Couture de Force


The stunning visual effects in the latest “Star Wars” installment can’t detract from one very important message.

And that is this: No matter the planet, the time or the galaxy, good accessories can improve any outfit.

The “Star Wars” prequel, “Episode I The Phantom Menace,” is many things--a fantasy, an adventure, a morality tale, but according to its creator, George Lucas, and its costume designer, Trisha Biggar, it’s also a costume drama. Swirling capes, towering headdresses, combat-ready boots, belts and bracelets battle for attention along with the much-hyped, computer-enhanced, phantasmagorical mutants and backdrops.

As fans know, “Star Wars” takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” which presents many challenges to anyone trying to figure out how to dress for an alien invasion. Should a person (or a mutant amphibian) wear distressed leather? Samurai armor? Or perhaps a simple kimono? In this version, the answer is all of the above.


Biggar and a team that sometimes numbered up to 60 people toiled for more than a year to create 1,000-plus costumes for the human (and digital) cast. She assures, however, that the humans are, indeed, wearing real clothes, not computerized images of them. Every costume, including the tall buckle boots, the layered kimono warrior wear, the way, way over-the-top queen’s wardrobe, was made by hand in a workroom outside London.

And that’s the irony in this latest whiz-bang “Star Wars” spectacle: Computers made the movie’s special effects spectacular, but old-fashioned handwork gave the wardrobe its otherworldly glow. Couture-level craftsmen supervised departments of specialty trades, including dyeing, lace-making, embroidery, millinery, screen printing, hand painting, glove-making and metalsmithery for headdresses and jewelry.

Old clothes helped with the invention of the movie’s new clothes. Biggar, who is from Scotland, scavenged bits of beads, scraps of lace and strands of pearls from antique and vintage clothing that she scoured from dealers in London and Glasgow.

“There were lots of antique pieces, but I didn’t use any complete dresses. Nothing was intact,” she said. For example, one of Queen Amidala’s (actress Natalie Portman) more compelling headdresses was crafted from a pearl-beaded 1920s sash. A black gown was trimmed with jet beading from a Victorian-era dress.


“I like being able to use things from other times and reuse things in a different way,” said Biggar in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Her design approach dovetailed with the story’s implicit theme: Out in the galaxy, classes, races and species become one. The multicultural, transgenerational wardrobe looks as if it was pulled from the suitcases of time travelers who collided in deep space--which is sort of how fashion happens in the real world.

“When you look at the history of costume and its references, it’s incredible how many cross-references there are through different cultures,” Biggar said. The movie wardrobe is “a mix of cultures that a lot of people from around the world will look at and say, ‘That comes from my culture,’ when, in fact, it was inspired by three or four cultures.”

Queen Amidala’s regal costumes and makeup illustrate the blend best. In eight costume changes, she wears Hopi Indian-style hair buns, a geisha’s white face makeup and lacquered hair, sleeves that are vaguely Mongolian, medieval or mythological, and patterns and silhouettes that are Art Deco, Art Nouveau, ancient Japanese, Chinese and North African.


“George Lucas had very clear ideas of references that he wanted to incorporate,” Biggar said. The list included specific color schemes, historical periods and cultures. From there, the overall look of the film and the costumes were developed by a “conceptualizer"--children’s book illustrator Iain McCaig. His sketches detailed various worlds on each planet in the film--the style of the houses, eating utensils, landscape and even the clothing. Biggar then interpreted the intergalactic couture. She would not say how much of the film’s $115-million budget was spent on costumes.

“We made absolutely everything,” Biggar said.

She and her crew started building the costumes in November 1996. When they finished a year later, they had made everything from the pilots’ rustic costumes to the gold-plated headbands to the fantasy racing helmet made from a child’s bicycle helmet and goggles. Almost nothing was rented or borrowed from earlier films. Only the kimono style of the men’s Jedi warrior costumes was continued.

Little was left to chance. Samples of the fabric were sent to computer illustrators, who matched the real with the digitized costumes. A cast of Portman’s head was made to ensure that the elaborate headdresses fit her and her intricate hairstyles.


The workroom and stage sets were housed together in a former aircraft hangar, where a measure of efficiency and security could be ensured. Lucas would intermittently visit the set to check, all in one place, the work in progress.

When the queen’s costumes were complete, Portman would ride in a golf cart to the set wearing the undergarments specially designed for the gowns. On set, she’d slide into the often-cumbersome garments, which were separately transported to protect them from wear and tear. The extra security measures were necessary also because the queen’s costumes were irreplaceable. Her black travel dress of spider-web embroidery was completely handmade by one person, working a month of 10-hour days. Other gowns and accessories were made of fragile 70-year-old fabrics or of individually woven silkworm pods. The queen’s throne room dress required eight weeks of work to craft its elements, including a cage to support the wires and batteries powering lights inserted at the hem.

The costumes have already inspired talk of a geisha-fashion revival. They could inspire another kind of worship--multiple viewings. It’s tough to catch the details of all those headdresses, necklaces and hairdos in just one sitting.

Valli Herman-Cohen can be reached by e-mail at


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