surrounding superhero films began to grow, in 2016 DC released Suicide Squad in which Harley Quinn was re-vamped again in the wardrobe department. For the film her red and black colour palette had taken a lighter turn and she sported mainly white, red, blue, and gold. They stuck with her blonde bunches and dip dyed them blue and pink, which created a much more up to date appearance for Harley Quinn.
The costume choices needed to reflect a Harley Quinn who a mass audience could resonate with. Her costume in Suicide Squad had a very edgy yet colourful street-style feel, which worked perfectly for 2016, as sportswear and street-style were an increasing trend. The film did refer to Harley Quinn’s original one-piece Jester costume, just like The New 52 had done, where towards the start of the film Harley Quinn begins picking out outfits brought to her from a box. She picks up the jester bodysuit and quickly dismisses it for her Daddy’s Little Monster shirt, low rise shorts, fishnets and a very fun baseball jacket.
However, in Suicide Squad Harley Quinn is still dating the joker. He is her ‘Daddy’ and she is his ‘Little Monster’. Fans of the DC universe were hoping that the film would explore the Joker and Harley Quinn’s relationship but Suicide Squad only went into their relationship on a very surface level, not showing how complex and toxic their relationship was.
As Suicide Squad had introduced Harley Quinn to a mass audience, her costume from the film became many people’s favourite. This was the costume that many people now associated with Harley Quinn, and these people may have not read the comics or watched the animated series and known Harley Quinn’s traditional outfits. Her Suicide Squad look was a massively popular cosplay (costume play) choice and after the release of the film the popularity of Harley Quinn’s character shot up.
Margot Robbie, who played Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, had such a fun time in character that she decided to produce and write Harley Quinn’s own solo movie, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. The main story in Suicide Squad took place over one day, which meant that multiple costumes changes throughout the film weren’t seen as necessary. This lack of costume changes might also be one of the reasons why Harley Quinn’s Suicide Squad look was such a statement costume that many adored. The story in Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey takes place over multiple days and had an all-female production cast, which meant a lot more freedom in the costume department.
One of the main premises of Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey was her trying to heal from the abuse and neglect the Joker had put her through. This was cleverly shown through costuming and done in a much less sexualised way than The New 52, which still didn’t clearly state that Harley Quinn was moving on from the Joker, just that she was trying
to become more of her own person. In Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey her “Daddy’s Little Monster” tattoo on her collar bone is always covered. Instead of wearing a top that says ‘Daddy’s Little Monster’ on it, she wears a t-shirt with Harley printed all over it. She is truly becoming her own person and the costuming in Birds of Prey captures her new-found sense of self brilliantly.
The official UK release date for Birds of Prey was the 7th February and already Twitter has become a storm of opinions on the film. Many woman on Twitter have tweeted about how much they enjoyed and appreciated the costuming in Birds of Prey. One of the most popular comments on the costume design was how refreshing it was seeing Harley Quinn going from wearing low rise hot pants in Suicide Squad to wearing high wasted denim jeans in Birds of Prey. Female viewers agreed that this was a far more accurate clothing choice for a woman’s wardrobe as many women find low rise items impractical and uncomfortable.
On the other side of the table, men on Twitter were stating that Harley Quinn looked unattractive and without any sex appeal, which proves that her previous costume designs had been designed with the male gaze in mind. These tweets also show how a lot of female characters, whether in comic books or not, are only desired to be watched for their physical appearance, instead of being watched for their character or storyline.
With the rise of women in film, and films such as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey having a female production team, we are finally entering an era that gives female characters the on-screen treatment they deserve. Birds of Prey is also proof that creating films that provide sexualised characters for men gives costume departments a lot less creative freedom.
You can read more of Emmie’s work over on Twitter at @Ems_Pen Images via Wikimedia Commons and DC