A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . OK, well maybe not a galaxy, but a few states away in Utah, a girl fell in love with the story of a sci-fi hero and his band of loyal friends on a journey of self-discovery and success in saving the universe of tyranny. Like many others before me, I found the magic of Star Wars and my admiration didn’t stop at the movies. I read numerous books that were sequels and continuations of the story beyond the movies. I researched all of the details behind the scenes and even played Star Wars Trivial Pursuit with any willing participant. It came as no surprise to my family and friends that my date and I dressed up as Princess Leia and Han Solo for the high school Sadie Hawkins dance. So, how did I feel when I learned about the Smithsonian Institute’s Traveling Exhibit of Star Wars costumes? I’m sure it’s only an experience and feeling my dad could understand if the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series. Luckily, my cousin and fellow Star Wars enthusiast, Keony, joins me and my cousins Eric and Jasmine on a trip to a distant galaxy from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition display “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” at the EMP Museum.
So, how exactly do you go about designing for another galaxy? Making my way through the section featuring Queen Amidala’s costumes, it is apparent there’s many Asian influences including some references from Malaysia and Japan. Even the design of Darth Vader’s iconic helmet has a direct correlation to Samurai helmets. But costume design requires more than pulling influences from distant lands, it also needs to have an understanding of the character and reflect their desires, motivations, and ideas. A quote from Episode III’s Concept Artist, Sang Jun Lee, says it all: “Costume is not separate from character design.” Whether its regal gowns from Amidala’s court or her yellow floral whimsical, romantic gown she wears as the story develops into her love for Anakin, each costume gives the audience a look into a character’s state of mind.
What other considerations does costume design need to take into account? My cousin Eric, makes a great point by realizing that the costumes look elegant and regal from far away, but up close it’s a different story. It reminds of the numerous times I’ve worked on the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” and how audience members adore the costumes, but I see lining in need of major repairs and shirts with yellowing armpits in need of a good scrub after being in stock for decades. Yes, costumes are beautiful works of art, but design needs to take in consideration the longevity of the production as well as the possible wear on a garment. Thinking about how the fabric used will look with other costumes, what properties and characteristics the fabrics have, how fabrics and garments will be maintained during a production, and the actors’ comfort are concerns that should not be overlooked. Leafing through swatches of leather, corduroy, and velvet, I remark to Eric and Keony how hot and heavy these costumes might have been.
Our very last stop takes us upstairs and to the head honcho—Darth Vader. Next to him stands a Stormtrooper in a glass case with a final reminder about the process of costume construction. John Mollo, the costume designer for Episode IV and V explains the process of trial and error involved with building the Stormtrooper armor. The original methods used armor sculpted on a plaster body cast, but this idea was eventually changed to using vacuum-form plastic. It’s a reflection of the trial and error sometimes involved in costume design and the willingness to experiment to see what works best. Many times people assume that as a Stitcher and Dresser backstage I know everything about sewing. While there are many methods you should adopt and others you should avoid, costume construction can be an experimentation at times and requires you to think beyond what you already know. I also have yet to find someone who knows everything about sewing because in a creative field, there’s always something new to learn.
Although we’ve come to the end of our galactic journey, my cousin Jasmine wants all of us in a photo with the ominous Darth Vader. Strategically, we find a way to fit into her phone’s camera for a group selfie, which is tricky, but luckily not as problematic as preparing everyone in our large family for a group photo at Christmas. Eric, Jasmine, Keony, and I have all had a journey like those of many Sci-Fi heroes who take on numerous adventures to figure out where they want to be and what they want to be doing in their lives. Although we may not be wearing a Jedi robe or the famous Princess Leia side hair buns, we have all journeyed to galaxies far away in the hope of self-discovery and success.