Harley Quinn may be a relatively new character in the DC Universe, having only got her start in the 90s sensation Batman: The Animated Series, but the cosplay and merchandising favorite has already had enough costume and character makeovers to make the Joker blush. From the black-and-red Harlequin costume of her initial B: TAS and comics run, through her countless comic book and video game reincarnations, and the “Daddy’s Lil’ Monster” tee that took Halloween 2016 by storm, Harley Quinn’s look has been evolving since the moment Paul Dini and Bruce Timm unleashed the chaotically charismatic character on the world.
With Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, the character is being reborn once again with Suicide Squad star Margot Robbie reprising the role. And of course, she’s got a whole new look. Actually, she’s got a ton of them, courtesy of costume designer Erin Benach. And though Benach may be a newcomer to the world of superhero cinema, she’s no stranger to creating an iconic look — she’s the costume designer who gave us Ryan Gosling‘s satin scorpion jacket in Drive, the high-fashion horror of The Neon Demon, and the folk star to pop icon transformation of A Star Is Born.
Back in March of 2019, I had the opportunity to visit the set of Birds of Prey on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, where I joined a group of journalists for a display of her new costume creations and a quick chat with Benach herself, and the costume designer took some time to break down some of Harley’s new standout looks, as well as her designs for the rest of the Birds of Prey.
Of course, the costume first on everyone’s mind was the pink velvety halter top paired with vibrant, glittering caution tape jacket that was revealed in the early Birds of Prey test footage. Benach spoke about bringing a DIY approach to her concept for the design:
Behind her story is always something a little bit off from center and a little bit crazy, with the idea being that caution tape may be a place to stay away from, and maybe it’s a way to caution the world against what she might do. So, we kind of took the idea of that caution tape and tried to repurpose it into a costume. We always wanted to create something that felt like Harley made it herself, so she’s sort of a crafty person in the backroom and she can make stuff herself — you know the shorts that she’s painted and the jacket that she’s put together herself. That’s why we did it like that. It’s fun and a little bit crazy like her.”
The other Harley costumes we spied on set included a gorgeous and detailed floor-length sequin jacket with a blue velvet runner down the back, pinstripe pants and white boots, as well as a loungy white tee-shirt printed with a “Harley F*cking Quinn” in diagonal — both of which have been spied in the trailers since. And, both of which are very different from the traditional versions of Harley’s costumes fans know and love.
For Benach, she explained, that meant she had to keep an eye on the comic book history of the character (including a fan-favorite detour to the roller derby) while maintaining a commitment to re-designing Harley’s look; character-first. She explained,
“I think it was a combination of allowing myself to look at it and then also sort of keeping myself away because I really want to create something new but inspired by [the comics]. We started with those characters and all their looks and I was able to kind of see what had been done over the different versions of the comics over the years. I think we took more of the backstory and the personality from there and then used the world that we were creating with Gotham to actually create the costumes.”
Of course, Birds of Prey isn’t just about Harley — Benach had a whole girl gang to costume, and she also talked us through her inspiration for the rest of those characters, starting with Huntress, the vengeance-driven vigilante played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who also happened to be Robbie’s initial inspiration for her Birds of Prey pitch.)
“Our Huntress is always about function and someone who’s on a mission and does not want to be distracted by outside sources. Whereas you know Harley might be walking down the street like ‘I want to grab that diamond and put it on myself or grab that item and put it on myself.’ Huntress is focused and she is sort of all business. She’s super-focused on the job at hand. We wanted to create something really functional for her and also fashion-forward and cool. So, we created this tracksuit and you’ll see that she has many different tracksuits throughout the film.”
Next up was Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, a hero-to-be haunted by loss, who’s singing in the Black Mask club when we first meet her in the film, and on her way to properly unleashing her Canary Cry. Displayed on set was the shoulderless, netted black dress we see Canary wearing on stage in the trailers. For Canary, Benach also embraced the DIY look, but with a distinctly retro bent.
“In this look that you’re seeing here, she’s on stage, performing a song. She’s got this really soulful quality about her and I think we were trying to show that in the costume that she was strong and soulful at the same time, as well as unique. She’s got this kind of “created herself” look of put together armbands and things that maybe she cut up and put together herself for her performance. In general, she’s very inspired by the 70s and the streetwear of that era. You’ll kind of see throughout she’s got silhouettes like really sleek suits, but with bell-bottoms and high-waisted pants. You’ll see there’s sort of a mix of genres with her and her looks.”
The Renee Montoya look we saw was pitch-perfect for Rosie Perez‘s no-nonsense cop, who finds herself teaming with the gang of vigilantes (and the very much other-side-of-the-law Harley Quinn) after being dismissed by the Gotham PD. The outfit we saw on display Renee at her most disheveled: baggy pants and a shirt that said: “I shaved my balls for this.” Oh my. But don’t expect that to become Renee’s signature look. Benach explained the special circumstances of the rather sassy graphic tee:
“Renee is not being listened to by her peers and colleagues. She’s sexy and tough, kind of like every female superhero in our film. But, she is an intuitive self-thinker. She’s sort of the person that is consistently getting shat on and she kind of is the only one that really knows the truth. She gets stuff all over her and winds up having to take something out of the Gotham PD’s lost and found section, and this is the only thing left that she’s able to find. And as you learn more about her character you’ll see why that line even more obnoxious to her own self.”
Rounding out our hero squad is Ella Jay Basco‘s Cassandra Cain, the young woman who goes on to pick up the Batgirl mantle in the comics, but seemingly takes a different track in Birds of Prey (for now). The Cass we meet in Birds of Prey is a street kid, looking for her place in the world.
“Cass is our street urchin. She’s street savvy and kind of cool and tomboy in her way. Cass knows the streets…. or at least thinks she knows the streets, though not as well as she should. We were just trying to give her this ‘mean little cute girl’ vibe. She would have this jacket because she has lots of things she needs to stash in it.”
Overall, Benach and Robbie looked to make Harley and the Birds of Prey at home in the heightened world that is Harley Quinn’s Gotham, and they turned to some unexpected sources for inspiration. Robbie recalled their early creative process,
“When we first spoke a lot of her inspiration were films that feel like a heightened version of reality that can also exist in a world that isn’t too jarring, or you don’t disassociate yourself with immediately. Like Fight Club, for example, is something that she mentioned, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m pretty sure they all dress normal,” but then you look at a snapshot of Fight Club, and Brad Pitt’s wearing a flowery, pink bathrobe. It is quite out there and bright and colorful and strange, but it does feel grounded at the same time. So I guess it’s a combination of achieving a heightened reality that feels grounded and recognizable at the same time and also distinctly from a female perspective.”