From Princess Leia’s cinnamon buns and white robes to Darth Vader’s shiny black helmet and billowing cape, the costumes in the seven episodes of Star Wars are among the most famous in modern film. Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume, a new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute, puts 60 of these elaborate getups on view and reveals the nitty-gritty of their design processes.
While George Lucas may have invented an entire galaxy far, far away, the clothing worn in that galaxy is deeply influenced by that of our own. We spoke to Laela French, senior manager of archives and exhibits at Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, about the creation processes of six Star Wars costumes. Their stories reveal how the films’ costume designers pulled sartorial references from world history both ancient and modern, referencing everything from the robes of Buddhist monks to Nazi uniforms to costumes in classic Western films. (Dogs also get a shout-out.) Since costume is a tool for creating character, using real-world fashion as inspiration for styles on Tatooine or the Death Star gives viewers a visual shorthand for typifying characters—if Darth Vader dresses like a Nazi, you know he’s evil even before he starts his sinister wheeze-speak.
Here, six behind-the-scenes stories of Star Wars costumes you’ve probably never heard that reveal how styles around the globe inspired the looks of Darth Vader, Han Solo, Padme Amidala, and more.
Nazi Helmets Inspired Darth Vader's Headgear
When Darth Vader was just a dark glimmer in George Lucas’s eye, the director told concept artist Ralph McQuarrie* he envisioned the character as a "dark lord riding on the winds, with an evil essence about him," French says. McQuarrie sketched Vader with a billowing cape and a sinister-looking breathing apparatus. Costume designer John Mollo took it from there, fusing elements of various real-life uniforms associated with war and evil. To design Vader’s infamous black helmet, Mollo looked to the black, shiny headgear Nazis wore during WWII. He then added a gas mask, a motorcycle suit, black leather boots, and a monk’s cloak found in the Middle Ages department of a costume warehouse. Darth Vader’s helmet isn’t the only German army reference in the films: his army of Stormtroopers are named after specialist German soldiers in World War I.
Han Solo: A Riff on the Old West
Han Solo’s character was modeled partly after the lone, rogue gunslinger archetype of Western films. "Han Solo’s a riff right out of the old West," French says. "He uses a blaster like a gunslinger. His shirt style is called the Custer shirt—if you go to any western clothing store today, you’ll find a Han Solo-esque cream-colored shirt. Even his vest has sense of the old West to it." To update the look and make it seem original to the Star Wars universe, Mollo, who won an Oscar for his work on the films, added red and yellow striping down the side of Han Solo’s leggings, and didn’t include a cowboy hat.
In turn, current real-world fashion echoes Han Solo’s style, whether consciously or not. "There’s a trend where a lot of women wear leggings, tall black boots, then T-shirts and puffy vests. They end up looking like Han Solo," French says. "There’s a subtle, pervasive way that Star Wars costumes influence fashion."
Jedi Cop The Styles From Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
George Lucas looked directly to the sword battle scenes in Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1956 film, Seven Samurai, for inspiration for the brown, belted robes and cloaks that Jedi wear. "Samurai wielding swords translated into Jedi wielding lightsabers," French says. Jedi aren't the only characters who reference Samurai style: Zam Wessell, a bounty hunter in Episode II, wears a skirt made from little squares of leather all hand-stitched together, a bit like a bustle across her back, butt, and thighs. This was based on an ancient Samurai armor design.
Designers also looked to the robes of Buddhist monks in China, Tibet, and Japan. "Like monks, Jedi are not meant to be married; they’re there to serve. There’s a uniform to make them look like they belong together," French says.
Padme's Wedding Dress Was Made From An Old Italian Bedspread
Before shooting a wedding scene for Episode II in an Italian village, costume designer Trisha Biggar was hunting through a thrift store when she came across an antique lace bedspread, thought to date back to the Edwardian period. She decided to transform it into the wedding gown of Padme Amidala for her secret marriage to Anakin Skywalker. Biggar stayed up all night hand-beading the bedspread with her small crew, turning it into the off-white, low-cut gown Padme wears while exchanging vows with the future Darth Vader. "When you look at dress, you’d never think ‘bedspread,’" French says.
Queen Jamillia’s Headdress Was Inspired By A Seafood Dinner
While shooting Episode II in Australia, Biggar and her crew had abalone for dinner at a restaurant. Struck by the mollusk’s iridescent shell, which is commonly used in jewelry and buttons and as decorative inlay in guitars and furniture, Biggar asked the waitress if the kitchen had any extra abalone shells. The restaurant delivered, and Biggar used 10 of these sea-jewels to create a crown for Queen Jamillia (Amidala’s successor), which was paired with an austere black-and-white gown.
Chewbacca Was Based On George Lucas's Dog
The idea for Chewbacca, Han Solo’s Wookie sidekick, came to George Lucas as he was driving to work one day with his big dog, Indy, in the front seat, who sat at about the same height as him. Chewie was meant to be an "alien creature with the essence of an animal, but civilized in the way some aliens are not," French says—and mimicking the general look and character of a large dog captured that idea. John Mollo sourced yak hair to created a furry knit bodysuit for Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew to wear. In the new films, designers use a synthetic fur, knitting each hair into the costume one at a time.
See the slide show above for images of more famous Star Wars costumes, as well as original concept art.
Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume is on view at EMP Museum in Seattle through Oct. 4, as a partnership of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in consultation with Lucasfilm Ltd.
*An earlier version of this article misspelled McQuarrie's name as McCorrie. We regret the error.