Who is Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in “Joker”? That was the obvious starting point for Mark Bridges, the Oscar-winning costume designer of “Phantom Thread.” Because it was only after figuring out how to dress the terminally depressed, mentally unstable, bullied clown that Bridges was able to create his ultimate Joker fashion statement.
“I had to analyze Arthur’s character,” said Bridges, who previously worked with Phoenix on “Inherent Vice” and “The Master.” “Where does he get his clothes? Would he care how he looked? Would he dress like a little boy? Because he lives with his mom, there’s something kind of awkward and adolescent in his clothing. He’s probably had his sweaters and shirts for years, and, when he does his laundry, he puts it all in with his mom’s laundry. That all influences the look of the clothes.
The script by director Todd Phillips and screenwriter Scott Silver contained a reference to Fleck wearing a ’70s terracotta suit, but Bridges found that too cliched. So he came up with a brown hooded jacket. But that was only after doing a camera test with a top coat inspired by Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy,” which Bridges rejected as not being juvenile enough. He added a flowery shirt, pale green pants, two-tone brown shoes, and white socks. For his stand-up act, he gave him a maroon suit. “He lives hand to mouth on public assistance, so he shops at second hand stores…his clothes are inexpensive and not stylish. That was his backstory and we dressed him accordingly.”
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But there was an arc to the way Fleck dressed on his way to becoming Joker. And to achieve this transformation, Bridges recombined parts of his wardrobe and clown costume (the gold waistcoat). “Things that are based on what a guy would really have,” he said. And it was a matter of making Phoenix comfortable in his attire, which wasn’t easy since he constantly lost weight from fitting through shooting (a total of 30 pounds).
However, there was no denying the Joker DNA from comic books and movies, yet Bridges was proud that the costume journey came organically from the story and Fleck’s life. “And what he had in his closet, and how he ultimately used it,” he said. “And it’s interesting that, beyond the emotion, there’s a practical side to it as well. And the graphics. I felt three colors should go together: green, gold, and red, which was a really strong combination.” The jacket contained a longer line and the red was rust colored, which fit perfectly with the ’70s.
That meant forsaking the old standby, purple. But Bridges harkened back to Cesar Romero’s outrageous Joker in accentuating the green (even recommending a broccoli look for the clown wig) because that’s who he grew up with. Then there was the real-life inspiration: Bernhard Goetz, New York’s notorious “Subway Vigilante” of the early ’80s. “I was living in New York at the time so I remember it quite well,” he said. “He was a very bland person, who had just had it, so there was a bit of that too: Art imitates life a little bit. If this already happened, it’s not a far stretch for someone who has been abused and misused enough to fight back, finally. It starts a conversation, maybe: ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore,'” to quote Peter Finch’s Oscar-winning, mentally unstable TV anchor from “Network,” another memorable cinematic reference.