The Amazing Stories, Art, and History Found in ‘Star Wars and the Power of Costume’

Go inside the saga-spanning exhibit, arriving November 13 at the Denver Art Museum.

Standing before a row of Queen Amidala’s gowns is like peeking behind the curtain before a couture runway show. Hand-smocked velvet gives way to gossamer silk chiffon; substantial grosgrains mingle with fine filigrees and a playful feathered cape. Some look a tad bit uncomfortable — one gown actually calls for the wearer to straddle a car battery to illuminate a series of globes at its rigid base — while others are just plain covetable, but each has the unmistakable air of royalty.

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Here, among a hand-picked collection of cinematic wonder, curators behind the touring exhibit “Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume,” tell the story of the creative process from eclectic inspirations to physical manifestation. StarWars.com visited the exhibit during its final days in New York City, with an eye towards its November 13 opening at the Denver Art Museum

In dressing the inhabitants of a galaxy far, far away, costume designers evoke mythological heroes and real-life astronauts, Eastern royalty, and pre-Raphaelite models. Breathing life into George Lucas’ vision, conceptualized by artists such as Ralph McQuarrie and Iain McCaig, then designed by the likes of John Mollo and Trisha Biggar, required international travels to find perfect fabrics.

Sometimes even their lunch became fodder for a dazzling headdress. As the story goes, Biggar and her team were taking a break from working on the prequels one day and eating abalone. “They’re looking at these shells and, after they were done with their lunch, they had the waiter put them in a doggie bag,” says Saul Sopoci Drake, the exhibitions developer behind the show. “Those particular shells ended up in Queen Jamilla’s crown.”

Jamilla’s full regalia is one of about 70 pieces, including the armored bodies of bounty hunters and droids, the monk-like robes of the Jedi and Sith, and the iconic looks of the classic films.

Craftsmanship and artistry

Drake, of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and Laela French, director of archives for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art at Skywalker Ranch, worked together to cull from the thousands painstakingly preserved pieces to brilliantly illuminate the creative undertaking and the intricacies of each costume. For the marriage of Anakin and Padmé, costume designer Biggar stayed up all night before the shoot to pearl the wedding gown, which had already been fashioned from a 20th century antique Italian lace bedspread and embellished with over 300 yards of French knit braid.

The exhibit gives fans a chance to get within reach (but not too close — no touching) to examine Biggar’s handiwork. “When you see them up close, you can really appreciate the details and craftsmanship and artistry,” Drake says. “There was so much time and effort and detail. Some are works of art. Others are fashion statements.”

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Take, for example, Amidala’s vast wardrobe, equal parts haute couture and cultural homage. The character had so many costume changes over three films that some gowns that took months to create but were on screen for mere seconds. Among Drake’s favorites is a senate gown that boasts an opulent Mongolian-inspired head piece, which along with everything else in the show must travel in a carefully-packed custom crate. “On a symbolic level, when you look at this headdress, this person isn’t digging ditches. She’s the queen of some people,” he says. Those nonverbal cues, in this case a nod to Tibetan royalty’s court regalia at the turn of the century, imbue many characters with a clear purpose as soon as they walk onscreen. “Truly on a symbolic level there are some powerful things at play here.”

‘The ultimate bad guy’

The open air platforms where many of the costumes are perched has been a gift to passionate cosplayers. On occasion, Drake has also fielded their requests for behind-the-scenes knowledge. Before packing up the show in New York City in September, he was tasked with measuring part of Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi robe for a man who was building his own Jedi garb and couldn’t quite perfect the belt. “It’s a testament to the veracity of the fan base,” Drake says. “You have really passionate fans who live and breathe this stuff.”

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Amidala’s gowns, specifically, are staggering in number and splendor. Up close, one can study the brocade lining sumptuous bell sleeves, fine collars made from clustered seed beads, and the feathers and rosettes adorning ensembles with delicate precision. In contrast, Jedi and Sith robes appear deceptively simple, like the humble trappings of monks. But up close one can see the way fabric layers allowed Sith apprentice Darth Maul’s tunic to fan out in choreographed splendor, or examine the finely tooled leather gauntlets of Mirialan Jedi Luminara Unduli.

