On May 21, 1980, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back made its theatrical debut. To celebrate the classic film’s landmark 40th anniversary, StarWars.com presents “Empire at 40,” a special series of interviews, editorial features, and listicles.
Costumes, especially in a galaxy like Star Wars, help tell us what sort of world we’re being dropped into and — perhaps more importantly — who the characters are. After all, the look of Darth Vader’s imposing black armor stays in your mind long after the final credits roll. And without the signature look, Star Wars just wouldn’t be the same.
In the case of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the costumes also give a sense of the evolution of characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa, while helping to show that time has passed since Star Wars: A New Hope. With the Yavin medal ceremony in the rearview mirror and the icy plains of Hoth rapidly approaching, let’s take a look back at some of the many ways that costumes evolved in The Empire Strikes Back.
THE REBEL ALLIANCE
The rebels may have blown up the Death Star, but the heroes of the Rebel Alliance have hardly been resting on their laurels since the Battle of Yavin. After all, there is still a war to fight and the costumes worn by characters on Echo Base reflect that. The Hoth costumes were also some of the first looks that the wardrobe department, led by costumer designer John Mollo, pulled together before filming began in Norway.
The snowspeeder pilot uniforms, although similar to the X-wing pilot jumpsuits seen before, have an obvious and practical upgrade: pilots now have nylon orange jackets with puffy collars and ribbed panels down each sleeve. These are worn over the same bright orange flight suits so closely associated with X-wing pilots, but with white leather gloves instead of black. And on their feet, Hoth-appropriate boots.
Behind the Scenes: The orange jackets were inspired by bomber jackets worn by pilots in our world.
Although Han’s been hanging around the rebels for the last few years, his wardrobe hasn’t changed all that much – with the exception of his time on Hoth, where the cold temperatures necessitated extra layers. The two scarves add a bit of his Corellian flair.
After fleeing for sunny Bespin, Han wears a look that is closer to his original attire with a few subtle upgrades and color palette tweaks. His pants go from being blue with a red tuxedo-like stripe to brown with a yellow stripe. He also now gets a dark colored jacket cut in a similar fashion to his A New Hope vest.
Behind the Scenes: Han’s mukluk boots, along with Luke’s and Leia’s, were custom made by London bootmaker Anello and Davide. Of all the parts of Han’s Hoth outfit, the most noteworthy is his winter jacket, which appears to be dark blue on screen, but is actually a dark brown color in real life, a point of some contention among cosplayers.
For a more drastic costume change, look no further than the unknowing Skywalker twins. Both Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker were promoted between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth and their outfits at the start of The Empire Strikes Back reflect as much. Gone are the farm boy poncho and the simple-yet-sleek royal gowns, replaced by far more utilitarian outfits better suited to war and the frigid temperatures on Hoth.
Leia’s transformation is the more dramatic of the two, even though she’s still wearing mostly white. Aesthetically, she fits in with the other rebels with her quilted jumpsuit and puffy-collared vest, but the white, off-white, and gray hues in her look still visually recall the princess we met in A New Hope.
Conversely, her Bespin formalwear is anything but the fatigues worn by a busy commander and it’s the first time we see Leia in an outfit that isn’t monochromatic.
Behind the Scenes: Costume designer John Mollo walked a delicate line with Leia’s snow fatigues, but made a bold choice for her long tunic and fitted pants in the Bespin look. The inclusion of five panels of elaborate embroidery on the silk cloak, which took costume designers hours to complete by hand, ensures it befits the character’s royal status.
For Luke, the Tatooine farmboy look is a thing of the past. Luke’s Hoth outfit adheres to the white-and-tan color scheme of the other troops and his snowspeeder pilot uniform is just like the rest of those in Rogue Group, with a few unique elements like his helmet tossed in to differentiate him from the pack. His rank badges and his new attire make it clear that Luke is very much a part of the Rebel Alliance and no longer the kid they tossed in an X-wing to go blow some things up.
On Dagobah and Bespin, Luke changes into beige fatigues, a combination of high-waisted pants and a jacket.
Behind the Scenes: The wardrobe department made sixteen copies of Luke’s beige fatigues because this particular costume reappears throughout the second half of the film with varying degrees of weathering to reflect the different stages of Luke’s lightsaber battle against Darth Vader.
