Co.Design

The Gross Secret Behind Star Trek's Old Costumes

Gene Roddenberry thought spandex was the textile of the future. Wrong.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was nothing if not utopian. In his original vision for the science-fiction series, Roddenberry imagined a future in which a generation of space hippies went forth as explorers into a strangely psychedelic cosmos to bring peace, brotherhood, and free love to all. In this future, there would be no war, no money, and everyone could get as drunk as they wanted with no consequence.

But by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted on TV in 1985, Roddenberry's vision of the future encompassed more than peace, love, and harmony. It also included Spandex. In this archived interview with the BBC, Bob Blackman, the costume designer behind the show's iconic uniforms, talked about the problems that Spandex caused the cast and crew and how he used design to fix it.

Joining the show in the third season, Blackman found the costume department of The Next Generation to be a smelly and unpleasant place. When Roddenberry launched the show a couple years previously, he had told his costume designers that Spandex, the super-stretchy artificial fabric so synonymous with the '80s, was also the preferred fabric for the clothes of the future. But Roddenberry's forte was sci-fi, not fashion, and his textile of the 24th century was a disaster in the 20th.

For one, it was incredibly uncomfortable. "Jumbo, or Super Spandex, whatever you want to call that heavier weight stretch, will stretch from side to side or top to bottom, depending on how you cut the garment," explains Blackman. "So the costume would dig into the actors' shoulders, wearing them 12 or 15 hours a day." This resulted in many of the cast members developing back problems.

In addition, Spandex is particularly unflattering unless your body is perfect. "Spandex is unforgiving, so if you have any sorts of body issues, they are there."

Add to this the fact that the material bunches up, resulting in at least one curious legacy: to keep his outfit from riding up, actor Patrick Stewart, who played the Enterprise's Captain Jean-Luc Picard, began tugging it down during filming. This habit became so well known that it ended up being one of his character's most beloved tics, known by fans the world over as "The Picard Maneuver."

But perhaps the most offending characteristic of Spandex was the stench that confronted Blackman when he first took over The Next Generation's costuming department. "Spandex retains odor, so there is a certain part where if you’re wearing them for a long period of time, you can’t really clean all the smell out, and it becomes a little bit annoying. And it also retains the odor of the dry cleaning fluid. It is, on a day-to-day basis, unpleasant."

So Blackman threw out the Spandex uniforms in favor of wool gabardine, which allowed him to cast The Next Generation's crew in a more noble and adventurous light.

"When you want the characters to look heroic, there are certain things that you must do to make them seem that way: broader of shoulder, narrower of hip, as vertical as possible, chest out, ready to go after evil," says Blackman. "At the beginning of that third season, you will see that the uniforms change structure, eventually ending up with an Eisenhower-esque mandarin collar that leaves black yoke and angled color panel on the front, but removes all of the piping, making them essentially, more formal and dignified."

Spandex uniforms made The Next Generation cast look like futuristic instructors of space aerobics, but the new uniforms gave them an almost naval dignity. Still, years later, the legacy of The Next Generation's earliest spandex uniforms could still be felt: in 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, Captain Picard was still uselessly "tugging" down on the bottom of a uniform that had long since been redesigned to stop bunching up.

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26 Comments

  • Keith Monson

    All true but it's hard to squirt wood out of a replicator. Sheep tend to squirm and make a lot of nose when you push them through a tube.

  • Mike Noble

    Wool gabardine really is the fabric of the past and the future. It's incredibly strong. Warm in winter, breathable in summer. Wool is naturally anti-microbial so it doesn't stink and you don't need to wash it that often (sometimes it just needs to be aired out for a bit). The fibers are hydrophobic, and when it does get wet enough to soak through, it can be warm while wet (unlike cotton, which will steal body heat when wet, leading to hypothermia). Wool is also a renewable resource (you're just giving sheep a haircut).

  • MajorDiarrhea

    Spandex being the future is kind of right, but like many things, Roddenberry, went too far. I find it in more and more stuff, my jeans have a little, my underwear, my socks, etc. In moderation it's nice stuff.

    Good article.

  • Cessna_Driver

    Utopian space hippies? Yeah not so much. Starfleet is rather paramilitary and extremely focused professionals out to explore. The story IS about how they wore *uniforms*.

  • Fart Vader

    "Spandex retains odor, so there is a certain part where if you’re
    wearing them for a long period of time, you can’t really clean all the
    smell out"...

    Is he talking about Picard's flute?

  • Dan Thale

    The article refers to the Picard Maneuver being used with the spandex uniforms. This is incorrect by the simple fact that that spandex uniforms were one piece and therefore would have no waist seem to pull down on. The Picard Maneuver is only applicable with the two piece wool gabardine uniforms seen in Seasons 3-7. Just my .02c. Wow I sound like a nerd. Lol.

  • Steve Griffin

    So I find this on my + feed, no reference to you dude, and my first thought was "how do you pull down a jump suit." My second thought was... shit, Dan's already beaten me to it. Hell's bells.

  • CaptainFabulous

    That's actually not true. If you go back and watch seasons 1 and 2 (or find "Picard Maneuver" vids on YouTube) he very clearly pulls down the spandex uniform too. He just grabs the material around the waist and pulls, no seam necessary. I can only assume that unlike the 2-piece gabardine that needed to be pulled down to keep the top from separating from the pants, the one-piece spandex would ride up in the crotch and needed to be pulled down for some breathing room down below.

  • Robert Orrante

    Actually, just to be picky:
    If you watch the original series, you can see William Shatner doing the "Picard Maneuver", years before Patrick S. did it. I just noticed it last weekend, in the episode "Metamorphosis" with Elinor Donahue.
    So all things begin with Captain Kirk . . .