If you consider yourself a true fashionista, any phrase starting with the words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” will have you waking up screaming in the middle of the night. How far exactly is it from that little vintage shop where you go scouting every Sunday before brunch? And, even more unnerving – how long ago has it been designed? Anything before last Spring’s Fashion Week, you might just lose a few hundred Instagram followers, no matter how many pics of Starbucks pumpkin lattes you post to redeem yourself.
You just got a taste of the Dark Side. But fear no more: geek is now chic and even offers the best inspiration for a sexy Halloween costume (think Daenerys in rags or psycho girlfriend Harley Quinn). Now let the Force take over and try to appreciate what the Star Wars saga can do for you.
A long time ago (yup, forty years), on planet Hollywood, George Lucas got the idea for a movie that would revolutionize the sci-fi genre. I won’t insult you by going through the plot we all know – let us talk about the costumes instead. Begone, silver plastic mini-skirts and neon metallic thigh-high boots! Go back to your spaceship of iniquity, Barbarella! Lucas’ rebellion, among with many other stylistic elements, was going to change the game.
Design Director Doug Chiang described the costume team’s thinking for Episodes 1 and 2: “In order to create a future, we looked into the past, and drew inspiration from history and nature in order to give our fictional creations a realistic foundation.” Such a brilliant idea, to aim for realistic, functional getups instead of the gaudy awkward costumes from ‘60s sci-fi! Well, the first trilogy played on that idea already, but we can thank Episodes 1 through 3 for creating Jar Jar Binks and those interminable galactic senate speeches.
Symbols are predominant in Star Wars, and turn the saga into more than “fairy-tale rubbish” (Sir Alec “Kenobi” Guiness’ exact words). This good ol’ story of good versus evil gains depth because of these symbols, and they’re done primarily with the costumes. The opposition between the Rebels and the Empire first appears on screen in the most obvious manner: the Rebels, dressed in earth tones, adapt to their environment, while the Stormtroopers’ cold, robot-like armour doesn’t seem to belong anywhere else than in the sterilized Star Destroyers they use to roam through galaxies. Rebels, led by Princess Leia Organa (see what they did there?), even seem to comply culturally: for example, the Rebels wear furry Eskimo boots on icy Hoth and Bedouin-style scarves on desert planets to protect themselves from the sand — Rey’s outfit in particular is amazingly functional this way. Queen Amidala’s stunning gowns (the only good things in Episodes 1-3, if you ask me) were also inspired by various cultures, from Mongolian headdresses to Russian ball gowns or Japanese kimonos.
Colours also play an important role in the saga, especially as hints as to which side of the Force each character belongs to. Beyond the evident “blue/green or red lightsaber” principle that determines degrees of evilness (which you can only escape by being a “bad motherfucker” named Samuel L. Jackson), the Jedi tunics offer subtler indications to the plot. Young innocent Luke (leukos in Greek, lux in Latin = light), like Anakin before him, starts by wearing beige in the first film, then turns to grey while Yoda teaches him the Force, and ends up wearing black like his father (oops, spoilers). This evolution follows his progress in mastering the Force and the gradually stronger influence of the dark side. As for the Empire, villains exclusively wear black (Darth Vader and the Emperor), white (the Stormtoopers) and red (the imperial guard), which were the colours of the German Empire — another reference to WWII, among many others, like the Nazi design on Darth Vader’s helmet or the Imperial officers’ uniforms.
It is no secret that one of George Lucas’ main inspirations was Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 Hidden Fortress. He openly admits to it. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Japanese references are so heavily used throughout the saga, especially during the feudal period. What, you didn’t notice that the lightsaber is a variation of the katana, and that Darth Vader’s helmet and facepiece are based on the samurai’s yoroi? (A mix of Nazi Germany and Emperial Japan that wouldn’t displease fans of The Man in the High Castle…) The Jedis master-apprentice relationship, as well as their ideal of honor and justice and the meditative quality of the Force, is quite clearly displayed in their modest tunics, a mix of martial artist gear and a monk’s robe.
The variety of historical and cultural sources the costumers drew upon to invent a brand new state-of-the-art futuristic mythology for the Star Wars saga is unique. No film has ever reached such a level of creativity and originality in costumes and design, which subsequently rendered everything from the universe instantly recognizable. Han Solo’s Spaghetti Western look, C-3PO’s Metropolis design, Leia’s metal bikini… every one of these outfits have been frozen in carbonite, living now and forever as legends.
The exhibition “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” starts on November 13th at the Denver Art Museum. May the Force bring you there!