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Villa Retreat Dress

If you try and tell the story of Star Wars only through its costumes, then you’re going to end up telling the story of Padmé Amidala. That’s the story I overheard as I moved through Star Wars and the Power of Costume; a father explaining to his son the succession of the queens of Naboo, a young man telling his girlfriend about how her love of Anakin Skywalker ultimately caused her death, and myself chatting to a woman who had inadvertently (or not!) dressed for the cold in an outfit that recalled Leia on Hoth about Padmé’s last sartorial power play over her coffin.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume isn’t the first time that the costumes of Star Wars have gone on tour—over one hundred pieces from the first six films were exhibited at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in 2005 to celebrate the release of Revenge of the Sith. (I like this photo because the first four costumes on the left make Padmé look like Deanna Troi.) But it is the most recent, in that it’s running in New York City until the end of the month. Like its predecessor, the exhibit’s timeliness is in service to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It features seven costumes from the new film, which we’ll get to.

The exhibit’s focus on Padmé initially seems like a sheer numbers game. Her wardrobe is so extensive that it’s both considered a useful bargaining chip in The Phantom Menace (Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon consider selling it on Tattooine) and has a massive entry on Wookieepedia dedicated to it (including the additions made to it by the comics, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars). Compared to Leia’s seven outfits and Luke’s six outfits, Padmé’s thirty wildly different looks is an overwhelming number. The original trilogy’s costume design, perhaps inspired by costume designer John Mollo’s lifelong fascination with military uniform, tends to run towards strong, iconic looks. Leia’s comfortable but chic white dress and boots are suitable for both senatorial work and blasting fascist pigs. Han could be dropped into a western without much tweaking. And Luke’s evolution from dork in a bucket hat and poncho to the Man in Black himself perfectly matches his character’s arc over the course of the trilogy. That is what costume design is meant to do—communicate character wordlessly.

Three Queens of Naboo

But what sets Padmé’s costumes apart is the fact that Padmé and the women of Naboo actively use costume to achieve their goals, usually by using it to obscure and manipulate identity. Padmé appeals to the Senate for aid in a gown that both plays to the rafters and makes her look like a sympathetic figure swamped in brocade. Her handmaidens move en masse in identical costumes meant to disguise and dehumanize. Apailana mourns Padmé’s death in a shiny remix of her Coruscant apartment robe that implies both water and metal. Costume is a language that Padmé speaks, and powerfully.

Of course, this is just one of Padmé’s many fascinating traits that gets thrown out of the window come Revenge of the Sith, like her handiness with a blaster and political prowess. (Did you know that Padmé founding the Rebellion was literally cut out of Revenge of the Sith, because it was taking up too much of the movie? Imagine that!) But, to quote something Aimee Fleck said about Jean Grey at FlameCon, don’t blame her for the men who wrote her. When you look at both Padmé and the prequel trilogy through the lens of the astonishing work of costume designer Trisha Biggar, they both kind of work.

All the storied and endlessly discussed failings of the prequel trilogy lie in its execution, not its inherent premise or potential. Where those two things align, the prequel trilogy actually shines—Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, anyone? The prequels’ obsession with CGI made the films weightless and antiseptic, but if you focus on the real, tactile costumes, it brings the characters and story to life in a way that the films fail to.

Mon Mothma

Walking around the exhibit and trying not to trigger the alarms again after I got too excited and started pointing out design details to my companion, I suddenly appreciated for the first time the retrofuturism of the prequel trilogy. Padmé’s pilot disguise recalls the Rocketeer, Bail Organa’s senatorial robes would fit neatly into any given seventies sf franchise (hey, wait a minute…), and Mon Mothma’s gown is a dreamy mod remix of her original trilogy look. The costumes have weight and texture to them in almost perverse inverse proportion to the CGI that surrounds them. For Padmé’s wedding dress (admittedly one of my least favorite Padmé looks), Biggar not only sourced vintage Italian lace, she stayed up overnight to bead it by hand before the day of the shoot. The exhibit even features three different “pat the costume” panels, offering (I assume) approximate fabric samples for patrons to touch.

Of course, Star Wars and the Power of Costume also features costumes from the original trilogy, contrasting TIE Fighter pilots and X-Wing pilots, as well as Fetts Boba and Jango. (Boba wears a jet pack and a fabric belt. Who taught you how to jet pack, Boba? Sorry, I mean, Zam?) It also includes the dread slave bikini, complete with some panels about how it reveals Leia’s femininity (because femininity equals skin) and doesn’t “actually” objectify her (even though that is literally what Jabba is doing to her on purpose). “You’re so full of crap, Dwight,” I whispered to the panel, so apologies to Dwight, the nice Smithsonian curator who had to try and spin the slave bikini as something else. You’re just doing your job, buddy! I’m really happy that the cultural conversation about the slave bikini as of late has been much more honest about what it actually represents in terms of Leia’s character. That can best encapsulated by Carrie Fisher reminding people that Leia killed the dude that forced her into that bikini with that bikini. It helps that the exhibit presents it right next to Leia’s Boushh disguise, which is the most adorable bounty hunter costume I’ve ever seen.


