A visit to the traveling exhibition “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” by Johnny Grasso. Get 20% off tickets!
“Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume” is an all-new traveling exhibition of Star Wars costumes from the Smithsonian Institute in conjunction with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and Lucasfilm.
Featuring 70 hand-crafted costumes from the first six blockbuster Star Wars films, this exhibition reveals the artists’ creative process—and uncovers the connection between character and costume. George Lucas imagined and created a fantastical world filled with dynamic characters who told the timeless story of the hero’s journey. The costumes shaped the identities of these now famous characters, from the menacing black mask of Darth Vader and the gilded suit of C-3PO, to the lavish royal gowns of Queen Amidala and a bikini worn by Princess Leia when enslaved by Jabba the Hutt. A special presentation for the showing at Discovery Times Square in New York will feature seven additional costumes from the highly anticipated film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
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Ewan McGregor said it best, “It was extraordinary to stand in front of the mirror with all my wardrobe on, because I was Obi-Wan Kenobi.” I believe that captures the essence of “STAR WARS and the POWER OF COSTUME” exhibit in Discovery Times Square. Anyone from the average Comic-Con cosplayer, to a Rogue Rebel, and all the way to the 501st Legion can attest that a transformation occurs when one dons the galactic attire from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. From the noble yet humble robes of the Jedi, to the raw mummified wrappings of the Sandpeople, costume more than makes the character, it becomes one as well. “STAR WARS and the POWER OF COSTUME” will take you on a journey that will appear to be gone in 12 parsecs, but will be fulfilling and rich with the history of the characters we’ve grown to love.
As I walked up the stairs, a sudden feeling of nostalgia overcame me. Although I arrived to see costumes, the environment consumed me. From the Bespin staircase, to the Imperial door, and even the hologram of Princess Leia that began my journey, I instantly realized this would not be a glorified coat rack, but a complete experience as I hyperdrived through the many worlds of the galaxy.
Even the average Star Wars fan knows the name and work of Ralph McQuarrie. After all, his early designs helped shape the iconic characters of Darth Vader, C-3PO, and R2-D2 as well as many others, but he was just the beginning. Artists such as John Mollo, Nilo Rodis-Jamero, and Aggie Guerard helped shape the Original Trilogy just as Trisha Biggar and Iain McCaig and their teams tackled the expansive Prequel Trilogy. If you think Ralph McQuarrie was influential, what if I told you if it wasn’t for John Mollo we may never have had Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars. When Sir Alec was hesitant to sign on to a space opera, George Lucas (‘The Maker”) sent John Mollo to see Sir Alec with sketches of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “part monk, part samurai” costume design, and the rest is history. It is also worth noting that those Jedi robes are raw silk and not the rough burlap they appear to be on screen, and this may explain Obi-Wan Kenobi’s glib and cheerful demeanor, even when facing certain death.
On the surface it is easy to see that the Sith and Jedi have similar attire in design, texture, maneuverability, and style, all similar except in color. The Jedi who use the light side of the Force have lighter robes, and the Sith, and now the First Order, have darker robes as they abuse the dark side of the Force. These similarities are no accident, but by design. The rich history of the Jedi and Sith are represented in these costume choices, as the Sith was born of a renegade Jedi, therefore it makes sense that they dress in similar fashion.
These similarities in Jedi and Sith robes even clashed together in Episode III with Anakin Skywalker, and most notably Episode VI with Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamill even stated to George Lucas that his new costume felt “Vader-ish,” and Lucas simply replied, “It’s supposed to be.” Hard to argue Luke wasn’t tempted, or even touched the dark side of the Force in Episode VI after that piece of costume history!
The ornate Senate, Royalty, and Sithly attire Trisha Biggar and Iain McCaig designed are both luxurious and regal, with still a sense of community in that they seemingly exist in the same timeless era of galactic struggle. These free-flowing robes were of the Republic, before the dark times, before the Empire. It may not have been a great time to be a Jedi with Order 66 aroud the corner, but for a lady of high fashion, this was the Golden Age. The details were astonishing, but if there was any criticism, it would be in the accompanying props–for example, Padme was buried in the exhibit without the necklace Anakin gave her when he was that boy she met on Tatooine.
