Designed with a galaxy far, far away in mind

Times Staff Writer

Probably only Dorothy’s red shoes have endured as much obsession.

Just as those sequined pumps inspired intense awe and imitation, so do the iconic costumes from the “Star Wars” movies -- Darth Vader’s helmet and light saber, the Jedi tunics and Queen Amidala’s throne room gown hemmed with fur and glowing globes. Now, more than 100 original costumes from all six “Star Wars” movies are on display in the downtown gallery of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising -- the whole, wonderfully unwieldy weight of the “Star Wars” universe. Feathered headdresses, furry 8-foot Wookiees, Jedi kids in mini tabards, and horned, blue-faced beings wearing something like saddles on their shoulders. The queens and handmaidens are in one room, the pilots and soldiers in another and Jedi knights, senators and bounty hunters make appearances too.

And then there are the fans, who bought thousands of advance tickets and occasionally show up dressed as stormtroopers themselves.

George Lucas, the man who started it all, was on hand too, to inspect the show and attend a preview party earlier this month. Adjusting a bead here, a mannequin there, he said that depicting the height of intergalactic style in the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy was so daunting he almost didn’t make the films.


“Clothing them was one of the biggest challenges,” said Lucas, “because I didn’t want the costumes to look designed. I didn’t want them to jump out at you. Or to go back 20 years and look at the film and say, ‘They’re dated.’ ”

Concept artists created vast visual guidebooks that illustrated life on every planet, including the alphabet, architecture, vehicles and fashions. Then designers began to imagine distinct styles for each character.

Costume designer Trisha Biggar led a crew of up to 120 artists, including costume props supervisor Ivo Coveney and costume supervisor Nicole Young.

Though warriors and soldiers look the part, mostly this is a world of royalty, good guys and bad guys, all dressed in variously opulent, long and flowing silhouettes laden with quirky accessories. In this world, tailors, embroiderers and velvet must have been cheap and plentiful.


Biggar chose many floor-sweeping hemlines “since we don’t wear long everyday, it removes it from the now, or the known and contemporary.” But it is precisely that nod to the known that helped give the first “Star Wars” its iconic imagery.

Like most of the original “Star Wars” costumes, the first Darth Vader was a mock-up that costume designer John Mollo created from stock clothing. His Darth Vader was pieced together from a World War II German helmet and gas mask, a monk’s cloak, a leather motorcycle under suit and a metal medieval breastplate. Mollo’s Luke Skywalker wore an orange flight suit that modern audiences may recall seeing on test pilots. Those familiar items help the viewer bring a built-in association of good or evil to the characters, a process that is more complicated in the later movies.

Coveney, Biggar and their crews appear to have been burdened by a need to make every episode bigger, better, grander. They juggle references from so many cultures -- Japanese geishas, Elizabethan and Jacobean England, Samurai and medieval armor, clerical vestments, African prints and even “Star Wars” itself -- that you almost have to be a fanatic to know which look goes where.

Of course, Biggar was well aware of the cult-like fervor surrounding the films. Indeed, it was the first “Stars Wars” that Coveney saw as a 12-year-old that inspired him to pursue costuming.

“You know people are going to put these things under intense scrutiny,” Coveney said.

In fact, a glossy book cataloging the films’ costumes, “Dressing a Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars” ($50, Insight Editions), has just been released.

And last week, many of Biggar’s designs actually went down a runway, in a show of her work during New York Fashion Week.

By the Monday opening of the gallery show here, several dozen fans, including 20 in costume, waited for the doors to open. About 350 people attended opening day, and 3,300 advance tickets had been purchased.


In the increasingly computer-generated movies, the costumes remain one of the few handmade, human-scale artifacts. Standing inches from the costumes, it’s possible to appreciate the complex pleats, layers and construction of Darth Maul’s black cloak, the majesty of the royal wardrobes and the wacky challenge of dressing a furry, elephant-sized alien in an opera gown.

Though Lucas is considering sending the exhibit on tour in later years, he hinted that there’s one thing he’d like that tour to include: an Oscar.

“Hopefully, we will get a nomination,” said Lucas, referring to the Academy Awards. “That’s the biggest slap. All this work and not even a nomination.”

Indeed, the Star Wars franchise has been nominated only once for a costume design Oscar since Mollo won the category with his cobbled-together wardrobe in 1977.

Biggar’s clothes try to match the “Star Wars” phenomenon in grandeur. With her precise construction, rich fabrics and complex finishes, the wardrobes have grown from simple costumes to theatrical couture. Even the raggedy creatures are wearing supple chamois and nubby linens, not some stiff rag. She’s a master at combining fabrics, which she customizes with every imaginable technique.

There will be many who revel in each stitch, and even shell out $295 for a limited edition of the costume book. The expected crowds caused FIDM to issue timed-entry tickets, a first for any of the downtown college’s exhibitions.

Fan MaryAlice Ladd flew from New York at her own expense to attend the FIDM party, wearing her reproduction of the Queen Amidala costume and the Shiraya fan headdress featured in “Episode I The Phantom Menace.” She planned to document the costumes with notes, photos, a tape measure and a Pantone swatch book.

“There is going to be serious scientific investigation going on,” she said.


With such a dedicated fan base, one courts danger to say that the “Star Wars” story seems a little hokey, and the costumes a little cheesy. But this exhibit reveals why non-fans should care about “Star Wars.”

The series challenged talented artisans who advanced and preserved arts that are thousands of years old -- hand-beading, dense embroidery, leatherworking and even armor forging. “Star Wars” costumes are to cinema what the haute couture is to fashion: Only the richest moviemaker could afford such fantastic works. They would be worn only in a fantasy world.

“It’s a feast for designers,” said Lucas.

And so how big was the budget?

Lowering her voice an octave, Biggar nearly whispered, “Low.”

That’s hard to believe -- and neither she nor Lucas is talking -- but perhaps when you’re charged with dressing a galaxy that includes armies of aliens and generations of royalty, there’s just never enough gilt and ormolu to go around.

“Dressing a Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars.” Through Dec. 10. Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Admission is free, but a $5 to $8 ticket-processing fee applies. Visit for information.