Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, aka “Joker”, disturbed and disgraced ex-party clown
Gotham City, Fall 1981
Release Date: October 4, 2019
Director: Todd Phillips
Costume Designer: Mark Bridges
Could there be a more appropriate character to focus on for April Fool’s Day than the Joker?
When I was growing up, the only two actors who had prominently portrayed Gotham City’s psychopathic prankster were Cesar Romero in the classic ’60s series and Jack Nicholson, who received top billing despite not playing the title role in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Since then, we’ve seen a handful of actors cycle through the iconic role, beginning with Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008), a few appearances by Ben Affleck and Jared Leto, and most recently a smaller part performed by Barry Keoghan in The Batman (2022).
Joaquin Phoenix received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the eponymous role in Joker, a reimagined origin story that pays significant homage to Martin Scorsese’s character studies like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983)—both starring Robert De Niro, who would appear in Joker—as well as twists of social commentary and themes from Death Wish (1973) and Fight Club (1999).
Many loved it and many hated it, but there’s little doubting Phoenix’s effectiveness intensity chronicling the troubled Arthur Fleck’s transformation from a desperate wannabe stand-up comedian who feels let down by society into a chaotic killer who unintentionally inspires anarchic revolution and class warfare.
Though the Joker is best-known as Batman’s archenemy, the caped crusader solely appears in the form of a young Bruce Wayne, first meeting Arthur on his family’s estate before forced to witness his parents’ murder during the riots inspired by Arthur’s acts of violence. The movie was intended as a standalone, not one of the franchise’s many reboots nor the beginning of a Joker-focused series, giving screenwriters Todd Phillips (who also directed) and Scott Silver the freedom to generally diverge from the established comics—aside from some inspiration found in the 1988 novel Batman: The Killing Joke—to develop their own character study, focused around childhood trauma and mental illness. These heavy themes, the re-interpretation of such an established character, and the sociopolitical commentary presented during an already-charged political atmosphere ensured that Joker would be met with some degree of controversy.
Joker presented a darkly realistic Gotham City, inspired by the crime-ridden New York City of the ’70s and ’80s, with Arthur’s transformative killing of three harassers on the subway intentionally mirroring the infamous 1984 incident when Bernhard Goetz shot four men that he explained were attempting to rob him, though the men that Arthur guns down in Joker were not muggers but successful, slicked-back young “suits” who turned their ire onto him after pestering a young woman who left the train.
Stricken with a condition that forces laughter, particularly in situations where it wouldn’t be the most appropriate emotion, Arthur Fleck seems doomed from the outset: a heavily medicated street clown whose timid, trusting disposition marks him as the easy target for the bullies of a rat-infested Gotham. He lives with his delusional mother Penny (Frances Conroy), whose ramblings about mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne he endures before joining her each night to watch their favorite evening talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whose schtick partially inspires Arthur’s doomed foray into comedy… until Murray himself mocks Arthur’s failed attempts during an open-mic night.
Their fates align when Murray’s booker invites Arthur to join him on the show, coinciding with the police investigation into Arthur’s violence intensifying and an increasingly violent anarchist rally in the city. “Come on, Murray, do I look like the kind of of clown that could start a movement?” Arthur asks when the host questions his arriving with red, white, and blue facial makeup under his poorly dyed green hair. Murray relents, allowing his “guest” to make one more request:
Arthur: When you bring me out, can you introduce me as “Joker”? That’s what you called me on the show, a joker. Do you remember?
Murray: Did I? If you say so, kid. “Joker” it is.
What’d He Wear?
We’ve never seen Arthur Fleck look as comfortable as he does when fully embodying the new Joker persona, with his dyed hair, makeup, and colorful suit that pulls from pieces of his wardrobe we’ve seen throughout the movie. Two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer Mark Bridges crafted the style of Joker, recalling to Awards Focus and The Playlist that he appreciated seeing the suit so prominently featured during the instantly iconic moment of the violently self-formed Arthur Fleck dancing down the West 167th Street steps in the Bronx to the tune of Gary Glitter’s glam rock standard “Rock and Roll Part 2”.
Bridges has explained that the suit was originally intended to be a terracotta-colored suit from the early ’70s, which he felt was appropriate for the era but contrasted with his vision for the character. “I didn’t like the color terracotta—it didn’t seem strong enough to me,” he explained to Awards Daily, elaborating to The Playlist that “another color that maybe has more energy was a maroon suit. So, he has a three-piece maroon suit. He wears two of the pieces when he does his comedy standup act… I was increasing the color as we went on, as his emotions changed. And so we landed on the hottest suit.”
While an actor’s preferences can often stymie production, Joaquin Phoenix’s veganism actually complemented the polyester-reigned fashions of the ’70s. “They were all polyester and synthetic materials because Joaquin is a vegan, so it was perfect for the period and the character and the mindset,” Bridges noted to Awards Daily.
Arthur’s bright maroon polyester twill suit follows the ’70s trends that echoed the dramatic silhouettes of tailoring from four decades prior featuring wide-shouldered jackets nipped at the waist, with these lines further flattered by the congress of wide peak lapels and a single-breasted configuration that built up the shoulders and chest, tapering to emphasize narrowness at the waist.
The wide peak lapels are finished with sporty “swelled” edges that dress it down, continued by the unique double-welted breast pocket and gently rear-slanting hip pockets that are designed in a fashion each resembling an inset pocket within-a-pocket. The jacket has two dark red plastic buttons on the front with three smaller buttons on each cuff. The long double vents are also consistent with prevailing era trends.
