Welcome back to Elite Evaluations, an ongoing series in which I review the Elite Four from each generation of games in the Pokemon series, with an especial focus on costume and character design. Previous entries can be found here.
This time, we’re looking at the Elite Four of the Unova region, featured in the 2010/2011 games Black and White, as well as their 2012 sequels, Black 2 and White 2. (Together, Black and White and its sequels are commonly referred to as ‘Generation V’.) The header image is from here, and all other sources are cited throughout.
The Unova Elite Four are distinguished from their predecessors in several important ways. This generation’s Elite Four are drawn by Yusuke Ohmura, taking over (briefly) for Ken Sugimori, who had provided illustrations for these trainers up to HeartGold and SoulSilver. Ohmura’s style is markedly different, while still very much in line with the series aesthetic. The Unova region itself is the first setting in a mainline title inspired by a location outside Japan – in this case, New York City – which may have provided the character designers with additional inspiration.
In addition, this Elite Four can be fought in any order, for the first time in the mainline Pokemon series. As such, the inherent narrative of weakest-to-strongest trainers no longer exists, and each trainer must be able to stand on their own as a fully-fledged character.
Furthermore, the Elite Four’s type specializations – Ghost. Fighting, Dark, and Psychic – are varying degrees of super-effective or non-effective against one another in battle. (Ghost-types are super-effective against Psychic-types, can’t be harmed by Fighting-types, and are incredibly weak against Dark-types, for example.) These trainers keep each other in balance, using the series’ type-based combat system as storytelling in a way we haven’t seen before or since. For this article, I’ll review the Unova Elite Four in the order that makes the most thematic sense.
Shauntal and her outfit are apt examples of this generation’s expansive approach to costume and character design. Shauntal is a Ghost-type specialist and a novelist; some of her writing is even about other characters in the series. (A ‘ghost writer’ pun is probably in there somewhere as well.)
Shauntal’s outfit is, in part, inspired by black cats. Her black ribbon and pink brooch are clearly meant to resemble a cat’s head, and her matching pink shoes could be seen as paws. However, Shauntal’s outfit also strongly evokes the mod fashion worn by young women in the mid-to-late 1960s. Shauntal’s hair resembles the signature five-point bob haircut worn by British designer Mary Quant, one of the most influential figures in mod fashion.
Shauntal’s pleated miniskirt, buttoned top, coloured tights, and Mary Jane shoes were also key parts of the mod look; often seen, for instance, on Lesley ‘Twiggy’ Lawson, one of the most iconic models of the era. Shauntal also shares Twiggy’s makeup-exaggerated eyes, enhanced further by Shauntal’s own round-lensed glasses.
Shauntal’s outfit incorporates all of these aspects in a very literal manner – unusual, and remarkable, for a series whose human characters are generally not associated with a particular time or era, especially through their clothing.
This straightforward use of mod concepts might explain why the ribbon around Shauntal’s head – the most obvious nod to the fantastical and cat-inspired aspect of her outfit – feels, to me, heavy-handed and obtrusive; left over from a previous draft of the character. Shauntal’s pink brooch and Mary Janes are a more subtle way to convey the cat motif while staying true to the overall look’s mod themes.
Moving beyond conceptual readings, the ribbon awkwardly frames Shauntal’s face, especially in her official character art. (It looks even sillier in the Pokemon Adventures manga.) All this said, the concepts behind Shauntal’s outfit are far more imaginative than we usually get for human characters in this series, and the designers deserve credit for once again finding an inventive approach to a Ghost-type trainer.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Marshal, a Fighting-type specialist, is the top pupil of Alder, the Unova League Champion in Black and White. The outfits of many prominent Fighting-type trainers in the mainline series are disappointingly literal or utilitarian; Marshal’s look, thankfully, takes a more distinctive approach.
His geometric haircut, collar and toggles contrast with the looser shape and structure of his puffer vest and pants. The lines and buttons on the sides of his pants call back to the more structured aspects of his look. The two sections are joined by a sash that, too, echoes the upward lines of his collar but has rounded edges like much of his outfit.
The colour combinations in Marshal’s outfit are similarly eye-catching. The blue and orange hues in the upper part of his outfit are pastel, compared to the more vivid tones in the lower half. It’s a dynamic and interesting use of colour. One could perhaps argue that the geometric lines and use of orange are meant to echo the use of these same elements in Alder’s outfit.
As a colour combination, blue and orange has never really gone out of style; more recently, Pantone’s colours of the year for 2009 and 2010 were mimosa (a yellow-orange hue) and turquoise, respectively; whether consciously or not, the designers of Black and White were paying attention to current trends. Overall, Marshal’s outfit presents a stylish, distinctive take on familiar costume elements.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Grimsley, the Dark-type expert of the Unova Elite Four, is a vampire – more specifically, a vampire who comes from a once-wealthy family and has a gambling addiction. It should be no surprise that with this rich characterization, he has some of the best and most nuanced costume design of any human character in the Pokemon series.
