Finding character in clothing: The costumes of the Star Wars Original Trilogy

Costume choices make just as strong of an impression as dialogue and behavior do. The costumes of Star Wars not only capture the characters themselves, but the environment and tone of a scene. Even the smallest detail, like the embroidery of the Naboo symbol on Queen Amidala’s Red Invasion Gown in The Phantom Menace, tells a story.

Over the next several weeks, look for blog posts discussing the costumes of the Original Trilogy, Prequel Trilogy and Expanded Universe. In addition, there will be a post regarding costumes from other movies. Costumes add another layer to storytelling and can, at times, tell more about a character than the words they say.

 

A New Hope

Perhaps the costume that stands out the most in A New Hope is Princess Leia’s Senatorial Gown. Unlike the dresses worn by princesses in other movies, Leia’s dress wasn’t at all revealing, tight or restricting. She wears two different styles of the gown. The one worn on the Death Star, the Alderaan Princess, has short, less bulky sleeves and heavier while the Yavin version uses more voluminous sleeves and a more lightweight fabric.

The Senatorial Gown covers Leia from neck to toe. It’s loose fitting, white in color and simple. The color and fit insinuate purity while the simple design seems more appropriate for someone younger. The only accessory Leia wears is a silver and white belt. The hood in the back doesn’t appear bulky, merely practical. Leia’s practical and confident, yet she’s naïve in many aspects of life, including romance and military life. Her costume relays all these traits and more.

The Senatorial Gown wouldn’t be so memorable without the infamous double buns. The style combined an out-of-this-world feel with royalty. The buns hold her hair tightly to the scalp. Nothing is askew or hanging freely. Such is the life of Princess Leia for a third of the trilogy. The double buns, just like her, appear completely together, as if nothing can shake them loose. Emotions, a trip through the trash, nothing breaks through either.

At the medal ceremony on Yavin IV, Leia changes into a slightly more relaxed yet formal dress. The scooped neck, less rigid hair and gauzy cape remove some of the stiffness the Senatorial Gown cast on Leia. She still wore white and maintained that royal, pure look, but it’s clear that while she is still the same Leia, she has allowed herself to feel some joy at the destruction of the Death Star.

Leia’s hairstyle at the end of A New Hope consists of a crown of braids on the top of her head with one trailing behind. The crown of braids maintain her position, while the one trailing down acts as a sign of a touch of relaxation, regardless of how short that moment is. By that point, she needs a brush with joy after the loss of her world and family.

Everyone’s favorite farmboy Luke Skywalker wears a getup that solidifies his youth and role. The loose fitting tunic, pants and boots all indicate working hard in the heat. The lighter color is not only practical for a planet with two suns, but also give Luke an air of innocence and naivety similar to Leia’s. His garb is more casual that Owen Lars, who wears a robe and undershirt. Luke isn’t as focused on his life on Tatooine as his uncle is.

Luke’s second costume is the orange flight suit later worn by the Rogue Squadron. The insanely bright orange color acts as a drop of color in the drab grey and black color scheme that plagues the Empire. The suits, helmets and gear were based off what various military units wore or designed. In a way, that mixture is a strong indication of what the Rebel Alliance is: a mixture of various parts that wouldn’t normally work together, but when they do work seamlessly.

Luke’s final costume is the yellow jacket ensemble he wears for the medal ceremony on Yavin IV. With the blaster slung midway down his thigh, black undershirt and yellow jacket, some of that naïve boy from Tatooine blends in with a man who has witnessed death and destruction.

Han Solo’s clothes scream rebel. With a blaster as far down on his thigh as possible, a dingy looking shirt and black vest, it’s clear that this man sets his own rules. Even when presented with a medal at the end, Han sticks to the black vest. Even as he is being honored for his role in the destruction of the Death Star, he gives no outward indication of a change of heart. Even though his views changed, he wasn’t quite at the point of showing it.

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi robes first appear worn and comfortable. The long tunic doesn’t suggest that he is a fighter, more of a mentor. In that way, it captures the essence of Obi-Wan. Throughout the Saga, he teaches, tries to negotiate and fights only when necessary. More on the Jedi robes in the prequel post.

Darth Vader’s suit is the ultimate sign of an evil villain. With its mechanical appearance, it screams that the wearer is someone evil. Add in the loud ominous breathing and low dangerous sounding voice and the package is complete. His helmet and suit hide him completely, forbidding anyone from thinking he has any humanity left in him. The suit contains no decoration or alludes to style. It intimidates and keeps the man inside alive, that is all.

The Imperials wear uniforms featuring olive green, black and grey. Their costumes contain various features, like the riding pants that are based off what the Germans wore during part of the 19th century. The Imperial uniforms are drab and formal, similar to any military unit’s garb. There is no color aboard the Death Star, nor would there be. The colors play on the mood found aboard the space station: order, fear, destruction and desperation.

 

The Empire Strikes Back

In the next installment of the Original Trilogy, the costumes follow the changes in the characters, particularly Leia and Luke, much clearer. Given the multiple locations and opportunities to change, there are more costumes in the movie.

Leia is still wearing white, still her barred-off self on Hoth. The cold climate demands some type of protection from the cold, as seen by everyone. While the snowsuit isn’t formal, it certainly doesn’t belay any indication of relaxation. If anything, Leia appears more closed off than she did during ANH.

Leia keeps her hair up in braids. Again, her hairstyle is practical, perhaps more so than the double buns. Leia eventually sheds the vest portion of her snowsuit on Bespin.

