I know what you’re thinking. You’ve turned the page in your favourite sartorial magazine and found yourself staring upon the plebeian face of science fiction, and not just any science fiction, Star Wars, the refuge of raggedy old men with funny light up swords, and princesses with bagels stuck to their heads. I understand this might be slightly shocking after the eloquent discussions on which neck wear you should don to impress the chaps at the club, but I would like all of you to keep a broadish mind for a few moments, and allow me to argue the case that Star Wars is as deserving of your sartorial attention as any of the Messrs Bond, Brummell or Wooster.
There is no questioning the place that the Star Wars franchise holds in cinematic history. It completely changed the nature of what cinema is, but, despite this, it is rarely acknowledged as a masterpiece of design and fashion in the same way as many other classic films. I am going to take a walk through some of the designs of all eight films, shining a light on how they draw from the past, present and future of fashion and storytelling.
Let us start with the Imperial and First Order uniforms created by John Mollo and Michael Kaplan. I think everyone who looks at these jack booted, crisp edged, sharp tailored uniforms can see the influences of Hugo Boss’ S.S. uniforms, and the connotations that go hand in hand with that. Not so obvious, though, are the influences of the Salvation Army uniforms or the dress tunics worn by New York Police in the 1950s, with their high collars and double-breasted fronts. Mollo took these and added a punch of futuristic practicality by removing the traditional buttons and creating the classic flat fronted, minimalistic uniforms that strike terror into the hearts of Rebels everywhere.
That does not mean, however, that it is not beautifully executed, especially in regards to the changes made for the new films, including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Despite the fact that most of the uniforms in Rogue One are identical to those in the original trilogy, we get to see one major difference, the uniform for the Science Director, Orson Krennic.
Krennic is a man set apart from the standard military chain of command, and is very aware of this. He suffers from feeling outranked and impotent, something for which he over compensates by donning his outrageously flamboyant cloak, which only manages to set himself further apart from those he wishes to impress. His uniform stands juxtaposed with the standard Imperial uniforms, just as he himself does not fit in the regime, therefore making them seem crisper and more authoritarian by comparison.
When designer Michael Kaplan – known for his work on Blade Runner – took on the costumes for Episode VII: The Force Awakens, he chose to mould the First Order around the uniforms of the Spanish Fascist regime instead of the Nazis. It’s a slightly more elegant look, and allowed him more scope to change and progress the different nature of the characters wearing these uniforms, predominantly General Hux, the young commander of Starkiller Base.
Hux’s costume is built around his character. Despite it being a uniform, it is very different to the ones worn by those under his command. He is a young man desperately trying to prove himself and his exaggerated uniform gives this away from his first entrance. The long line of the tunic, drawn in at the waist, coupled with the wide shoulders that have been broadened beyond his natural, slight frame, give him an over the top triangular shape, in an attempt to seem physically stronger and larger than he is. He is a character aware of his youth and fragile position, and will therefore use every tool at his disposal to assert his authority. This fragility is especially prominent when paired against the hulking mass of Kylo Ren, in his draping robes and excessive helmet. Hux often counters Kylo’s robes with a heavy, tailored coat, allowing him to take up even more space and equal his rival. The whole look should be oversized and ridiculous, but the exceptionally precise tailoring creates an ageless authority and powerful silhouette, becoming of Hux’s position, while also giving the audience hints as to the nature of his insecurities and thirst for control. It is not simply a uniform, it is his character; you can infer a lot about a man who never takes off his gloves.
If we are talking about character and authority shown through costume then I am going to have to take us right back to the prequels – Episode I through III for any who don’t know – and discuss the costumes worn by Padme Amidala. The outfits worn by Padme as both Queen and Senator Amidala of Naboo clearly hark back to the wardrobes of royals throughout history. They deliver a message in the same way as the dresses worn by monarchs of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, as well as the Imperial wardrobes of Japan. Hidden codes and patterns within her wardrobe express her power and presence, while still maintaining the appearance of a young queen in her prime. Her dresses from Episode I: The Phantom Menace, designed by Trisha Biggar, are intensely elaborate, blending historical fashion from Japan and Europe into one exquisite style that is uniquely Padme. She stands out before she even speaks; and if that isn’t the mark of a queen, I don’t know what is.
