John Mollo: Color and Authenticity in the Star Wars Universe

The author of Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy speaks with the Oscar-winning costume designer of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.

One of the highlights of writing Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy was studying the work of John Mollo. Mollo is one of a small number of individuals who can proudly state they worked directly with George Lucas on the seminal design of the original Star Wars, giving him a unique perspective on the film and all that came after.

Beyond writing a foreword for the book, Mollo was instrumental in helping me with my research. He made himself available for several transatlantic conversations via phone, and then kindly invited me to visit him at his home in the UK. There he showed me some of his original notes from meetings with George Lucas, and explained his respect for the director’s clear vision of his characters. Mollo regards A New Hope as one of most his enjoyable production experiences.

While the look of A New Hope‘s key characters had already been mapped out by Lucas and concept artist Ralph McQuarrie before Mollo began, a significant task remained in polishing and refining the early concepts as well as establishing the various rebel and Imperial forces.

Mollo therefore worked hand-in-hand with George Lucas on each of the developing costumes. Beginning in early 1976, the pair would have weekly meetings to review the designer’s latest sketches. “My modus operandi is sketching. I play around with ideas really,” Mollo says. This is evident in studying the designer’s illustrations, where a single page frequently contains dozens of thumbnail sketches for possible shapes, forms and styles of costume elements. “If George liked something he said he liked it, and that was it really,” he says.

While Mollo makes the process sound simple, a huge amount of effort went into making deliberate and conscious costume choices that would shape the visual aesthetic of the film. Outfits were assembled by design, not by chance. A prime example is the outfits’ color palette. “The color scheme basically was the baddies would be black or gray, with the exception of the stormtroopers, and the goodies should be in earth colors — fawns and whites,” Mollo said.

Lucas mapped out a look for the characters that would play well within his environments. “I worked very hard on the whole color dimension of the film,” Lucas said. “It was technology versus nature. I put all of the technological world in black and white and the organic world in a brown color.”

The director knew the costume colors should make a statement, if only subconsciously. “I wanted Luke and Ben and all the people on Tatooine dressed in brown. Luke’s costume is not white, it’s a very light tan color. The Princess’s outfit was white because she’s part of the technological world. Technology was not the face of evil, technology can be good as well as bad.” This directive was also applied to the droids. “We had thought C-3PO could be silk chrome like the robots in THX-1138,” he continued. “I like the shine of chrome, but we decided C-3PO was really the more human of the robots, so we would make him part of the human being color scheme.”

“Color is very, very dif­ficult to use in costumes,” adds Mollo, who selected all of the fabrics for the film. He felt Lucas’ color choices were ideal for setting up a realistic world. “Bright colors don’t work well on film, particularly reds and blues. George always goes for the authentic.”

Reflecting on his work with Lucas, Mollo explained the relationship between director and designer very succinctly. “As designer, the things that you would like to do specifically you either do without asking, or you ask them to let you do, but it’s all quite a day-to-day process. You’re so tied up in that scramble that you’re not really there to set an idea. You’re there to interpret the script as best you can,” he said.

Mollo returned as designer for The Empire Strikes Back, though not before winning an Oscar for his efforts on the original film. He followed the same principles on the sequel as the original and updated the look of the established characters, and designed new outfits for the new worlds — Hoth and Cloud City. This would be Mollo’s final Star Wars picture. For Return of the Jedi, the decision was made to produce the costumes (which would be almost entirely new) in California rather than in London.

Throughout my chats with John Mollo I was struck by how much of the costume design in the films was conscious and deliberate. In this author’s humble opinion it is understated brilliance. My sincere hope is that the showcase treatment of the outfits in Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy conveys the brilliance of both the costumes and their creators.

Brian Alinger is the author of Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy, available now.