Star Wars and the Power of Costume

I’m not being biased by saying that Denver is blessed with some splendid museums and cultural venues, and top of the list for me is the always interesting Denver Art Museum, located downtown by the Civic Center. In fact, I was at the DAM (as we locals call it) just a few weeks ago, enjoying the fascinating Glory of Venice exhibit as a chaperone for my daughter’s 7th grade class field trip.

This time, however, my friends and I were eager to nerd out as big Star Wars fans, so we bought tickets in advance and braved the Black Friday crowds to visit Star Wars and the Power of Costume, a traveling exhibit presented by Lucasfilm, The Smithsonian and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. And it’s terrific, really one of the best exhibits I’ve ever enjoyed at any museum anywhere!

The official flier says that it assembles more than 70 original costumes from the seven Star Wars movies, but what I found far more interesting were the sketches, storyboards and other designs that showed the evolution of so many of the iconic characters and looks. Much of the exhibit is also devoted to Princess, then Queen Amidala (played by Natalie Portman in the series), a master class in dress and costume design all by itself.

Enough words, though. Let’s look at some photos!

star wars costumes #1

The first pair of costumes shown – complete with dramatic lighting, are Luke Skywalker and Princess Amidala. As you learn from the narrated audio tour, the appearance of fabrics aren’t always the actual fabrics: While many costumes look like they’re burlap to evoke monks and ascetics, turns out that raw silk looked better on camera.

The next room is bound to excite any fan, hardcore or not, and features the popular Darth Maul:

darth maul costume design, star wars

But the original design for Darth Maul was closer to a horror character out of the great Japanese film The Ring:

original darth maul sketch

Admit it, that’s pretty creepy!

Dominating one wall of this same room is the dramatic costume – and wonderful lighting! – of one of Emperor Palpatine’s many, many costumes:

emperor palpatin

The shadow cued me to what I believe was one of the inspirations for the costume, though it wasn’t mentioned in the exhibit: the evil witch in Sleeping Beauty who poisons the Princess…

The inspiration of monk’s robes and classical medieval garb is definitely visible in this Jedi outfit:

jedi costume

Pretty sure they didn’t have light sabers back then, but imagine how surprised the monks would have been to find one!

There was also a “costume design shop” area and the illustrations on the wall were fantastic. What most caught my eye was this sketch, which should be familiar to anyone who knows the cinematic heritage of the Star Wars series:

star wars storyboard panel #1

You might see something else, but I absolutely see the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in the above storyboard from the Kurosawa films “Seven Samurai” and “The Hidden Fortress”, both of which George Lucas admits were significant inspirations for the series.

And the costumes and exotic headgear!

queen amidala storyboard sketch

But wait, there are lots more sketches, including a design for one of the least loved characters in the entire Star Wars universe:

jar jar binks storyboard character sketch

Ummm…. Moving on… 🙂

In the costume design workshop they showed sketches and gave us a bit of a taste of the life of a wardrobe specialist:

amidala dress costume wardrobe design desk

See the “104” on the plaque? That’s for the audio tour: punch in the number and you’d hear Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) explain each stop and what you were seeing at that point in the tour. Quite interesting!

They also had state of the art technology, including this “strawberry” Apple iMac. I remember we had a “grape” one back in the day, a computer that ended up being for CDROM kids games for a short period of time… 🙂

original cherry imac

There weren’t as many original Star Wars costumes as I expected, most of them seemed to be from the later movies (films #1, #2 and #3 if you use the original series counting system).

There was, however, the original Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) costume from the closing scene of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back:

princess leia costume, star wars

Simple, elegant, and it looked great on camera!

The evolution of costumes is dramatically shown by this complex headdress and outfit for Queen Amidala in the later films:

queen amidala headpiece and costume, star wars

If you’re going to explore a hostile, sand-filled world, you’ll need clothing and protective gear to survive, and that’s exactly what you see in these two costumes:

sand people costumes, star wars

Both of these are Tusken Raider costumes, left is a female costume from Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and the other is a male outfit from Episode IV: A New Hope.

The next photo is a juxtaposition of two displays:

boba fett costume, star wars

In the foreground is the Boba Fett costume from Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, with Jango Fett from Episode II: Attack of the Clones on his six. Behind them, of course, are Chewbacca and Han Solo, two of the most iconic characters in the entire Star Wars universe.

But did Chewbacca (played by Peter Mayhew) always look like that? Turns out that the storyboards show that the original design was quite different, as you can see:

sketch storyboard star wars chewbacca design

Looks alarmingly like an Ewok, if you ask me. So glad that “Chewie” ended up looking less like a teddy bear!

There were also a few costumes from the latest episode, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I know you’ve seen it, but can you name the two characters below?

star wars VII costumes

Okay, I’ll help you out. The female scavenger outfit is from Rey (portrayed by Daisy Ridley) and the retro leather coat and black outfit are from Finn (John Boyega).

Taking a turn in the exhibit area and it’s almost as if we’ve walked into a WWII set:

military costumes and set design, star wars

It comes as no surprise to learn that Lucas and the costume team took fascist Nazi Germany and its uniforms as inspiration for much of the iconography and even medals and insignia of the Empire, as you can see above.

The design evolution of iconic robots R2D2 and C-3PO were quite fascinating too, and one of the strongest inspirations for the slim, gold C-3PO robot (which had actor Anthony Daniels inside the costume) was the female robot from Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis. You can see that in this early design sketch by costumer Ralph McQuarrie:

original c3po robot design, star wars

Lucas told the costume designers: “let’s create a male version of the Metropolis robot”, and that’s how C-3PO’s initial design came about. Exactly the kind of trivia that I love learning about in an exhibit of this nature.

Back to costumes, again. One of the most striking is the Senate Robes of Mas Amedda (David Bowers) from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith:

star wars costume

Even up close, it’s just cool.

Then there was this guy in all black with a breathing issue and some confusion about his family tree. And the storyboard that showed the original design ideas for Darth Vader (David Prowse):

storyboard sketch, darth vader

And, finally, how can we talk about the Star Wars universe without a nod to the half-pint Jedi master who taught us to appreciate poor grammar in a science fiction setting:

yoda figure and costume, star wars

As Yoda would say, Excellent Exhibit, It is. Go Now Before Tickets Sell Out, You Must.

Learn more about the Star Wars The Power of Costume exhibit – and book your time slot before it’s completely sold out! – all at the Denver Art Museum Web site. It’s really worth it, and super interesting. Enough so that I might well head back for a second visit before it moves on to the next city!

Disclaimer: The Denver Art Museum gave me a free ticket to be able to explore the exhibit and write about it.

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