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From the Great White Way to the Dark Knight: The story of Gotham's costumes
"We always knew they meant New York," novelist Lawrence Block wrote in his intro to the first trade paperback of the DC Comics series Gotham Central. Block was writing both about the inherent New-Yorkness to Bob Kane's initial vision of Batman's Gotham City and of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka's incarnation in Gotham Central.
Gotham Central, which debuted in single issues beginning in 2004, is maybe the most quintessentially New York comic book imagining of the city of bats and cats, robins and riddlers. It's a story not about how a boy billionaire with a grudge and an endless arsenal of super-weaponry handles someone like Mister Freeze, but about how the boys in blue of the Gotham City Police Department deal with them. There's something endemically and irrevocably New York about people running around in strange costumes while often-flawed cops do their best to keep a tight hold on a city that never sleeps.
Ten years after Gotham Central first appeared in comic stores, Gotham, the Fox TV series very loosely based on Brubaker and Rucka's stories, found an even better way to make their Gotham City feel like New York: They filmed there.
And while having the literal New York City skyline to draw inspiration from helped, there was another part of Manhattan specifically that helped give each of Gotham's residents that undeniable New York feel: Broadway.
"I worked on Broadway," says Gotham's current costume designer, John Glaser. "Josh, my assistant, worked on Broadway. ... The painters and the sketch artists have all worked on Broadway. We actually approached each episode like a little Broadway show."
And what advanced techniques were brought from the Great White Way to the Dark Knight?
"Paint and tape," says Glaser. "I hate to say it, but paint and tape make things look the way that they should."
As it turns out, that's a very Broadway approach to costuming. Glaser learned from the best, having assisted under the late, great Patricia Zipprodt, who was the original costume designer for iconic Broadway shows like Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Pippin, and the second longest running show in Broadway history, Chicago.
"Everything was painted, painted, painted, painted. I was a costume painter, so that's instilled in me," says Glaser. "The painting part, some people wouldn't do. Once we actually started to paint things in the first season that we were there and went, 'Oh, this stuff looks much better with the lighting, the dark scenery and the shafts of light.' We always made everything light at the top and dark at the bottom, ombré it down."
There are lots of little fun facts to be learned about the basic costumes and how they echo back to Batman comics, too. It's the little things. "On men's suits, we only used black buttons, no matter what suit it is," he explains. "Black buttons because in the comics all the buttons are black."
For Gotham's fifth and final season, there were creative alterations made to the costumes overall that informed the style of the show, each with specific purpose. "Because they are at war, we got rid of all jewelry," explains Glaser. "It's being melted down to make bullets. Without any jewelry, it kind of changes the look of the show. There are no earrings, there are no necklaces. We didn't want a lot of extraneous costume stuff, just what was really interesting in front of you."
Probably what most separates Gotham from Arrowverse shows or the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how the wardrobe team treats the supervillain costumes and suits. Those, too, get the Broadway treatment. Not at first, though. First, suits for characters like Firefly and Mister Freeze are crafted in Los Angeles. "It's like buying a car," according to Glaser. "They know the body's measured, they make an extra layer of the body for them to give them the right shape, they have the right fabrics, they have the right sculptors, the right fabricators."
But Glaser wasn't a fan of the exactness of these initial designs. "What I didn't like about that was that it looked like a movie costume. We actually took Firefly's costume and Mr. Freeze's costume, after they first wore them, and we started to paint them and age them, just because they didn't look like they were from Gotham. They looked like they were from a different world. We took them back, kept painting them and aging them, putting things on them and making them look more like they were from the city of Gotham."
Sometimes the newness of a costume could even be a problem, especially in Gotham's final season, where everyone is living even more rough than usual. "On Ivy's costume," Glaser uses as an example, "the top of it is flesh and it goes into fabric around her breast and we couldn't figure out how to make that transition without it looking like a skating costume."
So how do you solve that problem beyond paint and tape? "We took it to Izquierdo Studios and I was explaining to Martin Izquierdo what the problem was. He said, 'Alright, just go away for an hour.' We went away for an hour, and then when we came back he had cut, hacked, aged, and torn it, and it looked perfect. It was a dress that melted into her body — so it went from flesh, to fabric, back to skin and flesh, so you couldn't pinpoint whether it was a dress, whether it was her skin, or whether it was vines growing on her. It was vague, misty, and painted with lots of sparkle, so you could never pinpoint what it was. That was a very successful costume."
Beyond the desire to make Gotham feel like New York through the lens of a Broadway show, there was one other consistent challenge: working within the confines of the DC Universe. All live-action TV series that exist within the worlds of DC Comics have to accept that they are second banana in the DC hierarchy. The creators of Arrow had to scrub their Suicide Squad plotline when the film of the same name starring Margot Robbie and Will Smith was greenlit, for example. And so, too, Gotham had to contend with these challenges from a stylistic standpoint.
"There's a thing that Josh and I used to say," admits Glaser. "'If you can't tell what it is, then it's great.' If you can't know where it came from or if you can't pinpoint it, then there was never a problem."
Probably the most infamous struggle Gotham faced in the Batman canon relates to the Joker, in that Gotham simply could not have a character named "the Joker." That is why the twins, Jeremiah and Jerome, were created. And, even then, there was some conflict. "We sent a sketch and he [Jeremiah] had some purple in his suit," Glaser explains. "Warner Bros. said, 'No, you can't use purple.' The producers from Gotham talked with them and they let it pass. I think that was an area or a time when they started to loosen up a little bit, with us. We never got too close to the iconic look of anybody. We always danced around it."
One character from whom there was, surprisingly, no pushback at all was Harley Quinn. "The diamond shapes are painted on so that they kind of fade in and out, kind of ghost-like," reveals Glaser of the initial Harley design. "Every time that we saw her it would get a little more refined. When it started out it was like a dull red and a dull blue. By the time we finished, this is on different clothing, but, still, again, painting, it had become red and white, but because of what she does, we made it look like red blood and white."
You may also have heard that Gotham's final season involves a time jump allowing its audience to see something they've wanted since day one: Batman. And while it's too early yet to reveal everything about the first time we see actor David Mazouz in full Bat-regalia, Glaser did reveal one aspect to the costume that was mandated: "They insisted that the Batman logo be on the belt."
There's so much that goes into costuming a show, there could be a whole series just on the topic. Glaser talked with SYFY WIRE about so much: the muscle suits under the character's clothes, the way each character was built up to be taller and longer, and small details — like the custom made ties for all the men's suits, and how they changed from season to season. Even the background actors got their own story. "For every episode, we would pick a color," says Glaser. "Let's say there's a party scene, we would pick a color and we would pick a vague period and focus on that."
Most of these skills are ones that Glaser and his team learned, not from television, but from their time assisting with, designing, dressing, teching down, and rigging costumes on Broadway, all which helped make the Gotham City of Fox's Gotham the most quintessentially New York incarnation of the DC Universe yet.
Season 5 of Gotham resumes tomorrow night, Jan. 10, at 8 p.m. ET.