Her outfits are designed almost cynically: she is young, small and female, so therefore her clothes must force everyone, characters and viewers, to look at her from the moment she appears. She is capturing her audience and she is keeping it. The outfits are full of details, from tiny embroidery to large glowing stones to particular drapes and cuts of the fabric to extend her shape and size, so that each one not only commands respect but also hints at the years of history and tradition that lie behind Padme and her people. They represent a culture that, while created for a fantastical world, has its roots in the real world.
Along with the dresses there is the makeup. For all of Episode I, Queen Amidala has her face painted in a similar style to the Japanese kabuki masks, harsh white with red lips and small red dots on her cheeks. It is an attempt not just to hide her age, but to make her ageless. It is the face of the queen, all queens of Naboo, and by wearing it she merges them into one being, one figurehead, unchanging and unwavering.
Now, don’t run a mile, but let’s talk about the Jedi. Well, we all knew I had to touch on this eventually, even if they are rather scruffy.
The Jedi’s traditional robed appearance is an amalgam of European monastic habits and samurai kimonos of Edo-era Japan. The costumes spark ideas of religious zeal, proudly upheld honour and a strength of will beyond that of regular people. Even the physical wearing of the robes is a trial; they may appear comfortable and easy to wear but the weight and size of the robes makes wearing these heavy, layered garments as much of an exercise in concentration as any meditation.
The samurai influence becomes even stronger in the design of Darth Vader – yes, yes, we do have to talk about him. From the very start Vader is scary. He has to be. You need to know that he is the villain so his appearance has to intimidate and impress. Aside from his helmet, which I will come back to, he takes up twice as much room as anyone else, his great size constantly over embellished with the billowing of his cloak, forcing others to move away, leaving him to stand alone.
Despite the fact that he is meant to be feared, the suit and helmet are also extremely isolating, creating the vision of a man who has lost everything and has nothing left but hate and suffering. He cannot touch anyone, cannot see people with his own eyes, cannot breathe the same air, he is completely cut off from a world he once loved. He is lonely and afraid as much as he is powerful, fuelling his hatred towards those around him more. The helmet, the one thing that keeps him alive, also keeps him apart. Darth Vader is character at war with himself and his costume reflects that.
Much like the Jedi his design is pulled from elements of the samurai culture, though he far more obviously draws from the ferocious battle armour. His helmet mimics the shape of those worn by samurai in its curved shape and expressionless front plating. In the same way that Padme’s white kabuki makeup creates a mask of emotionless authority, the blank, black face with no hint of feeling, makes Vader into the quintessential warrior, efficiently cementing him as a force to be reckoned with. These two pieces of design mirror each other, just as the characters do; linked together through a visual thread. They are a pair; two striking pieces of design that bookend the films telling the story of Padme and Anakin.
I’m going to conclude this slightly unusual sartorial piece, with the most iconic piece of design in the whole franchise; Leia’s white dress.
As Padme’s wardrobe is that that of a queen leading through politics and Vader’s embodies a feared warrior forcing himself upon the galaxy, Leia combines the feel of both her parents – spoilers if you have been living under that rock. Leia is a princess standing on the front line. She knows her duty as a representative of her people, but at the same time she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. The white dress is stately, with a simple draped elegance that can only be worn by those with the poise and confidence of royalty. It is demure, the white giving a sense of innocence, it is becoming of a princess on a diplomatic mission, and the large hood hiding her features as well as her more secretive agenda. Despite its graceful nature, this dress is designed with one purpose in mind, espionage. It’s easy to move in, effortlessly nondescript, whilst giving her a presence and purposeful stride as it sweeps around her endlessly practical boots. She looks every inch the princess while being ready for whatever might happen.
Not only that but she provides the textbook mirror image to Vader; white against black, female against male, his heavy build against her slight frame. And yet she stands in defiance against him. Many forget that Leia is only nineteen years old; she is barely an adult when she goes toe to toe with the most powerful man in the galaxy. Vader could kill her with a thought but she gives as good as she gets. She has more self-confidence and strength of character in her little finger than many will ever have, and all of this is shown in that one simple dress. It gives Leia more presence than any other costume in the film because it is so uncompromising, just like she is.
Design is as much part of storytelling as anything else, and if Star Wars has excelled at anything it is storytelling. The costumes not only deepen the world they are part of but create the stories of the characters wearing them, building their lives far beyond that which is shown on screen. And if that hasn’t convinced you, then hopefully in a galaxy far, far away there is a Jedi wearing tweed.
By Holly Rose Swinyard