Inside the Three-Decade Evolution of “Star Wars” Costumes
A Smithsonian traveling exhibition offers an unprecedented glimpse at costumes from a galaxy far, far away
Few costumes are as universally recognizable as the stormtrooper suit from Star Wars. Graffiti artists spray the white helmet and body armor, sometimes a symbol of tyrannical government, on walls around the world. Less politically motivated are the stormtrooper costumes ubiquitous at comic book conventions. “There’s really key pieces that…have entered into our cultural knowledge base,” Laela French of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art says about Star Wars costumes. “They’ve become part of a visual language.”
Fans don't have to wait until Star Wars: The Force Awakens premieres this December to get their stormtroopers fix. For the first time ever, an original stormtrooper costume from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi will be on display in a traveling exhibition, along with Jedi robes, Chewbacca’s fur suit, Princess Leia’s slave bikini, and other iconic looks from George Lucas’ six films. “Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume,” a collaboration between Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), the Lucas Museum, and Lucasfilm, will travel to a dozen cities through 2020. Organizers say it’s the first official exhibition to focus entirely on Star Wars costumes, and it’s been nine years in the making. Currently on view at Discovery Times Square through September 6, 2016, the exhibition features more than 70 costumes, along with concept art and other insights into the design and implementation processes.
“We are really trying to show how this idea becomes reality,” says Saul Sopoci Drake of SITES. The exhibition isn’t like something you’d see at Planet Hollywood; rather, it explores how the costume designers constructed the pieces so that they’d move properly on film and connect with the characters wearing them.
That design process evolved over the course of Lucas’ six movies. “In the earlier films, George Lucas was setting out with a pretty modest budget,” Drake says. “What you see in the later movies is that he really didn’t spare any expense on the creation of these costumes.”
French says the progression also had to do with the narrative. In the earlier films, she says, the characters in the Rebel Alliance were on the run, so “the costuming was ad hoc.” “When you move to the new films” she adds, meaning the prequels from 1999, 2002 and 2005, “it was the height of their culture.” For those designs, concept artists looked to cultures in Japan, Mongolia and China and for inspiration.
Fortunately, French says, Lucas held on to many of the materials from his early films. And when it came to saving artifacts from the three prequels, French says, “We collected pretty much everything we could.” Lucas had final approval over the traveling exhibition, organizers say.
The exhibition marks the third collaboration between SITES and the Lucas Museum, which will open in Chicago in the near future. SITES has yet to announce the show’s 11 destinations following Seattle.
“Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume” will be on view at the Discovery Times Square through September 16, 2016