Grimsley’s look has plenty of vampiric motifs, from the fang-like spikes in his hair to the bright red lapels of his suit, which call back to a vampire’s stereotypical red-and-black cape. His suit’s red, white, and black patterns themselves variously invoke a roulette wheel, cards, or poker chips; the red and white triangles could even be interpreted as fangs.
Grimsley’s gold-yellow scarf could symbolize money or wealth, and serves as a softer contrast to the geometric cut and shapes of his suit. The buttons of his suit are also golden and he’s seen tossing a gold coin, furthering this theme. (One does have to wonder whether Grimsley joined the Elite Four to pay off some debts. When Elite Four members have outfits so rich in nuances and characterization like Unova’s group, these questions do come to mind. Are Elite Four trainers salaried?)
Grimsley’s look also includes nods to menswear of the mid-to-late 1960s – more specifically, the point when mod styles started to give way to the hippie styles of the 1970s. His suit has wide lapels and slightly flared pant legs that came into fashion in the late 60s. This lines up with what pop culture and fashion critics Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez have identified as hallmarks of late 60s/early 70s menswear: “shoulder-broadening lapels, collars and silhouettes … as well as a dandyism born out of the swinging ’60s and the counterculture movement (flared pants, vests, bright colors)”. Grimsley’s penny loafers are also in line with 1960s trends – more specifically, the ‘Ivy League style’, though the choice to forgo socks is a hallmark of the subsequent, more casual preppy style. Finally, his scarf can be seen as a callback to early 70s menswear.
This is Grimsley’s style – he comes from old money, and is tied to the past, but aims to look youthful nonetheless, albeit in a way that is decades behind modern trends. Ideal for a vampire.
Grimsley reappears in the 2016 Generation VII games Sun and Moon and their 2017 sequels, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. (Concept art indicates that it’s been two years since Black and White 2.) He’s made his way from cosmopolitan Unova to the lush, Hawaii-inspired Alola region, a shift motivated by an implied significant financial loss. Now, he wanders beaches, has taken up surfing, and occasionally dispenses wisdom to passersby. He isn’t an optional character, either; he provides the player with the useful ability to travel quickly across bodies of water.
In these games, Grimsley has an (almost) entirely new outfit, and looks significantly worse for wear. His hair is longer, and has noticeable streaks of white; he’s aged considerably since his initial appearance. His eyes are sunken. Even though he retains his self-satisfied grin, it’s clearly an act. (Grimsley being outside during the day does not disqualify him from being a vampire. In Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, the titular Count is either seen or alluded to being active in the daytime, albeit in a less powerful state.)
Grimsley’s subdued emotions are also communicated through his scarf, which has changed colours from yellow to black, and the dark grey-and-blue pattern on his collar. His robe is tied with an all-purpose kai-no-kuchi knot, further emphasizing his commonplace status; he doesn’t have any notable status or anywhere fancy to go. However, he’s kept his coin and old penny loafers, which likely remind him of his past wealth.
A final outfit worthy of discussion is one of Grimsley’s alternate costumes in the spinoff mobile game Pokemon Masters EX. In Masters EX, Grimsley has a special outfit called a Sygna Suit, a unique look themed around a specific Pokemon. (Sygna Suits are called ‘Serious Cosplay’ in Japanese, which in my opinion is a far better and more accurate name.) The Sygna Suits were designed by a trio of artists – Emi Ando, Kyoko Abe, and Misaki Hashimoto – who work with Game Freak, so while the suits are technically non-canonical outfits, they hew closely to the artistic vision of the mainline series.
Grimsley’s Sygna Suit is based on Sharpedo, a shark-inspired Pokemon whose appearance informs elements of the outfit (in particular, the blue-and-gold starry scarf). But his outfit goes beyond mere cosplay to once again show, and comment upon, aspects of Grimsley’s character and personality.
The look is strongly influenced by the punk aesthetic of the 1970s, including his wallet chain, suspenders, skinny pants, disheveled dress shirt and tie, and fingerless gloves. However, when one looks more closely, certain details stand out as inauthentic. For one, suspenders typically aren’t worn with a belt, and all of the touches of gold on his outfit (including the way his scarf is styled) feel more like someone dressing up in punk signifiers rather than fully expressing them as part of their style. (Compare this look with that worn by Roxie from Black and White 2, who is serving pure 1970s Vivienne Westwood realness.) Grimsley is cosplaying as a punk rocker while at the same time failing to capture the essence of who he’s portraying; another attempt to seem current while rooted in the past.
