Recently, a number of debates have been raging focusing on one of the most infamous villains to be depicted on screen and in print. Ranging from the best portrayal to controversies surrounding the Todd Phillips entry in the canon, the Joker has been a hot-button topic of 2019.
Arguably, the character, as first portrayed in Batman #1 in the 1940 comic, would enjoy the attention and chaos. A flamboyant dresser from his earliest rendering, the Joker is not trying to blend in. As with the performance choices, each costume is different — even if they share the same basic DNA.
The source material plays a big part in the Joker's sartorial evolution, including the signature purple jacket that weaves its way through most of the interpretations in various shades. The heightened comic book world is a big factor on its own, but it is impossible to ignore the trends of the particular era of each adaptation. Other influences and time periods inspire, but these productions are also rooted in the decade they were made. As with performance preference, the term "best-dressed" is open to interpretation and personal taste — but that doesn't mean we aren't going to make the difficult decision and crown the version of the Joker who would light up a red carpet. As New York Comic Con recently proved, when it comes to cosplay there is a Joker style for everyone — from the recent Joaquin Phoenix portrayal to the kitsch Cesar Romero aesthetic.
This ranking covers the five live-action performances, beginning in 1966 with the ABC TV series and ending with the current holder of this moniker (Gotham is not featured as they couldn't use the name).
Jack Nicholson - Batman (1989)
The 1980s is the decade of excess, which is exactly what Jack Nicholson's decadent Joker symbolizes. Costume designer Bob Ringwood looked to the original 1940s comic and period as an influence, which explains the fabulous high-waist pants with a tartan twist. The gangster style of this mid-20th-century era informs a number of the costumes — the wide-brimmed hat is straight out of L.A. Confidential — but there is also a strong dandy aesthetic. A silk beret is its own separate category of headwear. As with Cesar Romero's '60s version of Gotham’s Clown Prince, he wears a low-cut vest to enhance the bold silk of his shirt in a rotation of orange, teal, and green. It is a color explosion that stands out against the Gothic backdrop of Tim Burton’s Gotham City. This is a divisive decade when it comes to sartorial preference, but for a character like Joker, the bolder the better.
Cesar Romero - Batman (1966-1968)
Fashion is about taking risks, and the villains of the 1960s Batman TV series know how to build a criminal brand with a flamboyance that has aged far better than the heroes of the story. 2019 celebrated the relationship between ‘camp’ and clothing, which is something the Cesar Romero ensemble should be in contention for. A magenta tailcoat, matching low cut waistcoat, and striped pants is an eye-popping combination. The addition of a Kelly green shirt with a ribbon tie breaks up the bold pink of the suit, delivering a dizzying effect. Costume designer Pat Barto was the first to tackle a live-action version of this character, cementing a legacy that is fabulously over-the-top and as playful as the series they featured on.
Joaquin Phoenix - Joker (2019)
Costume designer Mark Waters didn't turn to the comics for inspiration when creating the latest bold new Joker look. However, even though the silhouettes of his clown attire are more Charlie Chaplin in design, it's hard to ignore certain aspects that still adhere to certain Joker style rules. The waistcoat is from Arthur’s clown get-up, but it is a unifying theme with previous iterations — Leto’s is the exception. The maroon of his suit is a departure but is still part of the same color family acting as a bridge between the pink of Romero (Waters's favorite version) and the purple of Nicholson and Ledger. Even his teal shirt has a hint of 1989 costuming with a dash of the geometric print from Ledger’s Dark Knight attire. It is a striking costume and even if it wasn’t intentional, it is hard to ignore the style overlap. The clown face is symbolic in Joker that soon takes off on the streets of Gotham as a form of protest, and it is likely that this stylish late '70s suit will be making an impact this Halloween and beyond.
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight (2008)
It pains us to put this iconic depiction at number four, however, this placing is not because Lindy Hemming’s costume design isn't exquisite or era-defining. Instead, it is Joker's nonchalance about the state of his closet that lands him in this spot. The guys who rank higher all place some level of importance on their brand via their wardrobe. All the pieces are there for this Joker to grace an editorial including the best waistcoat of the bunch in a striking deep green. Patterns also serve him well, including the hypnotic hexagon print button-down shirt. With some dry-cleaning, this ensemble would be GQ-ready, but this Joker has more pressing concerns and priorities.
Jared Leto - Suicide Squad (2016)
For a pastiche of all things emo punk, there is Jared Leto's Joker from Suicide Squad. It looks like Hot Topic threw up on him and then asked for its shirt back. Sure, this portrayal gets dunked on at any and every given opportunity, but the overall aesthetic is not doing him any favors. There are a couple of garments that do stand out for reasons that aren't eyeroll-inducing. The silver tuxedo blazer is a sharp choice and the pajama pants are a strong contender for the current bedwear as outerwear trend. Pairing these pants with a crocodile skin trench — in purple, of course — is in an interesting twist on the traditional overcoat, but it can’t save him from coming in last place.