In Defence of Harley Quinn’s Fantabulous Costumes in ‘Birds of Prey’

Collected illustrations by Bruce Timm

This is how Dr Harleen Quinzel a.k.a. Harley Quinn was envisioned as when she first appeared in Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. These illustrations by Bruce Timm depict Harley Quinn in her initial and most iconic costume. Since 1992, Harley’s costume has evolved and changed as she transitioned into the comics and other mediums by new storytellers and artists. As is the case for many comic book characters, costumes change, it’s normal.

There have been a few who have reacted poorly to the changes made to Harley Quinn’s look in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) directed by Cathy Yan with star Margot Robbie executive producing. Many insist that director David Ayer and costume designer Kate Hawley’s version from Suicide Squad is much more desirable and suited the character best. However, that’s just an opinion. It is neither wrong or right. Not everyone will feel the same. In fact, insisting that the punk rock version made popular by Suicide Squad and recent comics and video games does a disservice to a character that is ever-changing. The version of Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey is one of many. Her design was specifically crafted by Yan, Robbie, and costume designer Erin Benach to signify a change in Harley. You can love this version of Harley or not, but don’t be dismissive of a natural process for comic book characters.

Concept artwork by Greg Hopwood

Costumes change all the time. Sometimes for practical reasons. Sometimes to adapt to contemporary fashion. Sometimes it is wholly dependent on what the artist/storyteller fancies, which is of course approved by the publishers. Just take a look at Batman’s suit, after 80 years of being Gotham’s number one caped crusader, he has amassed quite the collection of batsuits. He has a new one for every occasion. Nearly every animated or live-action adaptation of Batman has an updated Bat-suit, and that goes for the comics and games too. The ones we have become accustomed to now are nowhere near what was originally designed for the character, although those original designs have not been completely discarded. Some characters will never have their costumes changed, and that is totally fine. As characters grow over the years, change is an inevitability, whether it is outwardly or inwardly.

Harley Quinn was created to be the Joker’s paramour, victim, and accomplice in Batman: The Animated series. In fact, she is a rarity, as she is a DC character that was created outside of the DC comics. Her animated persona, which was closely aligned with the kid-friendly nature of the series was jovial and jokey. Once she was adopted into the comics, her persona changed slightly as she was often depicted as being a tad bit more murderous compared to her animated counterpart. You can learn more about Harley’s evolution from Andrew Farago’s 2017 book “The Art of Harley Quinn”, which dives into Harley’s history from her comics debut in The Batman Adventures #12. 

Over the years, her popularity grew and a desire to see her stand on her own was fulfilled by DC. She went through a comic book emancipation with The New 52 which offered the biggest change to the Harley Quinn we were used to, she not only had a totally new appearance (that was still inspired by Bruce Timms original design) she was also depicted as an anti-hero rather than a villain or henchwoman. (The New 52 series from Amanda Conner would be the second solo series for Harley after the 2001-2004)

Harley Quinn Vol. 1: Hot in the City Cover Art by Amanda Conner | Harley Quinn in Injustice: Gods Among Us.

Harley wouldn’t have her own on-going series, and numerous appearances in animation, live-action, and in video games, if there wasn’t something inherently fascinating and unique about the character. Despite being created for the Joker, it was undeniable that Dini and Timm created a character that would have mass appeal on her own merits. With the demand for more Harley, she became her own person with her own adventures. Yes, in good ole’ comic book fashion, her character design has been largely influenced by male desire. This is not a new concept for female characters, but as the doors have opened for more women to shape the stories we read, watch, or play, certain changes are inevitable. These costumes are now being influenced by what women want to see, while still being exaggerated to maximise sex appeal. Best of both worlds, I guess.

