Luminous Beings Are We: The Great Star Wars Halloween Costume Shortage of 1977

For me, Halloween always began in a store aisle.

I would be shopping with with my mom, sometime in September, and would notice that there was more candy. My mom would push me along. It wasn’t time, not yet, but there was a sense — some sort of subtle disturbance in the retail ether — that something was on its way.

As October came, an aisle would appear in those stores. Almost out of nowhere. What had been there before? Swimwear? Porch furniture? Sunscreen? It didn’t matter.

The costumes had arrived.

Hung on racks and facing us like works of splotchy high art, the new costumes represented the biggest possible choice a kid could have. It was the question we repeated to each other hundreds of times: What are you going to be? It was the only fashion statement that mattered. Below all the costumes of Jaws, Hong Kong Phooey, and the Six-Million-Dollar Man, were the flimsy cardboard boxes they came in. They had see-through plastic on the tops so we could study the masks inside. We didn’t know who Ben Cooper was, but we thought he was just about the greatest man who had ever lived.

Then Star Wars came. And Halloween changed.

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All of a sudden, we were thinking about costumes in summertime.

Lucky for us, Ben Cooper (which was the name of a guy who started a costume business in Brooklyn) felt the same way. Ben Cooper was one of the first licensees of Star Wars for costumes in 1977. They had success with the Planet of the Apes, so they took a chance on Star Wars.  It was a smart move. Their first attempts (written about here by Steve Sansweet) are legendary. They were uncomfortable, possibly toxic, and artistically suspect. But they were still awesome.

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As prophetic as Ben Cooper was, the company could not have guessed just how popular their Star Wars costumes would be. In that first Halloween of 1977, Star Wars costumes were so popular, that they were quickly selling out. The Associated Press ran a story about it in late October that was repeated all over the country:

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Other articles soon followed. Some stores reported selling more Star Wars costumes than pumpkins:

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Having a shortage of Star Wars costumes for the FIRST HALLOWEEN AFTER THE FILM would today seem like a colossal disaster. But it wasn’t. Not in the way you might think. What happened next was more interesting: kids, denied their dream Chewbacca poncho, didn’t just shrug their shoulders and settle for a Jabberjaw costume.  They instead made their own.

Granted, part of this phenomenon had to be frustrated parents trying to deal with kids who couldn’t get what they wanted. But it wasn’t all that. How else can we explain such overwhelming evidence (just check Flickr) of homemade Star Wars costumes during the retail heyday of the Ben Cooper empire. There were costumes for everything back then. It wasn’t that there weren’t any choices. Kids just wanted Star Wars.

So girls looked for white dresses and bought fake braids or tore apart old wigs. Boys had their moms cut out black vests and bandoliers. Or they’d just raid their dads’ closets. The results weren’t always perfect, but they had their own mighty soundtrack.

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And if your mom or aunt or grandma had a sewing machine? You might get a genuine faux-fur Chewbacca costume that looked suspiciously like the family room rug.

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And if you couldn’t make your dream Star Wars costume? You could invent your own character. I couldn’t get a Boba Fett costume, so I made up my own bounty hunter.  I don’t remember his name, but he was pretty impressive. He was a Jedi, too, I think. And he had fangs. Are you going to tell ten-year-old me that’s against canon? Go ahead. I dare you.

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My little brother is Vader with a “Light Sword” or a “Laser Blade 3000.” He is also wearing the requisite undercover sweatshirt. No comment on my sister.

Nowadays, of course, you can buy licensed Star Wars costumes ranging from plastic Commander Cody masks to full-length Vader armors costing nearly $1,000. There is something for everybody.

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But back then, as kids, we were nobody. We had little say in our education, diet, and clothes. That’s how it is. But at Halloween, the choice was ours. That’s why it was great, even if the costume was some lame, flame-retardant sheet of vinyl.

The what and how didn’t matter. Because that was Star Wars: dirty and ramshackle, held in space with bobby pins and Scotch tape, just like the Falcon. It was all homemade. It was that aesthetic that inspired all of the cosplay, crafting, and Death-Star building we still do today.

But that was yet to come. All that mattered back then was running in the dark, ahead of our parents, with steel flashlights and lungs full of cold air.

All that mattered was that when we looked up, we could see the stars.

Luminous Beings Are We is a monthly column about Star Wars and popular culture by Brad Ricca, the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman. He also writes the comics column “Unassuming Barber Shop” at The Beat. Visit www.brad-ricca.com and follow him on Twitter at @BradJRicca.

 

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