Harley has been a mainstay in the DC canon since the early nineties when she first appear in Batman: The Animated Series and has been a favourite ever since. In her harlequin red and black costume, she’s playful and bouncy. She’s happy and cheery and a joy to watch or read. She instantly lightens the tone but can be known to show some real moments of darkness, especially when it comes to protecting her “puddin’”. However, this hasn’t been the case for the last few years.
The reason the Injustice announcement was to be noted was for Harley’s costume. A few hankies strapped together with some belts. We’ve come a long way from the chequered catsuit she became famous in. While some may be quite happy with Harley’s costume changes, I – as a hardcore Harley fangirl and a bit of a feminist – am far from it. The various designers who have altered Harley in the last five years have taken what was a strong and feisty female and turned her into a sexualised object. It’s not cool. Not even close to it.
Here, in this article, we’ll take a whirlwind tour through Harley Quinn’s wardrobe and look at how Harley has shed her skin several times to become a sex icon.
In September, 1992, a new character appeared on Batman: The Animated Series in an episode called “Joker’s Favor”. She didn’t have a major role in the episode but was more of an assistant than anything else. However, she went on to become a regular and a fan favourite and ended up being the first character who transferred from show to comics, rather than the other way round. Her costume was simple, yet effective, as many of those appearing in the animated series were. All in one catsuit with a chequered black and red harlequin effect. Frilled cuffs at wrist and neck. Coordinating diamonds dotted around her body. And a jester hat to top off the entire look. Her make up was simple – an all white mime-look with a simple black eye mask. The simplicity of Harley’s costume played well with the Joker’s wild make-up and purple suit. All in all, they look good together. Many of the B:TAS characters were turned into toys and you can see the attempt to keep things simple translate well into the toys. It was also originally a children’s show (although that point is debatable), so again, the costumes had to reflect the audience. So Harley is well covered up and demure.
Although Poison Ivy was a little skimpier in the show, her all-over green look seemed to hide any ideas of promiscuity and sex. And, yes, in one episode – a personal favourite of mine – Harley appears to Joker in lingerie and invites him to “rev up his Harley, vroom vroom”. Clearly there’s a sexual element there but the show, and the subsequent comics, didn’t play up to this. Instead, what we had was a visually appealing character who could work her bodily charms when she wanted to. She’s fun and she won over the nation to become a fan-favourite. When I first started liking Harley, it was pretty difficult to get merchandise. Now she’s everywhere and I even own a pair of guitar pick earrings with the image on the right here brandished on them. The nineties Harley is how she will always be to me. I appreciate that designers have their own ideas of what a character looks like but a costume like this worked for her. She’s supposed to mimic a harlequin doll and this is the look these dolls had. All in all, this Harley was a sexy and fun character, showing that less is certainly not more.
After nearly twenty years in the same costume, Harley finally underwent her first major change in the video game, Arkham Asylum. Ladies in games are often scantily clad. Even look as far back as Tomb Raider. Huge boobs, tiny shorts, long legs. So it wasn’t really a surprise that Harley was sexed up for Batman’s first solo next-gen gaming title. In fact, one of Harley’s first lines in the game comments on her new look. It’s almost like the game-makers expected the backlash that followed. In Arkham Asylum, Harley’s clothes take on a “slutty nurse” feel, what with the game being set in the Asylum and all. She’s wearing a white shirt held in – and, hey, open – with a red under-bust corset. A short white skirt kicks over long red and purple leather boots which match her gloves. The jester’s hat has been abandoned for a nurse’s hat and blonde bunches. Make-up matches the traditional look but Harley’s smile has been replaced by a smirk.
This Harley is much darker and nastier. She’s lost her bounce and that naivety with which she follows the Joker around with is gone. This version is savvy and sneaky. Granted, she is always doing the bidding of the Joker and she isn’t a major villain – she is quite easily despatched.
It’s obvious that the game makers thought they were doing what gamers wanted; they just didn’t think about what Harley Quinn fans wanted. It’s rather crude that the game makers thought that the players would need something sexy to look at in a game which is heavily populated by male characters. The only other female character is Poison Ivy and she’s dressed in an Arkham shirt – that’s all. A tiny orange shirt buttoned at the waist. It’s absurd. On top of that Harley really was a doctor at one point. She began life as Dr. Harleen Quinzel before she met the Joker and he corrupted her. She’s supposed to be an intelligent woman and certainly not one who would want to appear as a “slutty nurse”. It’s ludicrous and degrading. I still like having Harley in Arkham Asylum, I just don’t need to stare down her cleavage every time she’s on screen.