Perhaps the most visually impressive exhibit was that of the original trilogy stormtrooper. Standing in a hall of mirrors and floating helmets, I felt as if I was one of them, forced to stand in line amongst a herd of weary soldiers. The armor up close is weathered and battle damaged, and the theme of eerie uniformity rang true with every glance at the reflecting mirrors. Also, with a budget of $220,000 to spend on costumes for Episode IV, the stormtrooper design ate up $90,000 of it. That is almost half! (Well worth it, I’d say.)
Although the costumes were breathtaking in their stunning brilliance and charm, as mentioned earlier the props leave something to be desired. In the Internet age where we can purchase amazing replicas from manufacturers like ICONS, MASTER REPLICAS, and now EFX, and THE BLACK SERIES, the lightsabers, blasters, and other devices featured in the exhibit were more of the stunt variety. There were some nice pieces such as Dooku’s and Palpatine’s lightsabers, but most were thrown together, and none more evident than Darth Maul’s painted-on buttons.
Iconic, timeless, mysterious, and fan-favorite are just a few words to describe this bounty hunter that was so popular, George Lucas brought Boba Fett back from the Sarlacc pit and spared him his THOUSAND years of slow and painful digestion in its belly. This may have been my favorite exhibit as it appeared Boba Fett was staring me down, just waiting to break through that glass case and take me to Jabba the Hutt. It is also stated that the Boba Fett design was actually the early designs for one… Darth Vader.
What if I told you Han Solo did NOT shoot first, and his costume suggests it as well? At first it sounds crazy, however when you realize that Han Solo’s traditional garb was a throwback to the old marshals of the Wild West it isn’t so much of a farfetched notion anymore. Marshals, much like the Jedi, are keepers of the peace, and would never shoot first. Perhaps this is why Lucas changed it after all those years. Perhaps he remembered, or was reminded that Han Solo was inspired by Gary Cooper in the film High Noon, and Gary Cooper wouldn’t shoot first, so why would Han Solo? George Lucas has changed his mind before… Revenge of the Jedi anyone? And his faithful friend Chewbacca? Everyone assumes Chewbacca was modeled after a bear, or dog, but what if I said it was the opposite? Like a CAT. That’s right: a CAT. Stuart Freeborn used a cat, dog, and monkey to shape the Wookiee we know and love today, and even went as far as to state early on that he wanted Chewbacca to be more “cat-like” than anything else. “Meeeeooowwww.” “Boy you said it Chewie, where did you dig up that old fossil!?”
When designing Darth Vader, Ralph McQuarrie was given just one instruction: borrow from the Japanese culture and make him like “a Dark Lord riding on the wind.” The Darth Vader exhibit itself towers above the rest as if we are all to kneel before the Dark Lord of the Sith. His hand is outreached, not as a friendly gesture, but a reminder that one failed step and you will be force choked for your insolence. This exhibit is “Impressive… most impressive.”
Last but not least, the most explosive, argumentative, hot button socially and politically incorrect display this side of the Mississippi…Slave Leia. The display still reads “Slave Leia” and not the “Jabba’s captive” Leia that is making its way around the Disney universe, but this expression of rebellion does not go without an explanation, nay, more of a justification. The plaque reads, “She is exposed and temporarily humiliated. But she is IN CONTROL, plotting revenge… ironically the vehicle for revenge is the suit itself… her own chains to strangle the monster.” Sounds like a true Rebel Grrrl to me.
STAR WARS and the POWER OF COSTUME exhibit was not without its faults, but overall the experience, pageantry, wonderment, and amazement was a powerful addition to any fan’s Star Wars universe. The contribution of the costumes, and the artists behind them not only fleshed out the characters of the saga, but in many ways, especially the faceless characters like the Sandpeople, the droids, Darth Vader, and Boba Fett, the costume was the character.
By Johnny Grasso
Check out the gallery below for more images from the gallery and some enlightening captions from Johnny! – Editor