Re: Why So Sartorial?

joker-crashes-mob-meeting

Heath Ledger as the Joker (Batman: The Dark Knight) holding one of his inspired props–an ordinary playing card he gives out as a business/calling card. Of course, it has no contact information which means that the Joker “holds all the cards”.

One of the things I enjoy about watching movies is seeing how the costumer uses the characters’ clothes to tell us things about the characters and the changes that they undergo during the course of the film. In “Batman: The Dark Knight”, most of the costume buzz was about Batman’s re-designed batsuit. The re-design itself is actually part of the story and is cleverly incorporated into the flow of the plot. However, I was much more interested in Heath Ledger’s wardrobe as the Joker and, if Halloween 2008 was anything to judge by, so was most of the viewing public.

joker-as-clownThe Joker disguised as an ordinary bank robber.

When we first meet the Joker, he and his henchmen are stealing money from a Mob-controlled bank. The Joker’s identity is initially hidden from the audience. He wears a nondescript suit in what I would characterize as sort of a slate blue color that echoes the blues in the clown mask he wears.  His shirt is buttoned up to the neck, but it doesn’t suggest a buttoned-down personality. Rather it implies someone who is under a great deal of pressure and is liable to blow at any time.

The next time the Joker takes the screen, he is wearing his signature suit of purple. The suit, as we learn later on, has been custom made for him–the result of his successful haul from the bank.  It’s worth spending time analyzing the suit because it says a good deal about the character. Unlike the Chechen, for example, the Joker doesn’t wear working man’s garb although he mostly likely has lower class origins. Passing up a leather jacket in favor of a suit jacket suggests the Joker’s ambition: he’s not dressing for the job he has now, but the one he wants–the head of Gotham’s underworld.  Unlike the well turned out Maroni or Gambol, however, the Joker doesn’t wear a traditional business suit which suggests that he’s not interested in being a traditional kind of gangster.

joker-suit-with-chain-dark-knight

The Joker’s outfit in action. In these pictures, you can see his suit jacket which is largely hidden from view for most of the movie. It’s not clear to me from the film if this is supposed to be a new jacket or the old jacket from the bank heist.

The Joker’s suit actually reminds me of a Zoot suit (in some pictures you can see the extra long watch chain he sports). The Zoot Suit was the uniform of rebellious teenagers in the 1940s. The Zoot Suit Riots were racially-charged clashes between soldiers, police, and Black/Hispanic youths in L.A. and Detroit during the early days of World War II. So immediately the Joker’s suit tells us that he is both younger  and more rebellious than his counterparts while at the same time fitting into the 1920s/30s gangster look that permeates the rest of the film.

As opposed to the muted colors that the other men wear, the Joker prefers bright colors. The bright colors signify that the Joker is theatrical, that he is a nonconformist, and that, on some level, he is depressed and is trying to lift his spirits with his wardrobe. In my experience, the more someone suffers from depression, the more likely they are to surround themselves with bright, often clashing, colors.

The Joker’s purple coat is lined with orange and paired with a violent green vest. While purple and green can look good together in softer hues (think lavender and light green, for example), strong shades of those colors paired together hurt the eye. The effect is garish, painful, off-putting, even nauseating. By utilizing these colors, the Joker becomes someone our eye is drawn to and yet someone we want to look away from.

joker-in-jail

The Joker in the holding cell at the Major Crimes Unit.  At a distance, he appears to be wearing solid colors, but up close you can see the multi-patterned nature of his wardrobe.

closeup-of-joker-shirt1

A closeup look at the Joker’s shirt showing the filled hexagon pattern. Incidentally, this is the clothing item costumers have the most difficulty finding or re-creating. Be prepared to stencil your own shirt if you want an authentic-looking Joker costume.

If you look closely at the Joker’s ensemble, you’ll notice that he is wearing a lot of patterns. His shirt, for example, is covered in hexagons which are themselves filled in with different patterns (stripes, dots, etc.). His tie is dotted with diagonal hash marks, his socks are argyle and his pants are pin-striped. All of the patterns work because they are tied together by a common color scheme (green, orange, purple, gold), but the overall effect is unsettling. We are subliminally being told that underneath the surface, the Joker is a mass of seething, anarchic energy.

No description of the Joker’s costume can be complete without talking about his makeup. The two iconic emblems of the Joker are his purple suit and his white clown face makeup, particularly his frozen grin. In the “Dark Knight”, the Joker’s hair is colored green, but it is not coiffured in any way. It’s lank and looks unwashed, again suggesting the Joker’s underlying depression.

