Spoiler alert: the best bit in new film The Suicide Squad comes about halfway through, when everyone’s favourite supervillain Harley Quinn escapes her captors in a presidential palace and, in her bid for freedom, kills – with the help of a javelin, a cast-iron door, a set of machine-guns and quite a lot of relish – approximately 100 male soldiers. The fact that she does this while wearing a red tulle evening dress, against a background of animated flowers and Disney-worthy tweety birds, only adds to the visual spectacle.
It also makes it classic Harley.
Three films into this hitherto misfiring franchise and Harley Quinn’s look is as well known to Suicide Squad fans as her lack of remorse. Margot Robbie, who plays her, has called Quinn a “professional psychopath”, but it is key to her character that she looks anything but. Quinn was introduced in 2016’s Suicide Squad in sequin short shorts, a kiddy T‑shirt reading “Daddy’s Little Monster” and bunches of hair that would make a My Little Pony jealous.
Fast forward to last year’s Birds of Prey and she re-appears in the clothes of a club kid: a yellow leather jumpsuit and a jacket comprising streamers made from caution tape. The red dress in the new film – directed with zippy aplomb by Guardians of the Galaxy guru James Gunn – starts out immaculate, with Quinn getting a makeover to meet a love interest. Looking in the mirror she gasps, “Oh wow, I’m a princess!”
By the end of the film, she still looks fabulous but far from palace-ready. The dress is ripped, shredded and covered in goo. The real Quinn is more of a warrior (in a manner of speaking) than a princess. That’s perhaps how she has now become the ultimate zero-fucks-given feminist icon for young women.
Kate Hawley was the costume designer on Suicide Squad. She says contrast is crucial to Quinn’s appeal.
“What is presented visually and what is behind the facade are different things,” she explains. “[Harley is] a child having fun in her dress up box – then out comes the hammer [or] bat and it’s all over!”
The first film paired Quinn with her great love Pudding, or The Joker to you and me. Hawley says this double act is part of the character’s development. “David [Ayer, director] saw Harley and Joker like some True Romance couple – irreverent, self-destructive, risk[ing] everything… Their gilded, elaborate guns and cars [are] for the show of it.”
This reading – and the start of the 2016 film – has Quinn as The Joker’s invention. She is, after all, originally glasses-wearing intern psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel – until she falls in both love and a vat of toxic chemicals, after which she emerges with frazzled hair, white skin and the skewed moral compass we know and love.
This story stems from the DC Comics version of Quinn. Originally appearing in 1992, her costume mirrored The Joker’s in that it came from the world of comedy. Her original red and black catsuit and pointed hat is based on the harlequin (geddit?), a comedic character that dates back to the Venice carnivals of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the comics, Quinn re-emerges in 2013, after leaving The Joker, with the bunches and short shorts. But even though in the films we first see Quinn with The Joker, Hawley says this independent, kick-ass spirit inspired her and Robbie.
“How she looks, what she loves about her body – all this we developed with Margot,” says Hawley. “Harley owns her body, not the Joker. [She is] a very modern woman who owns her sexuality and power.”
Quinn can be cheered on by other young women done wrong by questionable men because she takes revenge (and some) for all of us, but looks great while doing it. In The Suicide Squad, her look goes back to its roots. She is introduced wearing a red and black leather jumpsuit, the pastel bunches replaced by black and red pigtails. It’s a goth take on Quinn’s style, one which more explicitly expresses her pain. The back of the biker jacket even has a message for The Joker: “Live Fast, Die Clown”.
Suicide Squad and The Suicide Squad are both directed by men and Quinn is sex symbol or love interest territory, however ironic. Suicide Squad is complete with shots panning up her body as she’s getting dressed and The Suicide Squad has a first: a Quinn sex scene. Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan and with a majority female cast, had a different point of view. As TikTok sums it up, it’s “the male gaze vs the female gaze”.
