The pages of comic books may be rife with powerful female characters, but when it comes to the fictional women fans can’t get enough of, Harleen Quinzel reigns supreme. The maniacal former mental health professional now known as Harley Quinn is many things: the Joker's ex-girlfriend, the unhinged leader of her own girl gang, and resident badass of the DC Universe.
But she didn't get to the top without a bit of reinvention. She's shed her Harley "skin" several times, from her first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series through her latest starring role in Birds of Prey — and she’s turned into a veritable fashion icon in the process. In fact, her style has evolved just as much as her character.
How has she progressed from a humble harlequin into a fully emancipated antihero? Beautifully, thank you very much — and she didn’t need Mistah J’s help to do it. Let's take a look at Harley's evolution from jester sidekick to colorful star of her own franchise.
Batman: The Animated Series’ classic jester look
When Harley Quinn first appeared in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Joker's Favor," she was meant as a one-off role. Originally conceived as a generic henchwoman, she was kept on, becoming a love interest for the Joker.
This launched years’ worth of an incredibly toxic relationship that found Harley at Joker’s beck and call. Deeply infatuated with the crazed villain, Harley was very much a brainwashed, submissive victim of the Joker’s unhinged charms. This costume represented some of the most unhealthy moments of their one-sided relationship.
There was little fanfare to her debut, but there didn't have to be, as her look was striking enough: a young woman in a jester costume, with crimson and black color blocks as well as a black domino mask and white facial makeup. Her teeth, like Joker's, were slightly yellowed, highlighted with black lipstick that gave her a macabre edge. She often relied on a diamond pattern for several of her accessories, a “calling card” of sorts, in addition to her harlequin outfit, and that look has remained over the course of her evolution as a character — even in the upcoming Birds of Prey.
"The classic diamond and rhombus motif was really important for me to maintain and to keep," Birds of Prey costume director Erin Benach told MTV News about Harley’s new look in the film, which took inspiration from the character’s classic harlequin suit as an homage to Quinn’s roots.
"I think it was something so endemic to her character and so easy to play off of that we wanted to keep that.”
But the harlequin outfit was far from Harley’s only look, even during her original debut. She was seen later on in the episode dressed up as a policewoman carrying a massive, three-tiered cake, and this role revealed her her blue eyes, blonde hair, and red lipstick, all remnants of her previous life as psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel. These brief glimpses into this version of Harley came few and far between, but they reminded us that she was still human under the clown makeup and bodysuit — but just barely.
Harley was seen in this iconic look for years to come throughout various comic installments, such as the iconic Mad Love origin story that explored her transformation into the clown princess we grew to love today. It’s remained consistently representative of Joker's influence and control over Harley, and each time we see Harley donning the suit, she’s very much under his thumb. It’s since carried over into additional properties, including the latest DC Universe animated series Harley Quinn, though she only wore it for one episode.
Suicide Squad’s Joker-centric wardrobe
Just as the harlequin bodysuit of Batman: The Animated Series represents Harley's obsession with Joker, nearly every aspect of Harley's wardrobe in Suicide Squad proclaims submission to Joker.
Harley's ditched the jester outfit, but in its place is a ripped red and white T-shirt that proclaims "Daddy's Lil' Monster" paired with red and blue sequined hot pants and a studded black belt. Over the T-shirt, Harley even dons a satin bomber jacket that reads Property of Joker" in cursive script.
Her platinum blonde hair is tied into two loose ponytails with a pale pink-and-blue dip dye. She's clad in pasty white makeup with black eyeliner, red lipstick, and a black heart tattoo on her right cheek. It isn't her only tattoo; she has several, many of them showing off her love for Joker.
A series of thigh tattoos read "Harley + Puddin," "I'll wait forever" (a reference to Joker's incarceration), and even an inked version of "Daddy's Lil' Monster" on her chest. It’s all about ensuring everyone knows who she’s with — her emotional dependency on Joker is palpable throughout the entirety of the film. This body art has transformed dramatically in Birds of Prey, but not as much as her wardrobe. In that film, she’s free to explore her personality through the clothes she wears, which regularly reflect the nature of the world around her.