The Joker’s white face, black eyes, and overly wide, red slash of a mouth make him look ghoulish and frightening, but he also looks like he’s suffering a great deal.  In the interrogation scene, for example, he looks so pathetic you can’t help but feel sorry for him even though we, as audience members, have just witnessed him wreaking havoc through Gotham’s streets. Unlike Batman whose makeup and cowl mask two-thirds of his face, the Joker’s makeup highlights his eyes and mouth, drawing our attention repeatedly to his expression.

joker-as-police-man

The Joker disguised as a policeman. Throughout the movie, the Joker often relies on the twin camouflages of a uniform and a panicking crowd to move around largely unnoticed.  The Joker is no master of disguise, but he is an accurate judge of human psychology.

We do actually see the Joker briefly without his makeup when he disguises himself as a policeman to assassinate the mayor. Apart from his scarred mouth which is not as obvious as you would think, the Joker has an unremarkable, average Joe kind of face.  It’s only when he puts on his “warpaint” that he becomes a larger-than-life villain suggesting that beneath the surface, every villain was once an ordinary citizen. Or, perhaps, that every citizen has the potential to become a villain given the proper motivation.

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22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. alyssa
    Mar 27, 2009 @ 18:01:24

    Heath Ledger was a very great actor and a loving husband and very inspirational to many including me.and im only 14

    Reply

  2. LarissaFae
    Apr 21, 2009 @ 13:04:28

    This is an awesome article; I really enjoyed it.

    As for the Joker’s jacket, it’s different than the bank heist one. If you look at what we can see of the jacket from the first picture you have up, then look at the jacket in the bank heist picture, you can see that the lapel is a lower on the new jacket than it is on the bank heist one.

    Anyway. I’ve been pimping this out to all my friends. Thank you for writing it! ^_^

    Reply

  3. civilservant
    Apr 21, 2009 @ 17:19:39

    You’ve got a sharp eye, LarissaFae. I’ve seen the movie several times–well, a bunch of times–and looked at all sorts of photos and I still missed that detail. Glad you enjoyed the article!

    Reply

  4. Lola wently
    May 17, 2009 @ 10:00:30

    I love the joker… we are all gonna miss him!
    when watching the movie, he played his part soooo well that i was actually on his side! i do love the way they disguise him…
    i rlly enjoyed this article and yea LarissaFae i would never have seen that!
    RIP heath

    Reply

  5. klcthebookworm
    Jun 12, 2009 @ 15:39:11

    Ah sweet. Lovely analysis of how his clothing plays into the Joker is an agent of Chaos. I really can’t wait to see how this production team handles the Riddler and Catwoman.

    Reply

  6. SummerT.
    Jun 12, 2009 @ 17:22:09

    This is a very descriptive article. I love how someone finally strayed away from Batman’s new suit and brought more attention onto the villain.

    Though I do have to disagree on pitying him in the interrogation scene. If anything I felt a little sorry for Batman. This may seem odd, but the Joker seemed to be having fun.

    Reply

    • Emilylittle face
      Mar 24, 2010 @ 17:22:25

      Hi there,

      Batman’s involvement/physical struggle with the Joker in the interrogation scene is perhaps meant to represent the threatening, homoerotic inclinations of the Joker’s nature, which is why he comes across as ‘having fun’.

      Reply

  7. Paperbagwriter
    Jun 15, 2009 @ 19:53:36

    My first time reading your blog. Really a great article! I loved the movie, his character, and am a nut for reading more into the psychology of clothing. Good work!

    Reply

  8. Organized Chaos
    Jun 19, 2009 @ 21:05:54

    Great blog!!! I really enjoyed it. Also, I think that the numerous pattern on the joker’s costume indicates that the joker really has many personalities and that you must really examine him to really understand what her is going through.

    Reply

  9. civilservant
    Jun 19, 2009 @ 23:30:46

    Good point, Organized Chaos. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Reply

  10. Lenie
    Jun 29, 2009 @ 02:41:07

    Great stuff – I love the deep, psychological messages of movies. The Joker is so complex; his clothing would have to be, too. You did an awesome job of analyzing it.

    One thing I just noticed: in the bank-heist scene where the Joker is wearing the ordinary clown mask, one can tell that his eyes aren’t surrounded by black. However, when he rips it off, boom – makeup.

    Minor production inconsistency, maybe?

    Reply

  11. Shaum
    Jul 07, 2009 @ 05:48:24

    Cool attention to detail man. Joker was awsome in this film, I’m not sure he can be outdone, and if so, we are in for one heck of a ride!