Arthur almost mathematically assembles his chaotic attire by contrasting his red suit with a green shirt, one of the opposing or “complementary” combinations in color theory that leverages the strongest contrast between the two. Bridges explained the decision to Awards Daily: “I had this green shirt that I really thought was fun and I loved it. I thought it would be cool with the waistcoat and the suit, so I just copied the fabric and made a bunch of shirts from that green shirt.”
The rich teal-green polyester shirt provides the only visible pattern in his outfit with its colliding all-over print of stenciled mint-green circles. The shirt has a long point collar as was popular during the ’70s, button cuffs, and a front placket with green plastic buttons that Arthur buttons to the neck.
Though the suit has a matching waistcoat (vest) that we’ve seen Arthur wear during his failed standup appearance and while practicing to appear on Murray’s show, he dejects the opts for the sartorial confusion of the golden-hued vest he had worn as part of his clown uniform and while gunning down the three “Wall Street guys” on the subway. The ochre polyester has a softly napped finish. The vest has five mixed golden buttons, all of which Arthur wears fastened, with no pockets and with welted “swelling” around the edges.
The flat-front trousers are the same blood-red polyester as the suit jacket, rising high enough that the waistband remains appropriately covered by the buttoned waistcoat, though you can spy unused belt loops during Arthur’s frequent dancing. The front pockets are of the full-top “Western” or “frogmouth” style, which was most prominent from the ’60s through the ’70s. The plain-hemmed bottoms have a subtle flare, more restrained than the notorious “bell-bottoms” of the disco era.
Arthur’s brown two-toned derby shoes signal the crossroads of civilian footwear with traditional “clown shoes”, as Bridges had intended based on his comment to Awards Daily that “they looked like something he would come by at the clown agency.” Likely originally leather, Bridges had the shoes remade in linen and patent vinyl per Phoenix’s preferences, with the vamps and side quarters constructed from the tobacco-shaded linen while the straight toe caps, lace panels, and back quarters were all made from the darker brown patent vinyl. Arthur continues wearing his decidedly unstylish off-white ribbed crew socks.
Bridges noted to Awards Focus that, “as far as souvenirs, I have a pocket square that was made from Arthur Fleck’s Joker suit. I wore that square in my suit jacket pocket at the premiere of the film.”
After Arthur is beaten on the streets of Gotham City, his fellow clown Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson Model 36 revolver in a paper bag, with a few loose rounds of .38 Special ammunition. “Gotta protect yourself out there,” Randall notes, though Randall would soon be the one to contribute to Arthur’s firing by claiming that he tried to buy “a .38” from him without explaining that he voluntarily gave Arthur the weapon that he would use to cause havoc.
The experts at IMFDB noted the screw between the hammer and cylinder that identify the screen-used firearm specifically as an early production piece from the first half of the 1950s when Smith & Wesson had still marketed this particular model as the “Chiefs Special”, following a vote taken when the weapon was first unveiled at the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in 1950. This adds a particular irony to note that the small but lethal weapon that Arthur Fleck uses to torch a revolution was originally intended for authority figures.
Later designated the Model 36 when Smith & Wesson began numbering its models in the ’50s, the five-shot Chiefs Special was developed on the brand’s J-frame platform as a snub-nosed “belly gun” intended for plainclothes or undercover work, a downscaled alternative to the popular Colt Detective Special that sacrificed an additional round in the cylinder for a smaller—and thus more easily concealed—frame.
How to Get the Look
Though it may only serve practical purposes as a Halloween costume, the Joker’s suit as reimagined by costume designer Mark Bridges drew upon fashions that would have already been outmoded by the early ’80s as well as the limited wardrobe Arthur Fleck had accumulated through his sad life to build an iconic and chaotic outfit that throws together a red suit, patterned green shirt, ochre vest, and two-toned shoes… and that’s before even considering the dyed hair and makeup!
- Maroon polyester suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, double-welted breast pocket, slanted double-welted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and long double vents
- Flat-front trousers with belt loops, full-top front pockets, and slightly flared plain-hemmed bottoms
- Golden napped polyester single-breasted 5-button waistcoat/vest
- Teal-green (with mint circular print) polyester shirt with long point collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Brown two-tone linen and patent vinyl derby-laced spectator shoes
- Off-white ribbed crew socks
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I also recommend reading the below sources for more information about Mark Bridges’ memorable costume design:
- Awards Daily — “Mark Bridges on Giving the Joker a New Iconic Look” by Joey Moser
- Awards Focus — “Interview with Oscar Winning ‘Joker’ Costume Designer Mark Bridges” by Byron Burton
- Deadline — “Costume Designer Mark Bridges On Honing ‘Joker’s Transformation & “Easter Eggs” Within Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’” by Matt Grobar
- The Film Experience — “Interview: Joker’s Costume Designer Mark Bridges” by Nathaniel Rogers
- MotionPictures.org — “How Joker Costume Designer Mark Bridges dressed The Clown Prince of Crime” by Daron James
- The Playlist — “Mark Bridges Dissects His New Costume Design For The ‘Joker'” by Gregory Ellwood
- Vogue France — “The secrets behind Joaquin Phoenix’s costume in ‘Joker'” by Alexandre Marain
My life is nothing but a comedy.