The Craft of Costumes: Star Wars and Clothing

A universe whose fabric is woven from the real world.
By  · Published on December 14th, 2016

A universe whose fabric is woven from the real world.

Star Wars continues to provide memorable, spectacular visuals more effectively than most American films before it, especially when considering an immediately accessible medium like costume design. A typical viewer doesn’t really understand the space-battling miniatures or lightsaber glows ‐ just takes them in, awed ‐ but the outfits of the universe made it real to people. You could dress up as your favorite character with a trip to the fabric store and a sharp memory.

The films’ universe is a diverse collection of planet types, political ranks, and factions that all dress with different motives and come with different influences. “There’re really key [costumes] that…have entered into our cultural knowledge base,” says Laela French of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, “They’ve become part of a visual language.” Understanding the clothes is a step in understanding the characters. The fan theories around Boba Fett’s badass armor made the one-line wonder a popular enough character to warrant a canonical backstory, while the white and black robes of the warring Force sides made it easy for all ages to grasp the lightweight morality at play.

The first Star Wars film borrowed heavily from the samurai cinema of Akira Kurosawa, fashioning its wandering swordsmen after the ronin of feudal Japan. The muted, belted robes of Seven Samurai find their echo in the Jedi. Buddhist monks, an ever-present influence in the cultures of China, Tibet, and Japan, brought a historical basis to the celibate fraternal order. The force users’ drab uniforms embody a dedication to a power beyond (and within) themselves.

As Complex writer Jian DeLeon writes, the same year as A New Hope’s release, designer Yohji Yamamoto (famous for his drapey monotone layers) debuted his first collection in Tokyo, turning the same historical influences into avant-garde fashion. The designers of Star Wars’ costumes were influenced much as their contemporaries on the runway: learning from history and continuing a narrative.

Yamamoto’s sketches don’t look out of place in the Star Wars universe
Clothing cannot escape its culture. Japanese kimonos, Mercury 7 astronaut jumpsuits, and Nazi Germany’s Hugo Boss uniforms reverberate through Lucas’s universe as much as they do our own, while the criminal Jabba bikini refers just as deeply to our culture’s repressive history (not limited to on-screen slave girls). As Star Wars honcho George Lucas said, “The detailed precision of a [costume] design can be as bold a measure of storytelling as words on a page, leading to truths at the core of a character, situation or shared history.”

The relatively unsung Star Wars storyteller that set this precedent is John Mollo, the costume designer for the original trilogy who built off Ralph McQuarrie’s illustrations. His most apparent example, in terms of conveying narrative through clothing, is the film’s protagonist. Luke Skywalker’s flowy white tunic, khaki pants, and wrapped, soft-soled boots are the clothes of a boy farming moisture on Tatooine or farming rice in Japanese paddy fields. When he adopts the thicker, more powerful robes of a warrior, he evolves visually as his character matures. The transition from white to black robes— well, I think you can figure that out.

Lucas mashed all his serialized genre loves into these movies, which meant that if the Force and its users came from Eastern culture, Han Solo’s undeniably American space cowboy took the henley, vest, holster, and tall leather boots of a dusty gunslinger. I guess they just don’t wear hats in space.

Mollo’s history background(he was a military adviser on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and authored multiple books on military fashion) made the transition from Lucas’s influences to realistic future war clothing smooth. Luke’s minimal Bespin fatigues, Han’s bomber jacket, and the Rebel Alliance’s uniforms (including Leia’s band-collared jumpsuit) were maturations for the film’s characters and a knowing shift into a more strictly military plotline. When Luke strips down to a tank top for his Dagobah training, he sheds his military affiliations for purely moral ones.

The hyper-militarized police state of the Empire necessitated the white helmet and body armor of the Stormtrooper suit, which has become a global symbol of tyranny in graffiti from L.A. to Itagüí, Colombia. For their leader, Lucas asked McQuarrie for a Darth Vader that rode “on the winds, with an evil essence about him.” From this, Mollo mashed together a shiny Nazi helmet with a gas mask, motorcycle leathers, black biker boots, and a “monk’s cloak found in the Middle Ages department of a costume warehouse.”

He composited fears of the last generation (Nazis, ah!) with the fears of the present (Hell’s Angels, ah!).

That doesn’t mean it was all hyper-meaningful. Some of the costumes were just cool because the ‘70s were a wild, experimental time.

Lando Calrissian’s disco cape, bell-bottoms, and sexy silky top made him a Flash Gordon Ken doll reminding everyone in the audience of his charisma, gloss, and general untrustworthiness. He’s in a cape and everyone (especially Edna Mode) knows that capes are bad news. That’s why Vader (and, according to the previews, Rogue One’s Orson Krennic) wears one. Before we hear Vader’s raspy wheeze, we see the helmet and the chest plate (originally just a painted wood block). It’s pure power ‐ all the regality of a king with the gothic palette of a demon.

The prequel trilogy handed its costuming reins to Trisha Biggar, whose challenge was also visual and narrative, though with a twist. She had to build new characters while bringing things to visual completion by Revenge of the Sith. Hence, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode III mirrored Alec Guinness’ outfit more and more closely. The Jedi were immediately recognizable as such because of our cultural familiarity of an adapted samurai uniform. Still, she managed to add originality through visual depth to more plain villains like the devil-headed Darth Maul. His simple black tunic is layered in such a way that it fans out spectacularly in The Phantom Menace’s whirling lightsaber choreography.

