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Exhibition, book reveal storytelling power of `Star Wars' costumes

WASHINGTON—George Lucas created the "Star Wars" universe in black and white, essentially. Princess Leia, in the virginal white dress, was good. Darth Vader, in the black plastic variant of a Nazi helmet, was evil.

When Lucas returned to making "Star Wars" movies in 1995, however, he brought with him a richer and more literate imagination—not to mention far deeper pockets for costume budgets. So he dressed characters in the second trilogy of "Star Wars" films in far more subtle, opulent and allusive styles. The new costumes were in black and blue leather, red silk velvet, aqua satin, pastel chiffon and multiple strands of cascading pearls.

Many costumes from both periods will be on display in a new book and in an upcoming "Star Wars" costume exhibition opening in Los Angeles in September, and in a runway presentation at New York's Fashion Week in September. All provide rich insight into the storytelling that costumes did for Lucas, often without viewers realizing it. Costume designers, who do realize it, often use "Star Wars" costumes as exemplars.

In the more recent trilogy, Lucas' high concept was to impress upon the viewer that the "Star Wars" universe had existed for thousands of years across thousands of star systems; indeed, that each planet had its own culture and history. To get that across, he and his designers ransacked Earth's cultures for their finest eye candy and reintroduced morsels of it in "Star Wars" costumes.

Lucas' Scottish costume designer for the newer trilogy, Trisha Biggar, dressed exotic residents of the Galactic Republic in Mongolian and Tibetan styles, for example. She clad heroic good-guy Jedi in monastic robes of linen and wool, brown, white and black. Glimpses of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and Art Nouveau styles are scattered through the films.

The most elaborate costumes belong to Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). As Queen of Naboo in the first film of the new trilogy, "The Phantom Menace," she wears heavy Kabuki-style robes and elaborate headdresses, often pearl-bedecked. In the next film, "Attack of the Clones," she picnics and flirts in a gold silk frock with tiny appliqued pink roses. Finally, in "Revenge of the Sith," she conceals her pregnancy in enveloping gowns of lush green and burgundy velvet, saving a blue silk-satin negligee for intimate moments.

It's all a far cry from the rudimentary if mythic design of the original Vader headgear, which simply crossed a German World War II helmet and a gas mask, according to the new "Star Wars" exhibit's catalog and $50 costume book, titled "Dressing A Galaxy."

As Lucas explains it in a bonus featurette on "The Phantom Menace" DVD: "I very scrupulously avoided fashion in the other movies. I made Princess Leia very, very simple. ... This time we're walking right into a fashion statement, head-on."

Kerri S. Packard, an adjunct associate professor and costume designer at the University of Missouri in Columbia, says Lucas and Biggar are well-worth studying.

"I use the `Star Wars' saga when I talk about how a costume sets a movie in a time and a space, and how a designer uses her own ideas ... a little Japanese, a little Gothic period influence," Packard said in an interview.

The realm of "Star Wars" costumes has lots of room for the exotic, thanks to the human and non-human diversity of Lucas' world. "There are creatures from all over the universe, and they're not all going to look like humans," said Kevin Jones, curator of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, which is hosting the show.

The show opens Sept. 19 and runs through Dec. 10. It's called "Dressing A Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars."

Among the exhibits are the head of an "Ishi Tib," which defines as a "biped with bulbous eyes and bird-like beak," and squid-headed "Tessek" from "Return of the Jedi."

Some of the costumes on display are from the original trilogy. Among them is Princess Leia's slave-girl bikini from "Return of the Jedi." It's made of hard plastic with a flimsy cloth drape and has required construction of a special mannequin, according to Jones, "because it's so tiny." Such "classic costumes" from the original trilogy are hard to come by, he explained, because "not that many survived."

In addition to the original Darth Vader costume and C-3PO's golden metal body, the exhibit will offer an arsenal of lightsabers and even a Wookiee's crossbow. Also featured is the coffin that bore Padme Amidala to her final resting place, clad in watery gray-blue-green silk embroidered with vintage hand-dyed sequins.

Professor Lourdes Font of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City says the exhibit "can bring both the film's fictional characters and its glamorous stars into the realm of the visitor's direct sensory experience."

"Star Wars" shows tend to pull big audiences. The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum drew more than a million visitors to its 14-month exhibit called "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" in 1997-1999.

The L.A. show, while free, will require tickets and timed entry. Tickets are available, with an online processing fee, on the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising's Web site at


A timeline for the "Star Wars" saga:

"Episode I: The Phantom Menace" (released 1999)

"Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (released 2002)

"Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" (released 2005)

"Episode IV: A New Hope" ("Star Wars"—released 1977)

"Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (released 1980)

"Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi" (released 1983)


These sites offer historical and visual references to "Star Wars" costumes:

Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising:

Mongolian fashions:

Padme's headdress: or

Star Wars:

Smithsonian Institution exhibit: Star Wars, the Magic of Myth (1997):


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