One of the most memorable villain entrances in cinematic history is made even more sinister with the sweep of a cape.
As Darth Vader boards the captured rebel spaceship in the first scene of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” his black armor and helmet are all the more powerful because of the fabric that envelops him in a character-defining swath of darkness.
Traveling warp-speed to the present, one of the most anticipated new villains in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was included in the film because of her costume concept.
“I just thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was someone in charge of the Stormtroopers in silver armor?” costume designer Michael Kaplan says of chrome-suited Captain Phasma, played by Gwendoline Christie. “I had one of my genius concept artists draw up a costume sketch that turned out so beautifully. J.J. (director and writer Abrams) saw it a few times and loved it but didn’t think there was a place in the film for it. Then (Lucasfilm President) Kathleen Kennedy stopped by, thought it was amazing and said it has to be in the movie. In the end J.J. wrote the character for the costume.”
In a film series famous for special effects, some of the most distinctive visuals come by way of the costume design. Would a Sith in any other mask be so menacing? Would the journey of Luke Skywalker be as grand without the impact of his heroic Kurosawa-inspired wardrobe? Thirty-eight years later, Princess Leia’s white turtleneck gown and twin-bun hairstyle remain a fashion hallmark for female empowerment in science fiction, just as her gold metal bikini in “Return of the Jedi” is still a potent enough symbol of sexuality to stir controversy.
“When George Lucas started thinking about the original film, one of the more important aspects was the look of it,” Brandon Alinger, the author of “Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy,” said. “His earliest work on costumes was done with Ralph McQuarrie, who established the looks of many of the key characters. His famous direction on the costumes was that he didn’t want people to notice them, he wanted them to be timeless and simple.”
In a galaxy populated with tuxedo-striped smugglers, exquisitely draped hermits and geisha-painted royalty, people did notice, especially in the fashion industry. Preen, Comme des Garcons Shirt and Vans sneakers have all created collections inspired by and using images from the film series. Joanee Honour, costume archivist and senior registrar at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, cites Nicolas Ghesquiere’s gold droid leggings in spring 2007 at Balenciaga as a pivotal moment for “Star Wars” on the runway; and in fall 2014, Kate and Laura Mulleavy created a collection at Rodarte that included gowns with Yoda, the Death Star, Luke and C-3PO printed on them.
Costumes from both trilogies have even been given their own exhibitions, like the current “Star Wars and the Power of Costume:
The Exhibition,” now on display at New York’s Discovery Times Square. With excitement high for the “The Force Awakens,” fans and fashionistas are asking what new and returning characters will be wearing.
“I wasn’t looking to change or rethink the departure point of the original designers, but to jump on the bandwagon with them, if that was possible,” Kaplan said. “I was working on a new script with many new characters, so of course I needed to bring into play my own sensibilities.”
Even with Kaplan’s desire to honor the work of original designers McQuarrie and John Mollo, he and Abrams initiated updates on old favorites, with one of the most obvious evolutions involving tweaks to the Stormtrooper army. While Alinger and Honour name fashion sources in the first two trilogies as diverse as medieval costume, World War II and Vietnam era military uniforms, the “Flash Gordon” serials of the 1930s and the grandeur of European and Asian dynasties, Kaplan said “The Force Awakens” found a contemporary inspiration.
“What ran through my mind was ‘What would Apple do?”’ he says of the Stormtrooper 2.0 uniform. “I lessened the planes and the details, simplified certain things, since that’s generally how technology advances.”
Kaplan also clarified schemes for the two sides in the film, the Rebels and the New Order (formerly the Empire).
“When I watched the original films, I found some of the scenes involving military a bit confusing,” Kaplan said.
In the new film, the Rebels’ costumes are earth-tone and softer in rumpled wool felts, moleskin and cottons. In contrast, the New Order characters wear primarily black, charcoal and teal blue in more high-tech fabrics with a stronger, harder silhouette.
For returning characters Han Solo and General (formerly Princess) Leia, Kaplan felt they needed to look as if they still had the same taste in clothes even though 30 years had passed. Leia’s first look in the film is a “no-nonsense work outfit — she’s wearing almost coveralls because she’s at work with her troops,” as befitting a military leader.
Han Solo’s gunslinger-inspired wardrobe remains mostly untouched.
With the new film’s box office success nearly a foregone conclusion, one of the ways its greater cultural impact will be measured is by seeing whether the costumes continue to resonate with fans, whether they be the ones dressed as their favorite characters next Halloween or the ones designing at major fashion houses.
“With the infinite popularity of ‘Star Wars,’ you can’t get away from its place in pop culture,” Alinger said. “I think fashion designers see that and are inspired, and I’m sure that energy is inspiring other creative people beyond fashion too.”
Reach Weekender at [email protected]