Surprisingly, the exhibit doesn’t take the opportunity to contrast costumes from the first two trilogies as often as I thought it would. The Fetts are together, of course, the surprisingly large BB-8 is grouped with C-3PO and R2D2, Leia’s white gown (complete with glorious disco belt) is displayed with Padmé’s Coruscant apartment robe, and Luke’s Return of the Jedi costume is displayed with Anakin’s fresh Jedi Padawan robes from the end of The Phantom Menace, but that’s it. This makes for a cleaner break for the last room, which features six costumes from The Force Awakens—a Stormtrooper, a TIE Fighter pilot, a snow Stormtrooper, Finn’s civvies (featuring the infamous Jacket), Rey’s outfit, and Jessika Pava’s flight suit.

Jessika Pava's Flight Suit

That last one is why I’m really glad I waited until after seeing The Force Awakens (twice…) to see the exhibit. Jess has become such a touchstone of the queer, feminist-minded corner of the sf realm that I inhabit, so coming to the realization that this was Jess’ costume and not Poe’s, as I’d originally assumed, was a choice experience. Not unlike, although certainly not on the scale of, watching The Force Awakens and realizing that Star Wars was now very actively for all of us.

So well done, Star Wars and the Power of Costume, well done.

Some other stray notes:
  • Padmé’s funeral gown is displayed with its coffin in a single room filled with mirrors and flameless candles. I was really pleasantly surprised by how well the exhibit constructed and utilized space.
  • There are some panels regarding cultural appropriation in Padmé’s costume design, talking about how Biggar tried to adapt her real world influences in ways that weren’t appropriative. I didn’t expect them to go into detail about where that fails—like Padmé’s basket headdress—but it was nice to see that it was addressed.
  • Women in Star Wars don’t really wear heels, mostly flats and low-heeled boots. Leia is known to sport the odd wedge boot (as she does in The Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens), but I wonder if that might not just be a side effect of trying to discreetly bridge the immense height gap between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on camera rather than Leia herself.
  • Did you know that George Lucas designed Padmé’s infamous bondage gown? Ugh. Still, the fabric and the shrug on that thing are great, so Biggar to the rescue!
  • There are two books available about costuming and Star WarsStar Wars: Costumes, about the original trilogy, and Dressing a Galaxy, which focuses on the prequel trilogy.
  • If you want more photos of the prequel costumes and some tips on making them, might I recommend The Padawan’s Guide to Star Wars Costuming?
  • Have this Vogue photoshoot of some of Padmé’s costumes from April of 1999. I kind of love how it makes her Naboo celebration gown look much more pierrot than it does in the film.
Oh, and, for the record, my favorite Padmé outfit is actually never worn by Padmé—it’s the black plumed traveling gown that Sabé ends up wearing. (Her princessy picnic get-up is my second favorite. No, wait, it’s the rainbow dress…) It hits at this perfect intersection of death goddess, nobility, and (imagined, I’m sure) comfort, with the inclusion of my favorite Padmé accessory, earpods.

Black Traveling Gown

What’s your favorite Star Wars costume?

Date: 2016-02-19 02:47 pm (UTC)
retsuko: lady rainicorn and princess bubblegum from the pilot episode of Adventure Time (PB + Rainicorn)
From: [personal profile] retsuko
Oh, wow! Those are gorgeous and I'm glad you got the chnsce to see them! :)

My favorites are the classics: Princess Leia's white hooded dress (one of my strongest memories of the original trilogy), Padme's red number with the elaborate hair, and Rey's final grey outfit in Force Awakens. But all of them, really, if I'm honest.

Date: 2016-02-19 04:09 pm (UTC)
goodbyebird: Batman returns: Catwoman seen through a glass window. (SW follow)
From: [personal profile] goodbyebird
So cool to see that Jess' outfit was in there! Great pics, thanks for sharing. Guess I can always hope some part of the exhibit might make it over to Europe.

Date: 2016-02-19 05:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That sounds like an awesome exhibition. And costume is one of those things I never really appreciate (unless I notice it for the wrong reasons) until someone points out all the fantastic little details.

Date: 2016-02-20 04:42 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
I love the rainbow dress the best even though I don't wear dresses. It's just so pretty!

Date: 2016-02-21 09:44 pm (UTC)
dhampyresa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dhampyresa
Thank you so much for this post! I too really hope the exhibit comes to Europe.

(Do you know how long I have been squinting at screencaps and gifs from the prequels to figure out how the hell the Jedi "uniform" is constructed? Way too long.)

I love all of Padmé's costumes, but my favourite is the red one. I love Leia's Hoth's snowsuit and Rey's scavenging outfit too. That said, my ~aesthetic~ is basically Anakin on Mustafar.

The earpods are also my favourite Padmé accessory.

Thanks for telling me about the existence of Dressing the Galaxy.

(And you just reminded me I've been wanting to go see the Mythes fondateurs. D’Hercule à Dark Vador/Founding myths: From Hercules to Darth Vader expo at the Louvre.)

Date: 2016-02-23 05:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
>> Jess has become such a touchstone of the queer, feminist-minded corner of the sf realm that I inhabit, so coming to the realization that this was Jess’ costume and not Poe’s, as I’d originally assumed, was a choice experience.

Hahahaha, this! My brother-in-law, who is generally very tuned into Star Wars stuff, didn't know who Jess Pava was recently, and it BAFFLED me. The bit of internet where I reside is so so SO into her (and I love it). I am hoping and hoping we get to see more of her in later movies. Doesn't have to be a lot more! Maybe just a bit where she and the other pilots are all clowning around together I AM FLEXIBLE.


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