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.