Clothes from now,  Girls in Films

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Just About Everyone)

Hark, children, upon the breeze comes a glorious sound. Nay, ’tis not the sweet melody of birdsong, but instead the pained cries of a thousand apoplectic Twitter-gammon lurching from theatres with their testicles firmly nestled in their abdomen.

There are few people in this world I’d give up my breakfast for but having delightedly squealed my way through Birds of Prey at a suburban matinée last Friday, costume designer Erin Benach is now one of them. What she, and the female-centric hub of talent behind BoP have achieved, is something as necessary as it is refreshing and endearing: zero fucks, character driven wardrobes that work for the women inhabiting them. The result is a robustly realised first outing into DC’s latest extended universe; a universe where women (avert your eyes if you’re of a sensitive disposition) look like they’ve actually dressed themselves! A myriad of fantastic interviews with Benach around the finer technicalities of costume construction are already floating about online, though one could argue that the test of truly effective costume design is that it doesn’t really need to be explained to an audience at all and this film has ‘Because of course she did…’ moments by the handful.

Having been freshly turfed out by The Joker, wearing the glitter disco trousers/oversized Gallery Department of Gotham City t-shirt combo we all wish we had instead of those mustard stained sweatpants, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn experiences the kind of existential crisis far too familiar to the more emotionally volatile amongst us. In a sequence of blink and you’ll miss it costume changes (which means she’s already worn more in the first ten minutes of Birds of Prey than she did the entirety of Suicide Squad) we see Harley putting best face forward for the public – buying exotic pets in western wear, anyone – but returning home to drown her sorrows in spray cheese and the finest cat-eared onesie I’ve ever seen. It’s a dance so many of us lesser mortals have performed: the immediately regretted 3 a.m. haircut, the hobby (in this case roller derby, a nod to her New 52 incarnation, which also serves as a failed test run for the support network of fierce women she’ll later benefit from) and the inevitable moment she realises that – for all her posturing – she’s not actually transcended the situation at all. Enter that widely discussed caution tape jacket and those customised denim shorts we can expect to see in abundance come Halloween; an outfit set to get ever more busted up, gaining stains and losing unsustainable or impractical pieces, as Harley progresses toward her phoenix moment.

There are a lot of great trouser moments for the women of Birds of Prey (ok and shorts). Why? Because it’s a lot easier to kick the shit of guys when you’re not sandwiched into a pencil skirt.

It’s a credit to all involved that the women at the core of the Birds of Prey universe are given the rare luxury of being ‘in progress’. Messy, mucky, complex. They are not rushed to their ta-da moment. Although we are a predictable enough audience that having seen stills of Miss Quinn’s phenomenal blue blazer, filled with symbolism for the particularly eagle eyed, we still anticipate the big reveal. Instead, Benach makes fantastic use of small tactical substitutions in this film, allowing the character’s costumes to evolve in pace with the characters themselves. Shout out to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress who is quite literally figuring out the best combination of sportswear and leather to both ride a motorcycle and use a crossbow in for much of this film. They can keep what works for them whilst it works; take the pink velour crop Harley wears with (from memory) three separate outfits. In the real world if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon good support wear, you buy that shit in bulk. However, they’re also free to ditch what doesn’t. No woman is left to hobble along with a missing shoe, or a broken roller skate further than she chooses to.

On the subject of shoes, whether it’s a by-product of DC’s current 80’s kick (long may it continue) or simply the benefits of modern costuming in a world of era-hopping mainstream fashion, it was with undiluted glee that my cinema buddy and I clocked the abundance of pixie boots and other such practical yet stylish footwear within Birds of Prey. The last thing you want to do when you’re kicking somebody in the balls is break your own ankle and there is, I hasten to add, a great deal of bollock bruising going around. Similarly, Benach and her team offer us a jubilant celebration of ladies’ trousers in their many splendid variances. Practical, sexy on their own terms and from what I can gather a feat of expert engineering when it comes to that gold leather jumpsuit. Although Robbie’s Harley gets herself several new iconic costumes, befitting a character with as much of a fervent fan following, it is Jurnee Smollett-Bell in her role as Black Canary that provides the masterclass in exceptional ladies tailoring. Disco pants and denim are effortlessly traded for brocade pantsuits and a bold lapel. Complimented by Huntress on her ability to kick in such tight trousers, Black Canary is stylistically poised to take a woman from cocktails at the bar to cock-breaking in a bar brawl and I am here for it.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) hands Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) a hair tie mid-fight. Just one of many small but significant moments that demonstrate Birds of Prey’s strong female support network.

As an aside, it is only through the juxtaposition of these empowering women’s wardrobes that scenes such as the following can be free to achieve their full emotional impact. During one of Black Mask’s many tantrums (wonderfully portrayed by an evidently unleashed Ewan McGregor) we see him emotionally torturing a woman in a degrading display of public humiliation. Teetering on stilettos she is raised onto a table and forced to dance to the sound of uncomfortable silence whilst her choice of outfit, a flimsy silver shift dress, is ridiculed before being forcibly removed. The only redemption to be found in this entire incident being the heartfelt response from Bell’s Black Canary, the laudably sensible nature of the woman’s underwear and that it marks one of the few moments within Birds of Prey that we see a woman in a vulnerable state of undress. Stark contrast then to the decidedly male-gazey scenes of Suicide Squad notoriety. This time round when Harley pulls clothes from a trunk she does so surrounded by strong women. When she offers an old black and red bodice to 80’s cop drama loving Renee Montoya it is not with the advice that she must gussy up for battle beyond her beautifully done shirt and slacks, but that it can serve some additional practical purpose. This is a film both narratively and aesthetically built on women making clothes (and accessories) work for them, it’s the hair tie in the heat of battle and so very aware of exactly who it wants to be seen by.

Birds of Prey opened in cinemas this weekend to a flurry of critical praise and, contra to a particularly enviable slogan tee worn by Rosie Perez’s formidable Renee, this fangirl believes it really is worth shaving your balls for. 

By Birdie McAra.

Birdie McAra is one of those wanky, Northern arts sorts. She does a great number of things, none of them particularly well.

© 2020, Lord Christopher Laverty.