“[Birds of Prey is] sort of a counter culture world that is just so Harley. It’s big, and she has this over-the-top, zany sensibility to her that she can push everything one notch further, so she does,” Benach said, noting the stylistic leap from Suicide Squad. “There's also sort of this like inner child to Harley,” she said of Quinn, which you can see hinted at through almost every stage of her fashion evolution — especially this “Property of Joker” stage.
While the Suicide Squad look has proven popular with fans in terms of Halloween costumes and copycat fashion, it ultimately represents a Harley who’s naively in love with a man who’s done nothing but lavish her with the kind of inappropriate, “mad love” she’s been seeking for years. That’s why Birds of Prey had to go in a different direction, one that put Harley first.
“She’s still in her ‘Harley world,’ but I think because she's in breakup mode and also no longer attached to [Joker], she’s connecting with her girl gang, her friends, and other people out in the world for the first time," Benach added.
Birds of Prey’s emancipated, DIY aesthetic
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) views Quinn through a much different lens than Suicide Squad, and it’s her first real chance, aside from her comic appearances, at striking out on her own.
After a nasty breakup with Joker, Harley finds herself truly alone on the streets of Gotham, dangerously without the kind of protection being Joker's girl can afford her. But the solitude and sadness leads to an important revelation: Following a night of explosive and violent club-hopping, she realizes her worth as more than just "Joker's girlfriend." She takes the initiative to remodel her life in meaningful ways, going so far as to cut her hair and even destroy the Ace Chemicals factory, where she first pledged herself to Joker.
Newly free of her emotional bonds, Harley drastically changes up her look. No longer chained to pleasing Joker, she's determined to dress in ways that she feels better expresses her personal self — glitter and all.
"Harley has a very DIY sensibility about her, the idea that she kind of makes and crafts things herself,” Benach said. “For example, in her necklace, she's got all these found objects like a bottle cap as well as the female and power symbols. There's a tag of her, she has a pet hyena in the movie and his name is Bruce. There are other found objects, and they all have messaging in some way.”
That crafty aesthetic extends to one of Quinn’s most recognizable garments, which has been teased in Birds of Prey trailers: her “caution tape” jacket. It could very well be one of the coolest things she’s ever donned, and by far one of the most recognizable, right up there with her Suicide Squad fit.
"I had seen this clear plastic jacket with stickers on it and there's something about it that was just so Harley. It spoke to me,” Benach said of the moment the piece came together. Paired with star-studded denim shorts and a pink bralette, it's quintessential to Quinn’s new vibe, appearing as if she made it herself.
"Imagine if you wreck something that's part of the establishment, like a caution tape piece, somewhere official. If you wreck it, that's sort of the anti-hero moment. That was why we shredded the caution tape," said Benach.
The newly-emancipated Quinn also appears in a series of multi-hued, eye-catching numbers, such as a gold, sleeveless jumpsuit paired with a hot pink crop top. It features some of the familiar symbols Harley has become synonymous with over the years, which was by design, according to Benach.
That theme is as endemic to Harley as her proclivity to curse. She debuts a white T-shirt adorned with the words “Harley Fucking Quinn” — a far cry from "Daddy's Lil Monster" — as an all-over print, which she wears over the same pink bralette and denim shorts paired with her fringe-tastic jacket.
The most exciting part of Harley's flashy new wardrobe is that it feels like something anyone could make if they put their mind to it. It was important to design pieces that felt "relatable" to women, Benach emphasized, "whether it's street culture or fashion in general, things that women could relate to."
There are also subtle changes to Harley's look that extend beyond her fashion choices. The thigh tattoos she showed off during Suicide Squad that read "I ♥ Puddin'" have been scribbled out as if drawn on a sheet of notebook paper. What once declared "Puddin'" appears to have been altered to say "pudding cups." There’s no trace left of the Clown Prince’s influence.
If it wasn't already clear, Harley is 100 percent over Mistah J — and from the look of things in Birds of Prey, hopefully things are going to stay that way.