Each of Grimsley’s appearances, both in and outside the mainline series, has featured a significantly new look that tells us even more about this fascinating, complex character.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
We’re introduced to Caitlin before her appearance as an Elite Four member in Black and White. In fact, she’s the first member of an Elite Four to be introduced in a previous title since Generation II.
Caitlin is first met in the Generation IV games Platinum, HeartGold and SoulSilver, where she appears in the Battle Frontier, a post-game area filled with locations devoted to Pokemon battling.
Caitlin, who is fourteen years old in Generation IV, owns one of these locations, the Battle Castle. She’s also royalty and is referred to as Lady Caitlin. Unusually, the player doesn’t actually fight Caitlin; her valet Darach battles on her behalf. Caitlin has minimal dialogue, and we don’t learn much about her, but her costume easily conveys her youth, wealth, and aristocratic background. The minor details on her bows and skirt suggest a more refined quality than the outfits worn by other characters.
When Caitlin reappears in Black and White, set several years after the events of Generation IV, she’s now depicted as a Psychic-type expert. Her new outfit shares some of her original costume’s elements but is more understated overall. The fussy details of her skirt are gone, replaced with a more streamlined design and a subtler scalloped hem. Ribbons and bows are now accessories rather than prominent features. Her hair is longer, not only indicating the passage of time but also, perhaps, a greater understanding of her own Psychic powers – it’s a cliche, but she’s literally, and maybe even symbolically, let her hair down here.
The ribbons at the edges of Caitlin’s hair have their own significance. Ohmura has revealed in interviews that these ribbons hold up the hair through Caitlin’s own psychic powers; this detail is shown in-game in Black and White 2.
To be honest, I think the official character art does a poor job of communicating this aspect. The ribbons always felt extraneous, and even after knowing their purpose, I still find them an awkward inclusion. If Ohmura wanted to demonstrate Caitlin’s psychic abilities through her hair, he could’ve had more dynamic character art. I do like how the ribbons that served as a sign of Caitlin’s youth in her original appearance are now symbols of her considerable psychic abilities. That’s smart character development through costume design.
Caitlin’s long, somewhat unruly hair is noticeably different from the slicker haircuts of her fellow Elite Four members, and this distinction applies to her hat as well. Caitlin’s hat heavily resembles a fillet, a head covering worn by medieval women together with a barbette, a linen piece of cloth wrapped around the chin and affixed to both sides of the fillet.
Barbettes were typically associated with upper-class women, who the Fashion Institute of Technology notes “would have had an extremely fine, almost transparent barbette.” The long translucent fabric beneath Caitlin’s hat could be a stylized interpretation of a barbette, or even a veil commonly seen on medieval noblewomen. The combination of all these elements speaks volumes about who Caitlin was in the past, where she comes from, and who she is now.
It’s also possible that Caitlin’s hat is an artistic depiction of a pillow – the player meets Caitlin in Generation V after they’ve interrupted her nap, and an illustration in the Pokemon Trading Card Game indicates that her hat resembles a circular pillow. From a fashion-based perspective, this brings to mind the iconic bed dress from Dutch fashion designers Viktor & Rolf’s Spring/Summer 2005 ‘Bedtime Story’ collection. There’s definitely a sense of wit and whimsy with Caitlin’s look that we don’t always get in the Pokemon series.
Caitlin’s costume in Generation V ingeniously combines historical motifs, character development, and high-fashion allusions into one highly distinctive look. Every detail has been carefully considered. It’s truly one of the most inspired examples of costume design in the Pokemon series.
It would be remiss not to highlight one of Caitlin’s alternate outfits from Masters EX, released for Fall 2021. This very Halloween-esque look was inspired by the Pokemon Sableye (which is a Dark/Ghost-type Pokemon, so I’m not sure why it’s associated with Caitlin here, but I digress). There isn’t much to discuss from a character design perspective, but I like that it’s a fully conceptualized outfit and every detail is perfectly executed. It uses fantasy and medieval themes in a youthful context; it feels like something Caitlin could wear, which is always a bonus with alternate outfits. If the designers had made Caitlin a Dark-type specialist, I imagine her regular outfit would resemble her Fall 2021 look.
The alternate outfit for this alternate outfit trades the original’s black-and-red colour scheme for pink and red, and while these alternate colour palettes are often unremarkable, this one could be its own, separate look. These are all cohesive, thoughtfully-designed outfits; easily some of the best the Pokemon series has produced, both within and outside of its mainline franchise.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
The Unova Elite Four remains one of the best – if not the best – Elite Fours since their introduction in Black and White. These trainers are not only stylish and memorable on their own; they’re linked together in unique and interesting ways. I’ve never been more impressed with the Pokemon series designers’ knowledge of fashion history and ability to convey meaning and character through clothing.
Next time: We look at the Kalos Elite Four, first featured in X and Y. They’re one of my favourite and most noteworthy Elite Fours in the Pokemon series. See you then!