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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<em>Birds Of Prey</em>’s costumes changed the game for female superheroes

Birds Of Prey’s costumes changed the game for female superheroes

Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Screenshot: Birds Of Prey
Oscar ThisThe nominations for this year’s pushed-back Academy Awards will be announced on March 15, but voting officially begins next week. With Oscar This, The A.V. Club stumps for unlikely candidates—the long shots and dark horses we’d love to see compete on Oscar night.

Even before Black Panther and Joker broke through to broader awards-season glory, the superhero genre enjoyed some recognition at the Oscars. Various Batmen, Hellboys, Spider-Men, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and Suicide Squads have all been honored for their visual effects and/or makeup designs over the years—a tradition that dates back to 1979, when Richard Donner’s Superman earned a Special Achievement Award for its effects at that year’s Oscars. But the Academy Awards have been curiously reluctant to recognize another key component of big-screen superhero iconography: costume design. In fact, unless you count Dick Tracy’s nod in 1991, it wasn’t until Ruth E. Carter’s 2019 win for her groundbreaking work on Black Panther that a superhero film was even nominated for Best Costume Design.

Though the Academy’s costume category has consistently honored fantasy films, period dramas, and the occasional stylish contemporary design, it’s failed to acknowledge just how big a role costuming plays in shaping the aesthetic of superhero cinema. Based on comic-book designs but often wildly reimagined for the big screen, superhero costumes are among some of the most memorable in cinema history, from Michelle Pfeiffer’s leather catsuit in Batman Returns to the Ancient Greek-meets-World War I fashions of Wonder Woman. And as fodder for everything from Halloween costumes to kids’ birthday party supplies, they’re among the most massively influential of pop-culture designs.

If you’ve attended a Comic Con and seen multiple 8-year-old girls dressed as the Suicide Squad version of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, you really start to understand (and question) the impact such designs have on the world. David Ayer’s 2016 film put Robbie’s Harley Quinn in hot pants so small they had to be digitally lengthened in the TV trailers for the PG-13 flick. Her sky-high heeled boots, fishnet tights, ripped “Daddy’s Lil Monster” T-shirt, and thick choker necklace convey a clear message: Harley Quinn—one of just a handful of female leads in the big-screen superhero genre—is not a character you’re supposed to want to be, she’s a character you’re supposed to want to fuck.

Illustration for article titled Birds Of Prey’s costumes changed the game for female superheroes
Screenshot: Suicide Squad

When costume designer Erin Benach signed on for Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn), her first question was whether the spinoff was going to be continuing with the Suicide Squad look. The answer was a resounding no. Written by Christina Hodson, directed by Cathy Yan, and produced by Robbie herself, Birds Of Prey was intended to be “something different and new.” Costume-wise, that meant starting over from the bottom layer up. While Yan’s film doesn’t necessarily put Robbie in much more fabric than Ayer’s did, the intention is entirely different. This is a Harley who dresses for herself.

Benach’s work on Birds Of Prey is both a revelation and a revolution when it comes to how female superheroes are presented on screen—one more than worthy of recognition by the Oscars. Like Yan, Benach rejects the male gaze in favor of female aspiration. Her design process began with a simple question: “In my dreamiest of dreams, what would I want me and a gang of girlfriends to wear to kick butt?” Harley’s aesthetic is anarchy by way of glam rock, spiky and soft at the same time. Her white ankle boots lengthen her legs in a way that’s empowering, not sexualized. They’re “fight me” boots, not “fuck me” boots. Though Harley is as girlishly immature as she was in Suicide Squad, this time it’s in the vein of a rebellious teenager, not a sexy baby doll.

Illustration for article titled Birds Of Prey’s costumes changed the game for female superheroes
Screenshot: Birds Of Prey

As Benach put it, “I really wanted to make costumes that we as women would love to wear and be in. Something that we would feel awesome in. That was kind of asking myself in the mind of Harley Quinn what would she feel badass in? We wanted her to look as empowered as she felt.” So much of what makes Birds Of Prey work is how comfortable its female characters seem in their own skin and their own clothes. It’s a feeling that carries over into the audience. I distinctly remember leaving my screening of Birds Of Prey feeling far more badass than I did going in, which is something I’ve rarely experienced in my decades of watching superhero films.