    Reply

  12. Erin
    Jul 24, 2009 @ 12:30:31

    You got the depression thing spot on. I see a lot of myself in the joker, a lot of which you mentioned. Bright colored clothing (when I’m in a [read: any] mood), and unwashed hair. Neglecting the self, though, is more on the side of psychosis… when one -obviously- has more important things to deal with. It generally takes someone with not a depressed mindset but an otherwise-aligned (ie not mainstream, or generally humanity oriented) mindset to realize that hygiene is not entirely necessary.

    I personally wear a red and black paisley velvet smoking jacket, and have for some time.

    Reply

  13. Kay
    Sep 28, 2009 @ 02:56:05

    I love this analysis about the Joker’s clothing and the psychoanalysis paired with it. totally awesome!

    Reply

  14. ronald
    Oct 08, 2009 @ 04:26:24

    props for the title

    Reply

  15. dan
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 17:49:28

    Dear webmaster, Some errors snuck into my previous comment. The following is the corrected text. Please substitute the erroneous text for the correct version.

    Another thing about hair: We live in a society that rejects people who don’t wash. Only outcasts who accept their role as outsiders don’t care about cleanliness. The fact that the Joker gets a new suit but does not get a haircut or shampoo shows that he wants to move up in the world (of crime) without giving in to the norms of that society. He will take control but he will remain an outsider at the same time.

    Thanks and great site by the way.

    Reply

  16. Harley
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 13:35:57

    This article is so well written! It really brought subjects to light that I would’ve never thought about. It makes me want to watch the movie all over again and point out all those things. Keep up the good work! :>

    Reply

  17. Woody
    Dec 10, 2009 @ 18:01:08

    i think he looks (and acts) a lot like mr. kakihara from ichi the killer (dir. takashi miike). bright suits in a dark environment, chelsea smile, quite theatrical; it all just reminds me of kakihara. does anyone know the level of influence ichi the killer had on this film?

    Reply

  18. Jeff
    Feb 12, 2010 @ 05:42:38

    This is one of the best analyses I have read on the movie. I was wondering if the author works in the field of education (e.g., a professor at a university or other).
    Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker is perhaps the best acting of a villain that I have seen. And I really love these types of movies and thus have seen most of them.
    I have watched (or had on in the background while working) Dark Knight on DVD many times. What draws me to it is the thinking of the image of the joker in the following image: http://www.rotheblog.com/images/movies/d_movies/joker_wizardmagfull.jpg

    Of course, he portrays a horrible zero empathy, mass murderer. Certainly not a character to envy but rather to loath if the character were real. However, in this photo, the solid, powerful appearance of complete determination, unchallengeable freedom to do as he wishes, and portrayed feeling of the ability to take on the world with no fear, no concern, no hesitation is for lack of a better word — powerful. In this very scene, he says to himself (approximate quote from memory): “Come on hit me; I want you to do it…” I don’t think that was because he wanted to commit suicide, though of course he has no fear of death. He is truly fearless and determined.

    Reply

  19. civilservant
    Feb 15, 2010 @ 23:32:09

    Thanks for the kind words, Jeff. The author graduated with honors from that far-famed institute of higher learning, Wotsamattawit U, in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota where she studied popular culture with Profs. Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocky Squirrel. The author is a staffer at an institute of higher learning, but is not a faculty member.

    Reply

  20. John B.
    May 08, 2010 @ 00:19:36

    He really did a outstanding performance on screen. Super great costume and props. I can relate to this guy.
    I have wore the super deluxe Joker costume with all the bells and whistles to the December 12th, 2009 KISS concert in Pittsburgh, I was asked to take hundreds of photos with fans, kids and KISS look-a-likes. Then I just ran the final leg of the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 2nd, 2010 and the crowd and fans loved the appearance. This is a cult classic character for us all to love for a very very long time. Long live the Joker.
    Thank You.

    Reply

  21. Jeff
    Dec 24, 2015 @ 02:50:22

    Hi This is Jeff again. I know that I am commenting on a blog post back from 2010. But I just saw a video published on 8/10/2015 which has a pretty good explanation of the costumes for Heath Ledger’s Joker by the costume designer. I thought of you and thus am posting the link:
    http://www.ew.com/article/2015/08/10/heath-ledger-joker-diary-dark-knight
    On that page, go to the 2nd video from the top which is actually right at the end of the article itself (search on “Ledger died in January 2008 at the age of 28….”). at about 1:33 minutes into the video, Christopher Nolan discusses the costume which is followed by Lindy Hemming, Costume Designer, The Dark Knight Trilogy.
    Hope this post actually works given that it is over 5 years later!
    Regards,
    Jeff

    Reply

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