It’s in this middle film that post-breakup Quinn nails her own take on disruptive style. It even comes contrasted with a deeply ironic montage, in which Quinn is unrecognisable as a Marilyn-type sex symbol, twinkling through Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend in a pink strapless jumpsuit.
Erin Benach did the costumes on the 2020 movie. It’s a far cry from her usual beat – other films she has worked on include Drive and A Star is Born.
“In my first interview for the job, I said: ‘I don’t think I’m the right designer for this’,” she recalls, “but they didn’t want the usual superhero idea. It was really fun to do a superhero story and eliminate that type of visual. She’s kind of like an anti-superhero.”
Benach tells a funny story about working on the film, that speaks volumes about Quinn’s place in popular culture.
“My daughter, who is eight, came to the set the day we did Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. She asked: ‘Is Harley Quinn good or bad?’ I was like: ‘Well, she’s both.’ Her character has no rules and I think this goes across her wardrobe, too.”
To be fair to Gunn, he arguably picks up where Yan left off in The Suicide Squad. Throughout his film, his Quinn might be wearing a princess dress and accompanied by flowers and birdies, but the imagery comes with a huge wink.
Quinn isn’t the only antiheroine playing with these ideas currently. She is in good, or indeed bad, company on our screens. Carey Mulligan is Cassie Thomas, a best friend on a dark revenge mission, in Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning 2020 film Promising Young Woman. She wears the clothes of a typical “good girl” archetype – pink, flowers, gingham – but she does very bad things. When I spoke to Nancy Steiner, the film’s costume designer, about the look earlier this year, she saw it as a kind of disguise. “She’s definitely wearing a costume for the daytime, as well, to deflect any questions, any interest. She’s very fluffy and light and pretty.”
The queen of using femininity to hide something much darker might be Villanelle, the extremely well-dressed assassin from TV’s Killing Eve. Like Quinn and Cassie, Villanelle plays with the expectations and associations of items like that now-classic pink tulle Molly Goddard dress – Quinn’s red tulle gown is surely influenced by this fashion moment – and then confounds them. Sartorial symbols of girliness like pink tulle or floor-length florals are the ultimate visual ruse.
As an attractive, young white woman she – like Mulligan’s Cassie or Harleen Quinzel – moves through the world unchallenged. She looks non-threatening when in fact she is a serious threat. The moral of these stories? Underestimate these women at your peril, because judging a book by its cover, or outfit, could well result in death.
There is a level of female anger in society now that allows us all to cheer such extreme behaviour, to champion fictional women who hoodwink men using their own assumptions, or who, like Quinn, refuse to conform to a set of behaviours associated with the pretty dress she is wearing. When I ask Hawley if she sees Quinn as subverting femininity, her answer perhaps reveals why the character connects so much.
“I see it as [more] subverting a man’s ideal of femininity,” the costume designer replies. “Women [now] make more choices in terms of empowering their own individual femininity… Dress is very much a personal statement for young women today.”
Quinn is also a popular Cosplay character, with #harleyquinncosplay videos gaining 982.2m views on Tik Tok and 645k posts on Instagram. @infamousbylaura, aka Laura Gilbert, has regularly dressed up as Quinn since 2016. She says Quinn’s self-empowerment is key and comes through in what she wears. The character is “a crowd favourite” in the Cosplay community, because “she really is a phoenix from the ashes with her resilience and stepping into her independence [after her] relationship with Joker. Also, she’s hilarious.”
Gilbert has yet to see the latest film, but says she is “obsessed” with the red dress because “[it’s] totally badass yet elegant.”
After watching The Suicide Squad, it’s fair to say that this assessment is spot-on. The red dress, with its rips and tears but also its frills and flounces, is also integral to Harley Quinn 3.0.
“I’m excited for the film in general,” says Gilbert, “but in terms of all things Harley, I’m really excited to see her being unapologetically herself.”
And despite the machine-guns, high-kick fights and javelin ultraviolence, that spirit is something we can all get behind.