Arkham City’s Harley Quinn has much the same deal as Arkham Asylum does. Harley has been skanked up because that’s what Rock Steady games assume we gamers want from a woman: her breasts hanging out and her naval on display. This time around there’s no “costume” – after her nurse attire in the last game – just her own look. She’s in a red corset with black and purple trousers to coordinate with her black and purple boots. The make-up and mask have been dumped and instead she’s got darkened eyes and red lips. Jester hat is still missing but her colour scheme is dip-dyed into her blonde bunches. While it’s good that she’s trousered this time, she’s a step removed from her original incarnation with the loss of the make up.
I can see what the game makers were going for with the colour scheme in the last two games. They’ve combined Harley’s chequered look with the Joker’s purple colour. This is clearly so that we connect her visually to the Joker and I do approve of this move. So while this is the furthest away we’ve been from Harley’s original look, at least the designer was going somewhere with her new look.
After the skinning of the Joker, Harley broke out of Arkham and the Suicide Squad were tasked with hunting her down. She eventually has a bit of a moment with the Joker’s severed face and Deadshot but eventually joins the Suicide Squad. Harley’s New 52 costume is nothing short of appalling. In this series, Harley dons a red and blue corset and a pair of red pants. A small red cape drapes round her neck with a high white collar. High coordinating socks end with shoes of the opposite colour. It’s positively repulsive.
The hair is half-dyed, once again shunning the jester hat. I can’t quite work out why contemporary artists hate the hat so much – it would be the same as deciding that Batman’s cowl just doesn’t look right. The make-up is returned to here, so okay, I’ll give them that one. But ultimately this isn’t a costume, it’s underwear. The New 52 Harley reminds me of that joke in the film Mean Girls: “Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” It’s then followed by images of girls in basques wearing cat or mouse ears. This is what Harley 52 is like; she’s a Mean Girls Halloween costume. Some girl in her scants, pretending she’s Harley because she’s half-dyed her hair.
The latest incarnation, as said at the beginning of this article, is the Harley Quinn of NetherRealm’s Injustice: Gods Among Us. Oh dear. I would be repeating myself if I said that this time Harley is wearing strips of fabric held together by belts but…it’s just strips of fabric held together by belts.
This Harley wears an open jacket of chequered red and purple. Her modesty is covered by four leather belts, which hold the jacket just closed enough to keep her breasts under control. A pair of small panties cover up her nether region. Long diamond-printed socks cling to her legs and finish up with black leather boots. Hair is half and half green and red this time – an obvious nod to Joker’s green hair. She has bows in her hair and her bunches are a lot lower than before, completely eliminating any reference to her jester hat. The make up stays, as does the black eye mask. Again, there’s a real wicked look about her face which has taken away the jovial nature of the animated series.
I do like some of the smaller details – the frills, the prints, the gloves. But it’s still an insane costume. I’d be petty to complain about the practicalities of a costume like this but, really, how does she get anything done? If you Google Harley Quinn costumes, the vast array of cosplayers who have already snapped up this look is rather impressive. I can see why this would appeal to cosplayers. You can really distance yourself from your everyday look of jeans and t-shirt when you’re exposing 60% of your flesh. It must be a challenge for a cosplayer to make this for all the details I admired above, but it isn’t doing much for the character, is it? When the Injustice game is released, of course I will play as Harley. I love the character to bits, but there better be an option to play as the original costume. There won’t be. It’s not what game makers think players want.
So where do we go from here?
It looks as if Harley is going down hill from here in the costume department. A few months ago, Top Cow artist Stjepan Sejic posted on his Deviant Art page a picture he’d drawn of Harley Quinn and Catwoman in traditional costume. Harley is in her old black (with a purple tinge) and red attire, complete with jester hat and make-up. A few strands of long blonde hair hang loose, reflecting her wild and unruly nature. She looks great and she’s dressed from head to toe. In a speech bubble, she says “Y’know…there is a difference between sexy and slutty”. I can’t think of anything more true. In their next incarnation, I propose DC take a leaf out of Sejic’s book. Keep the sexy, lose the slutty.