Star Wars: The Power of the Costume

Published: November 10, 2017 by Katie Kuryla

Recently I took a tour of the Stars Wars: The Power of the Costume exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum. Personally, I have not been a fan of Star Wars. I saw the very first movie in my Film as Literature class, I saw the Force Awakens while I was unpacking after I moved, and I have seen clips here and there of the three movies with Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman but the closest I’ve come to watching anything Star Wars related was Mel Brooks’ version Spaceballs. I not only took the tour because of my love of film and television archives but it was about learning something new.


Star Wars: Power of the Costume is part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). The costumes were pulled from the collection of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The exhibit was set up to uncover the challenges, intricate processes, and the remarkable artistry of George Lucas and his concept artists, Ralph McQuarrie and Iain McCaig, and costume designers, John Mollo and Trisha Biggar. Saul Sopoci Drake of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Laela French, the director of archives for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art at Skywalker ranch, worked together to give fans (and non-fans) a chance to really appreciate the details and craftsmanship of the movie. Some of the costumes could be considered works of art and others are fashion statements. IMAG1303.jpg

In order to create their future, the designers looked into the past by drawing inspiration from history and nature in order to give their fictional creations a realistic foundation. The designers for Star Wars used films, books, and history to curate the characters looks. Han Solo had influences from gunslingers from the Wild West movies, so the designers took elements of western clothing designs from movies such as Wyatt Earp and many of John Wayne. While working on Darth Vader’s iconic look, the designers didn’t look to movies but used books about Japanese armor and World War II as well as anything science fiction related. For Queen Amidala’s wardrobe, she had equal parts of haute couture and cultural homage. Her wedding dress, a work of art in my opinion, was made of 20th century antique Italian lace bedspread and embellished with over 300 yards of French knit braid. Trisha Biggar had spent the night before adding pearls to the dress for the scene.

According to Saul Sopoci Drake, the curator and exhibition project director for SITES, it was important for himIMAG1296.jpg to trace back the cultural influences that combined to make the pieces. He noted that aspects from world history made these costumes somewhat familiar to us. Japanese kimono styles were a recurring theme. The orange jumpsuits of Rebel pilots were influenced by the Mercury 7 astronauts, while the Empire takes fashion ues from Nazi Germany. It is interesting to see how movie magic has turned some of these costumes from simple and diminutive to what we’ve seen on the big screen. Turns out, Darth Vader’s original chest plate was originally a painted wood block.


One of the harder pieces to come through was the stormtrooper outfits. Most of the outfits didn’t survive the use and abuse of filming because while they look and sound like metal, they were plastic and as Drake said “During the time period of shooting these films, they weren’t thinking of keeping this stuff for museum exhibit in 2016.” But for the few suits that still exist from that time period, it makes you appreciate what an archives does in preserving for the exhibit that fans get to enjoy.

Laela French noted that not everything was necessarily retained from the original films. Mark Hamill’s character, Luke Skywalker, wore a yellow jacket during the medal ceremony scene in the movie A New Hope that was rented from a London costume shop, Bermans & Nathans. Once the prequels had begun shooting, French was on set to oversee a more comprehensive system of archiving and cataloguing. She said every costume was saved as well as other bits that went into the creation of the wardrobe.

The next stop for the Star Wars: Power of the Costume exhibit is in St. Petersburg Florida at the Museum of Fine Arts from November 11, 2017 to April 1, 2018. If you are a fan of Star Wars or if you are like me and just a fan of learning something new and it is in the film (and television) world and love archives, this is a fascinating exhibit.

**All information and pictures provided from the exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum**









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