The red costume Leia wears on Cloud City shows a dramatic change from the uptight princess to a woman finally allowing herself to be free. The dark red color of her tunic and pants suggest a more romantic, vibrate, alluring attitude. The tunic isn’t revealing or tight. The long white sleeveless cover adds a touch of soft romanticism and femininity. It’s decorated with embroidery, adding to the flair. Leia’s hair is also more relaxed. Though in braids, the looped style is much softer than any seen before. She is still Leia, but begins to adapt more to the changes in her life. Red is a deep contrast to the white she always wore before. It’s the color of romantic passion, something missing from Leia’s life until that point. In addition, it also shows that she is coming to terms with her growing feelings towards Han rather than hiding behind a stiff façade. The outfit is so characteristically Leia that it’s eerie.

Sadly, the Bespin outfit doesn’t stay on screen long. She’s stuck back in the snowsuit, sans vest, after capture. At the end, Leia goes back to white, wearing a gown that is almost in mourning. It’s almost the same as the Senatorial gown, though instead of the double buns or tight braids, her hair is pulled up in a more casual pile on the crown of her head. The hairstyle portrays more about Leia’s character at that moment than the dress itself. It’s clear that such a style wouldn’t take much time or energy. After losing someone, it’s difficult to do anything special. Though the dress choice could indicate that Leia could go back to the person she once was, her hair shows that it’s not the case.

Throughout ESB, Luke undergoes his Jedi training. Once free of the military snow gear and flightsuit, he turns to the khaki pants, ribbed tank and khaki jacket for Dagobah. His appearance gives him a more orderly feel, especially when he wears the jacket. Once he sheds the jacket, though, it’s clear how hard he’s working to become a Jedi. His clothing is simple caters to what he needs at the time. More importantly, it doesn’t resemble the ensemble we see him wear on the Rebel Base. He’s stepping away from the soldier to become something more.

Luke’s final outfit is a loose fitting tunic and pants. He wears it while the medical droid installs his prosthetic hand. Like most hospital garb, it’s comfortable and nonrestrictive. Its light color meshes well with Leia’s white robes, casting a type of light in the darkness that recently entered their lives.

No look at costumes is complete without a talk of Lando Calrissian, connoisseur of the all that is fine and luxurious. In his flared black pants, v-neck blue shirt and suave cape, Lando’s smooth and sophisticated personality is apparent from the start. He’s a businessman, ready to oil the wheels when necessary to reach the finale profit. The blue is peaceful and calm, suggesting that Cloud City is a safe haven for Han, Leia and Chewbacca. The silky fabric shows his love for the finer things in life. The hip cape is the final touch. Not many people can pull off a cape without looking ridiculous, but Lando does it. It seems like an extension of himself, that extra flair to his outfit—and character.

 

Return of the Jedi

The most iconic costume in all of the films is Princess Leia’s metal bikini. Scores of websites are dedicated to the construction of the slave Leia costume. Rather than allow the skimpy garb and chained collar to weigh the character down, it served as a tool for empowerment and means of escape. Not once when Leia was laying on Jabba’s dais or watching Luke, Han, Lando and Chewie approach the sarlacc pit did she look as if she was allowing anyone to humiliate her. Rather than permit that chain to stop or beat her, Leia turned the symbol of slavery into a weapon against her captor. Rather than try to hide herself or allow the costume to distract her, she accepted it and moved forward. She isn’t held back by anything during the events of Jabba’s palace.

Leia fully integrates herself as one of the soldiers in the Rebel Alliance with what she wears at the briefing and on Endor. There isn’t a shred of white on her uniform, which also removes the “princess” from the battlefield. She wound her hair around her head in braids. It’s out of the way and very “Leia.”

The Ewok dress is a rather interesting piece of work. Leia appears vulnerable in it. Her hair almost completely unbound, held back by a braid. Her insecurities about herself come through while wearing this dress. It’s wilder, rawer than anything else she’s worn in the movies. When Leia learns the truth about her heritage, she’s knocked down to a dark place. Everything she’s known is sent on a tailspin. Even after the destruction of Alderaan, a horror only a few could relate to, she still had a grasp on her past. With Luke’s reveal, everything changes. She does have family out there and he’s a monster. The Ewok dress plays off these emotions quite well.

Luke sheds his farmboy clothes for good with his black Jedi uniform. It’s strict, darker and formal, as Luke now is. He still maintains his inner confidence and belief that good will prevail, but now he’s learning the discipline necessary to be a Jedi. He never loses the black uniform. Rather than change, he simply throws on a camouflaged poncho and helmet. Though a member of the Alliance, he’s set apart from everyone else through his dress.

Han Solo finally meshes the lovable scoundrel with his sense of responsibility on Endor. While he doesn’t give up his traditional pants, white/ivory shirt and vest/jacket combo, he adds a camouflaged jacket. Not only does this help him blend in to the forest, but also it gives a sense of similarity to the Rebel fighters.

Emperor Palpatine maintains a shroud of evil and mystery with his shroud. It possesses neither glory nor glamour. It is threadbare, old and rough as he is. His face stays mostly hidden by a low cowl. His cane isn’t smooth, its scraggly and eerier looking. The Emperor’s robes exude both mysticism and danger.

Acting as a stark contrast to the black of the Emperor’s robes is the red of the Crimson Guards. Their smooth helmets, inhuman appearance and bold color demand attention. No one around the Emperor can forget that it would be a very bad idea to try to harm him. The ceremonial weapons look intimidating, always within sight of visitors and ready to punish.

The costumes of the Original Trilogy reflect the overall feel of the three movies. The changes of the characters, the darker tone of the Empire and the lighter colors to Rebel Alliance paint a clear picture of the state of the galaxy. Life is dark in many corners and oppressive. The Rebel Alliance is the light in that darkness, restoring color and hope to the galaxy.

Look for an in-depth look at the costumes of the Prequels early next week.

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Filed under costumes, Darth Vader, fashion, female characters, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker, Original Trilogy, OT, Star Wars

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