With previous credits that include A Star Is Born, The Neon Demon, and Ryan Gosling’s iconic scorpion jacket in Drive, Benach is no stranger to creating memorable contemporary costumes. And like the best costuming, her work not only informs character but works toward a clarity of storytelling. The bulk of Birds Of Prey unfolds over a single 24-hour period, veering into flashbacks along the way. For the main timeline, Benach styles Harley in a base layer of striped denim cut-offs paired with orange suspenders and a hot-pink sports bra. Harley then lightly modifies the look throughout the day, adding a loose-fitting white T-shirt stamped with her own name for daytime practicality and throwing on more protective gold leather overalls for the final fight. Harley starts the chaotic day in an outfit that marks her as both the life of the party and someone not to be messed with: a clear plastic jacket with voluminous sleeves made from fringed caution tape and party streamers. It quickly became the film’s breakout look.

Illustration for article titled Birds Of Prey’s costumes changed the game for female superheroes
Screenshot: Birds Of Prey

Beyond shaping character and story, fashion is also part of the central thematic ethos of Birds Of Prey, which seeks to reclaim the female experience in a superhero context. As Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién explains, “Robbie’s performance as Harley is a textured, uproarious celebration of female excess, wholly guided by tactile pleasures… The superhero genre is often wildly disconnected from the simple joys of being human. So to witness a female character like Harley eating with abandon and treasuring her desires rather than dampening them feels electrifying.”

So many Birds Of Prey costumes are pure fashion bliss, including the bright-blue sequined blazer Harley wears in the film’s epilogue and a version of Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes reimagined as pants. Fittingly, Harley’s enemy shares her sense of sumptuous self-indulgence. Benach outfits villainous nightclub owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) in rich velvet and brocade suits paired with monogrammed handkerchiefs and gloves that mirror Harley’s branded shirt. In one particularly memorable moment, he wears a pair of silk pajamas patterned with his own face. “Now do you see why I had so much fun making this movie?” Benach exclaimed to Entertainment Weekly.

Illustration for article titled Birds Of Prey’s costumes changed the game for female superheroes
Screenshot: Birds Of Prey

But the real fun of Benach’s costume design is the fun of the film itself: Birds Of Prey is the rare big-screen superhero story to center on not just one or two women but an entire team of them. The film’s central lineup is like the Spice Girls, each with her own unique style. There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) in practical detective’s attire, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) in slouchy Gen Z fashion, Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in subtly iridescent sportswear, and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett Bell) in a blue and gold color palette that blends feminine and masculine silhouettes.

Like Harley, her teammates get styles that are fashionable and flattering without ever being objectifying. There are nods to the respective characters’ comic-book looks, but Benach first and foremost took inspiration from street style, fashion shows, and fashion editorials. Benach wanted to bring the fashion zeitgeist into a superhero movie in a way that had never been done before. Though hardly the first film of its genre to embrace the visual thrill of a great team-up action scene, Birds Of Prey is one of the few to argue that the visual thrill of a two-hour fashion show has just as much value.

Illustration for article titled Birds Of Prey’s costumes changed the game for female superheroes
Screenshot: Birds Of Prey

Black Panther’s well-deserved Best Costume Design Oscar honored the way that film envisioned an entirely new Afrofuturist look, while Joker’s subsequent nomination nodded to how skillfully it brought a comic-book aesthetic into a more gritty, grounded world. Birds Of Prey creates a visual style that’s every bit as revolutionary, not just for the superhero genre but for big-screen female power fantasies in general. Birds Of Prey is a female-led action film without a single catsuit in sight; one that takes the time to lampshade the impracticalities of classic female superhero costuming, while also putting Rosie Perez in an “I shaved my balls for this?” t-shirt. Benach’s costuming is as irreverent and provocative as the film itself. And in a world where Suicide Squad is improbably an Oscar winner, honoring Birds Of Prey’s aesthetic emancipation would be fitting revenge for Miss Harley Quinn.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.