It was important for Drake to trace back the cultural influences that combined to make pieces at once familiar and wholly unique. George Lucas’ own library at Skywalker Ranch encompasses a vast reference material collection. “This library rivals some university libraries in terms of depth and breadth,” Drake says. “All of these costumes in one way or another are somewhat familiar to us. We’ve seen aspects of them in cultural and world history.”

Japanese kimono stylings are a recurring theme, in the outer shells of royal attire and the under dressings of the humble Jedi robes. The orange jumpsuits of the real-life Mercury 7 astronauts influenced the uniforms of the Rebel pilots, while the Empire takes fashion cues from Nazi Germany. Even the unforgettable bikini worn by Princess Leia at Jabba’s palace owes its inspiration to other slave girls portrayed on the silver screen.

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While fewer in number, pieces from the original trilogy stand out as culture touchstones of a more understated simplicity compared to the big-budget prequel finery. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia’s white floor-length dress, cinched with a silver belt, is elegantly simple and surprisingly diminutive. Darth Vader’s chest plate was originally little more than a painted wood block, Drake says. “It’s so interesting to see the details on the classic costumes,” he adds. “Literally they’re bits and pieces of wood.” But on screen, movie magic and symbolism coalesce. “Even before you hear him talk or breathe, you know he’s the ultimate bad guy.”

Trooper abuse

As it turns out, Mark Hamill actually was a little short for a stormtrooper. His armor had to be specially made to fit his frame, French says, and the helmet he wore was catalogued in the archive. But other authentic stormtrooper costumes are harder to come by nearly 40 years after the original film’s debut.

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Drake managed to secure a Return of the Jedi-vintage set of armor for the show, complete with scrapes, grime, and cracks. Only 50 stormtroopers were molded for A New Hope, and many of those were reused for the sequel. But they were completely recast and revised for Jedi with taller, skinnier helmets, French says. “My suspicion is they just didn’t survive the abuse and use” from the previous two films.

“During the time period when they were shooting some of these films…they weren’t thinking about keeping this stuff for a museum exhibit in 2016,” Drake says. “Even though the armor is made to look and sound like metal, it’s basically plastic. It’s really beat up. You can tell that the actor’s been rolling around in the dirt. He’s getting dented, cracked, the whole nine yards. It really gives you an appreciation of what the archive does to preserve some of this stuff.”

The impressive collection spans the entire seven-film franchise, debuting some pieces from Star Wars: The Force Awakens before the movie had even premiered.

The most central characters’ costumes are represented, including iconic creatures, like the sculpted fiberglass, vac-formed plastic, and aluminum droids and Chewbacca’s yak and mohair coat, a reminder of Peter Mayhew’s towering stature. Friction has rubbed some of the shine from C-3PO’s golden joints and some dings and scrapes are apparent on his counterpart’s veneer. A simple sketch shows how Kenny Baker hunkered down in R2-D2, a leg planted on either side to allow for motion, but Drake likes to examine the droid’s internal workings for himself when he tears down the exhibit to transport it to the next tour stop.

300 extra pieces

Not everything was crafted specifically for the original films or necessarily retained, French notes. Luke’s white tunic and tall boots from his first scenes as a simple farm boy on Tatooine are a notable omission. “We wish we had it, but we don’t,” she says. The same goes for the yellow jacket he donned during the medal ceremony in the finale of A New Hope, which seems to have come from and been returned to Bermans & Nathans, a London costume rental shop.

When it was time to shoot the prequels, French was on set to oversee a more comprehensive system of archiving and cataloguing. Every costume was saved, she says, as well as other bits that went into the creation of the wardrobe.

About 300 extra pieces from the archive will be specially delivered for the show’s run in Denver. Each venue — the exhibit debuted in Seattle before spending nearly a year in New York City — has a chance to style it as its own, Drake and French say. For the art museum crowd, that means an even more in-depth look at the process of costume creation. “They’re recreating that feeling of the studio,” French says, including costume patterns, test swatches Biggar used to play around with silk screening on chiffon and even the screens themselves, etched with Naboo symbology. “It’s like when you get to see an artist’s studio and their palette,” French says. “We have some of that messy — but really interesting — process and it’s beautiful.”

Star Wars and the Power of Costume” will be on display in Denver from November 13, 2016, through April 2, 2017, before continuing on to other yet-to-be-announced locations around the globe. French notes this stop will be the farthest west the exhibit is planning to open in the United States.

Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.

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