As for the Galactic Empire, although they’ve spent the last three years regaining the upper hand, they haven’t made many upgrades to their uniforms. Some are only on the screen for a handful of frames, but if you know what you’re looking for, you just might spot them.
To many, Darth Vader’s signature helmet and armor look much the same as they did in A New Hope. The most obvious changes are seen in the Sith Lord’s helmet, with a larger, v-shaped chin vent, as well as more amber-tinted lenses. On Vader’s chest box and belt, there are also new details and flashing lights. And perhaps a nod to his evolving fashion, in this film Vader starts wearing his inner cape under his collar armor, a style that sticks for the rest of the trilogy.
Behind the Scenes: Darth Vader’s entire costume was overhauled for both style and comfort for The Empire Strikes Back and multiple versions of the costume were constructed simultaneously — the costume department made six different helmets for the movie. Some of the changes simply made the costume more comfortable for the actor inside, including the redesign of the mechanism to attach the dome to the mask. The changes made for The Empire Strikes Back worked so well that designs were largely unchanged three years later for Return of the Jedi.
To the casual observer, all the stormtroopers in The Empire Strikes Back might look the same as their predecessors, but there are some subtle differences. The most noticeable is the teeth on the helmets, now repainted black as opposed to gray. And if you look closely you’ll see there are actually two different sets of stormtrooper armor visible in the film.
Behind the Scenes: Originally sculpted by Brian Muir and Liz Moore based on concept art by Ralph McQuarrie, the stormtrooper armor had to be constructed quickly for A New Hope and it took a beating throughout production. Armor pieces were vacuum-formed out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic and only a few of the helmets were made out of ABS; the rest were produced in high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Twenty-four of the original stormtrooper costumes remained and a fresh coat of paint and white gaffer tape could only do so much.
While filming for The Empire Strikes Back started with these original costumes, construction began on what would become known as the Mk. II. Using an original costume to create a mold, designers made a few subtle tweaks, adjusting the shape of the back of the helmet and re-sculpting the ear caps. The new helmets would also use green bubble lenses instead of flat black ones, which looked cool but severely reduced the actors’ ability to see even further. The holster was worn on the opposite side and the hand plates are shaped differently. Ironically, the Mk. II armor is only visible in one shot of Empire Strikes Back during the carbon freezing chamber scene.
The Empire Strikes Back saw the true advent of specialized stormtroopers. The sandtroopers on Tatooine with their dirty armor, pauldrons, and heavy backpacks were just the start of what would become one of the hallmarks of the Galactic Empire.
Everything about the snowtrooper was designed with a colder environment in mind, including warmer fabrics for the soft parts. There are two variants of the snowtrooper: the standard trooper and a commander. The main difference lies in the helmet, with the commander’s being more rigid. They also carry a side arm and have a rank bar on their chests.
Behind the Scenes: Based on collaborative concept sketches by McQuarrie and Joe Johnston, very little carries through from stormtrooper to snowtrooper with the exception of a similar shape around the eyes in each helmet and the predominately white color scheme.
General Veers and the AT-AT Drivers
And who could forget General Veers? Commanding the AT-AT, Veers wears a green version of the snowtrooper’s chest and back armor over his standard olive officer uniform. And like the snowtrooper commander, his armor bears his rank bar.
The AT-AT driver’s uniforms are based off of the TIE pilots, although their flightsuits and armor are primarily white instead of black. The AT-AT drivers also wear a leg harness akin to those worn by the X-wing pilots, and they sport similar shoulder bells to stormtroopers, but inverted to give a different visual silhouette.
Behind the Scenes: Costumers crafting General Veers’ helmet (also painted an olive green) used a snowtrooper’s helmet as a base but without the vinyl face covering and with the addition of a number of greeblies and goggles.
The list of new costumes could easily go on and on. Costumes are such a crucial part of filmmaking and tell their own stories. And hey! Maybe next time, you’ll even spot those lone Mk. II stormtroopers in Cloud City.
Bria LaVorgna is a writer who doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t love Star Wars. She also really loves Alderaan, Doctor Aphra, and Inferno Squad. You can follow her on Twitter @chaosbria.
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Star Wars: Stormtroopers: Beyond the Armor
Star Wars: Costumes: The Original Trilogy