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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.