The prequels’ most innovative wardrobe, though, was that of Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala. Her extensive collection epitomized glamorous clothes as narrative, showing her political status shift from elaborately-headdressed queen to professional senator to jumpsuited rebel. Their functionality also played a role in the story ‐ billowy gowns and face paint allowed for assassin-thwarting disguises or the masking of a forbidden pregnancy.

Photo Credit: Dehra McGuire
Her 68 distinct costumes, including Geonosis attire (“Free of any political restraints, Padmé could wear more practical clothing on Geonosis”) and Picnic dress (“Padmé wore a light, summery dress in a shade of yellow to be romantic and show Padmé’s fun side”), are all exhaustively detailed on the Star Wars wiki, a lasting document to Biggar’s dedication to a truly regal character.

And Christ, there’re really almost 70 of them.

This dedication bled over to the demands placed on the actress, because for every piece of decadent velvet or grosgrain, there’s a gown which requires its wearer to “straddle a car battery to illuminate a series of globes at its rigid base,” according to Such visual spectacle overwhelmed the underwritten love interest, making her wardrobe the character’s most admirable feature.

All I have to say is that [throughout the prequels, Natalie Portman] walks through a doorway and has a wardrobe change. I got one, sorry, two dresses [in the first film], and the first one [looks] the same all the way around.

— Carrie Fisher

Fisher’s not wrong ‐ the practicalities of a political refugee compared to a character whose social status rises and falls dramatically over the course of three movies necessitate different clothes ‐ but Leia’s relatively few outfits allow her to have the more iconic of the two characters’ costumes. It also leaves room for the woman inside the costume to thrive. Simpler is better for character creation ‐ one elegantly definitive outfit is better than 50 (or 70).

This thesis has been pushed in the new batch of Star Wars films’ sartorially consistent leads which, unsurprisingly, has allowed them to become instantly recognizable to its new audience. Star Wars fans love the characters so much that they desperately want to become their favorites. The easiest way to do this, thanks to the simple, based-in-reality costume design, is through cosplay.

At a Smithsonian-collaboration costume exhibit in New York City, cosplayers requested the measurements of Guinness’s Kenobi robe so a fan crafting his own costumes could perfect the belt. While cosplay statistics are extremely understudied, anecdotal evidence from various cons and midnight premieres indicate that these characters are belovedly imitated. For more specific data, I looked at the most popular cosplay event of the year: Halloween.

The most Googled Halloween costumes of 2016 were those relating to Star Wars, according to Vogue and The National Retail Federation. Over 1.8 million children went out as Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren while 1.4 million adults went as the more traditional (if that can even be applied to a pop culture-driven costume) Han, Leia, Yoda, or Luke. In order to keep the throwback feel to the outfits of his characters ‐ allowing them to compete in our minds with the icons of the original trilogy ‐ director J.J. Abrams selected his Star Trek costumer Michael Kaplan (who also crafted a memorable world for Blade Runner) for The Force Awakens.

In an interview with Tyranny of Style, Kaplan talked through some of his costuming decisions. Rey’s outfit came from a practicality similar to that of Luke before her. The desert climate led to an African- and Middle Eastern-influenced tunic with protective gauze to keep out sand. The beige color scheme made sense with the heat and in establishing visual symmetry with what we as an audience know about Star Wars good guys. The earth tones of the Rebels continue to contrast with the stark monochrome of the New Order’s ’80s oppression, while Kylo Ren’s Vader-worship manifests in his own angsty cosplay.

Each new costumer tailors the mantle of the last, continuing a self-referential narrative and visual language that keeps viewers acclimatized to the beloved franchise. Poe giving Finn his jacket isn’t just a narrative development for the characters (and whatever b/romance you’d like to attribute them), it’s a costuming decision that links Finn visually with the more loosely-cut, brown-hued Rebels than his all-black Stormtrooper undergarments.

Moving to Rogue One, the same challenges apply. Audiences (and the ironic empire of the Star Wars universe) demand things look the same yet different ‐ both originality and recognizability. Director Gareth Edwards had this to say about the costuming decisions of Jyn in a conversation with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan:

We tried to write Jyn as neither male nor female, as just a person. Obviously, she’s female, but even with the clothing, my goal with the costume department was to design clothes that I would wear as a guy on Halloween. She wouldn’t look feminine and she wouldn’t look masculine ‐ she’d be neutral. Jyn is a person who just happens to be a girl.

Androgyny in costuming ‐ especially when extrapolated to the historically-leveraged realm of merchandising for Halloween ‐ reflects back on the fashion and social climate of the era, just like Star Wars did in ‘77. How this affects or is affected by the film’s plot we won’t say here, but the real-world pervasion of androgynous drape in modern streetwear (like in Kanye West’s desert- and possibly Tatooine-influenced Yeezy Season 3) is, like Yamamoto’s Japanese designs, an intersection of pop culture and social developments that is just one of many facets of the costuming craft.

The designers behind the clothing of Star Wars make characters, icons, and ripples in industries that influence how we think about each other as people. But you probably already knew that. After all, Michael Kaplan is almost single-handedly responsible for the ’80s off-the-shoulder-sweater trend with his costume design for Flashdance. The power of the dark side has nothing on the power of fashion.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).