Promotional posters for Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey

Change is not an affront to the men who created and designed Harley. All characters, with the exception of a few, have all gone through this process. Wonder Woman no longer wears a flimsy skirt or bathing suit, Grecian style armour has now become the norm because she is an Amazonian warrior. As comic-book artistry evolves so has how artists design characters, adding texture and depth to costumes that were otherwise simple and one-dimensional. Harley Quinn is not an exception. Her costumes will be altered to adapt to what is needed for the character, what can be accomplished on the page, and what will appeal to audiences. Most importantly, there will always be multiple versions of Harley Quinn to satisfy her fans in other mediums. If she appears in an animated project in the vein of the Batman: The Animated Series, as was the case in 2017’s Batman and Harley Quinn, she will be back in her old school jester outfit with a cameo of that infamous nightgown. In the Suicide Squad animated projects, her character designs are a blend of the New 52 look, the Suicide Squad comic spinoff, and the 2016 live-action look. 

The latest DC Universe animated Harley Quinn, which has just begun airing season 2, has our anti-hero sporting a simplified costume influenced by the crop top/shorts combo made popular by the Amanda Conner and Jimmy Pallimatto comic book run, but her hairstyle is identical to the one Robbie rocks in Suicide Squad. In the first season Harley’s appearance and choice of clothing are explicitly due to her breakup with the Joker and her need to go solo.

DC Universes’ Harley Quinn

That emancipation from the Joker continues to be a theme for Harley as new iterations of her will have her sporting a new look and hair-do that will either be wholly new or influenced by past looks. Sometimes her look will embrace the red and black motif of the original jester outfit, or it will shake things up with a dash of colour. The shorts will change in length, or she will rock a pair of pants. Maybe the makeup will be full-blown clown makeup or she will go with colourful goth. Her hair colour will change as often as a mood ring. The changes she undergoes physically are almost always tied to the changes she undergoes mentally and emotionally.

The live-action Harley is a reflection and a result of the ongoing evolution of the character that has been going on since 1992. Back to Suicide Squad, Harley is the Joker’s loyal girlfriend and accomplice and by the end the rocky foundation of the relationship crumbles, which kickstarts her journey into becoming an independent woman in Birds of Prey. Her costume in Suicide Squad was a reflection of her relationship with the Joker. Now that she is on her own, it stands to reason that like many of us old enough to dress, she will choose to wear whatever she wants to wear. As she would say she’s Harley M*therf*cking Quinn, and she will dress the way that she wants. Erin Benach’s designs very much speak to that independent spirit. Many women moving on from a brutal breakup would totally grab the nearest pair of scissors and start chopping at her hair and radically change her appearance. It is one of the many relatable aspects of Harley.

Again, for the folks in the back, every iteration of Harley Quinn will have some changes.

On-set photo of Margot Robbie filming The Suicide Squad. Photo credit: Backgrid

The looks in Birds of Prey took its cues from Suicide Squad by taking a sharp left and venturing away from what we normally expect to attire that aligned more with trendy fashions, with the jester motif not as evident. And, for her third outing as Harley Quinn in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie will be sporting a new look. Ditching the pink and blue-tipped hair for the black and red tips (made popular by the Arkham series), and a bold red haute couture gown. We have only seen this look from Gunn and costume designer Judianna Makovsky, but it is clear that Harley is not going to look the same.

Harley Quinn is a wild card, it makes sense if her fashion is too. Even the Joker’s new girlfriend, Punchline, will have her appearance altered and changed if she proves to be as interesting a character as Harley Quinn. Time will tell, but one thing is for certain, the tight black dress over a torn-up purple bodysuit and black boots look will most definitely change. Heck even the infamous shitty boyfriend has had his fair share of costume changes, but let’s not get it twisted. Women and their costumes will always be the subject of debate. The look Jared Leto’s Joker rocked received it’s fair share of criticism, but those critiques aren’t quite the same as the ones aimed at female characters and their costumes. 

This is all to say, lay off of Erin Benach, Margot Robbie, and Cathy Yan’s vision of Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey. The bold and dazzling fashion suits the new independent woman finding her way through the criminal underbelly of Gotham. Harley is a character that offers endless possibilities from her characterisation to her fashion. I for one, am grateful for the unexpected, and no matter what she wears, Margot Robbie will slay.

by Ferdosa Abdi

Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020)On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.

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