George Lucas and his artistic team don’t get enough credit. That may sound absurd considering the Star Wars franchise remains a pop culture behemoth, but their feats of imaginative universe creation is completely unparalleled. While many soured on Lucas and company after the Star Wars prequels were dragged through the critical coals, no films—and perhaps no artistic endeavor—has left a legacy loaded with so much iconic imagery. Just think of the costumes alone: Darth Vader’s helmet, Jedi robes, Princess Leia’s flowing white dress and slave bikini, Stormtrooper armor, C-3PO’s golden exterior, and on and on. They all exist in a galaxy unto themselves, yet are instantly recognizable and beloved (just think of all the possible Star Wars Halloween costumes). The Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume, which is currently making its debut at the EMP Museum, displays some of the best otherworldly garb from a galaxy far, far away and showcases levels of detail and depth that often goes overlooked. While the exhibit could’ve coasted purely on the wave of nostalgia induces, it strives to be much more than a collection of fond memories.
After climbing stairs to the piped-in tune of the “Cantina Band” song, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi robes and Queen Amidala’s throne room gown welcome patrons to Star Wars and the Power of Costume. The exhibit features 60 costumes from the six films, with eras dividing the exhibit’s layout. The lower level features the costumes of the prequels (with the exception of C-3PO and R2-D2), while the smaller top section displays the more revered outfits from the original trilogy. On first blush, it may seem odd or disappointing that so much space is devoted to Episodes I–III, but it underscores the fact that Lucas and his team don’t get credit for certain layers of significance embedded in those newer films.
The outfits worn by Queen Padmé Amidala serve as the lynchpin for the look at the prequels. The exhibit has many subsections and After the Throne: Padmé’s Journey showcases how the character progressed simply via her garments. From the regality of her flowing and colorful lake retreat picnic dress to the grit battle-worn Geonosis arena costume, the clothes reflect her descent from refined nobility to unexpected warrior bent on survival (which mirrors the events of the galaxy as a whole). In comparison to relative simplicity of costume design in the original trilogy, the prequels were an intentionally posh wardrobe spectacle. Over 1,000 costumes were created by designer Trisha Biggar and her team for The Phantom Menace alone, and Amidala’s were the most ornate. The distinction to make everything more intricate wasn’t merely a product of an expanded budget, but a storytelling tool. The luxurious fashion of the prequels exits in a prewar era. Once the Clone Wars began (and eventually gave way to the battle between the Rebel Alliance and Empire), the torn-apart universe had less time to devote to aesthetics. Fashion isn’t a top priority in wartime. As Lucas is quoted in the exhibit, “On the prequel trilogy, I knew a different approach was needed… we would be visiting the Republic in its heyday, spending time in the galaxy’s lavish capital, and witnessing royalty, opulence, and advanced, albeit sometimes corrupt, civilization.”
This expansion of scope is further showcased by the various outfits worn by members of the Galactic Senate (with each representative’s garb features unique fabrics meant to represent distinct home worlds) and the way in which the textures and colors of (eventual Emperor) Palpatine’s clothes indicate his progressive moral decline. The exhibit also raises the point that when acting in front of a blue screen so digital settings can be added (which was the unfortunate case for much of the prequels), the costumes serve as the actors' only real attachment to the world the movie is trying to create.
Lucas loves stark contrasts, and Star Wars and the Power of Costume further underscores this idea. First and foremost, there are the obvious contrasts of the light and dark sides of the Force being represented by the plain, rough robes of the Jedi in comparison to the sleek, dark attire of the Sith. But beyond that, there’s the earthy simplicity of the Jedi versus the synthetic conformity of the Stormtroopers, the extravagance of Queen Amidala’s wardrobe set against the far less showy attire of her daughter, Princess Leia, and more. The displayed pieces also make clear the real-world influences that inspired Lucas’s vision: the Jedi-samurai connection, Han Solo as a intergalactic version of an outlaw hero from a John Ford western, Amidala’s Asian-inspired style, and the Galactic Empire’s obvious connection to Nazi fashion.
A trove of information can be garnered from touch screens located throughout the exhibit. Each one focuses on a specific topic (Amidala’s attire, Chewbacca’s costume, etc.) and offer point-by-point breakdowns of materials and design, concept sketches, video interviews, and even trivia quizzes. It’s an effective tool to engage patrons beyond the standard descriptive museum labels and captions.
Beyond the deep-dive into the process behind the outfits, there are plenty of simple pleasures to be had at Star Wars and the Power of Costume. Some of these are as simple as marveling at the towering height of Chewbacca. And there are few things that trigger a gleeful dopamine rush for Star Wars nerds as pressing a button in front of Jedi costumes and having mannequins’ lightsabers illuminate and that signature ignition sound.
Fittingly, Darth Vader’s suit commands a room of its own on the top level. As the most iconic creation in the series and the thread that ties the franchise together, he deserves his own shrine of pop culture immortality (not to mention that it makes so much sense character-wise that he’d be the one isolated from everyone else) and appropriately serves as the de facto end point of the exhibit. Star Wars and the Power of Costume offers more than simple fan service; by isolating a single aspect of the production, it provides an illuminating look into Lucas’s unrivaled world creation. The Force is strong with this one.
Star Wars and the Power of Costume
Thru Oct 4, EMP, $30