It’s the world premiere of the “Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars And The Power Of Costume” exhibit, and the opening night party is at Seattle’s Experience Music Project museum. The Loop family (Jack, Lisa, and Ava) are first in line, waiting patiently since 6 p.m. so that 7-year-old Ava gets the best chance to meet special guest Anthony Daniels, a.k.a. the gold droid C-3PO (for adults less interested in the evening’s celebrity factor, the VIP Blue Lounge offers complimentary “Golden Droid” cocktails: sparkling wine, apple cider whiskey, Tuaca, and bitters). Ava’s been a fan since seeing Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the first Star Wars film released. “It was just so intriguing and so exciting,” she says. “It made me feel like I wanted to be with it more.”
Attendees are encouraged to wear costumes of their own—not that Star Wars fans need much encouragement. Tonight there are numerous would-be Jedi warriors being trained in the fine art of how to thrust a lightsaber. There’s a number of Princess Leias, with Microsoft employee Beth Fitzgibbons’ ensemble being especially creative: She’s the hologram version of Leia, in the message that pint-sized droid R2-D2 plays at the beginning of A New Hope. There are a few Stormtroopers, some encased in hard white plastic outfits, others opting for more comfortable, if less aesthetically pleasing, cloth outfits made to look like hard plastic. There’s even an elaborately costumed Queen Amidala.
But Anthony Daniels—much to his relief—is without his signature costume. The actor who’s been stuffed inside C-3PO for all six Star Wars films (and who will continue to endure being placed in what he calls “the most uncomfortable costume in cinematic history” in the three upcoming Star Wars epics) wears a dapper black suit this evening, a gold tie the sole reference to the character who’s been the dominating presence of his career. Though Daniels jokingly tells me that looking at C-3PO’s costume provokes “dread, nightmare, horror!” he also admits to having a more nuanced relationship with his alter ego. “I use that structure as a tool—as a costume, it’s something I wear. But I’m not him, and he’s not me, and the costume isn’t without me to animate it, shall we say. So it’s quite a curious relationship. It’s not a very easy role to play, physically. But my fondness for the character makes me put up with it. We’ve been together for 40 years or so—if I didn’t like him I wouldn’t put up with him, would I?
“So I have this kind of ambivalence when I look at it, but I admire the artistry that went into it. And I realize just how clever a job they did 40 years ago, particularly the beautiful woman who sculpted it, Liz Moore, who made 3PO’s face, and sadly who died in a car accident before 3PO ever reached the screen. So she never saw the outcome of her work, which has become iconic and has been viewed by millions and millions of people around the world, millions of times over. It’s a nice little reminder of her.”
The exhibit ostensibly celebrates the artistry of those signature Star Wars outfits. But at its heart, it’s really about the broader phenomenon of Star Wars itself. When the first Star Wars film was released, the studio, 20th Century Fox, had so little faith in the project that it allowed director-writer George Lucas to keep the merchandising rights, and Lucas himself wasn’t certain of the film’s success. But the sci-fi/fairy tale mash-up took the country, and then the world, by storm. It was the first multi-generational blockbuster of the era, the kind of film that makes fans get misty-eyed as they recall first seeing it. One such fan, Terry, is carrying a picture of himself and a group of friends taken in front of the Briggsmore Theatre in Modesto, California, where they first saw the film (and where, he notes, Lucas premiered American Graffiti). It later appeared in the school yearbook. “I love that it’s in color!” Terry enthuses.
Fans didn’t just return to the theater to see the film numerous times. They also bought stuff. Star Wars-emblazoned posters, T-shirts, lunch boxes, action figures, and other collectables flew off the shelves. The proceeds made Lucas a millionaire, and allowed him to leave directing behind in favor of executive producing, along with developing sound and effects companies like Industrial Light & Magic; after the original Star Wars, he wouldn’t direct another film until 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Not that the fans necessarily thank him for that. In a random survey of attendees at the opening festivities, every single person I ask prefers the “original trilogy” (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return Of The Jedi) over the “prequel trilogy” (The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, Revenge Of The Sith), hands down. And with one exception, everyone’s favorite film is The Empire Strikes Back (that exception is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Queen Amidala look-alike Crystal Vonoy, who opts for Phantom Menace, the film in which her character is introduced). The prequel trilogy gets no love here; one fan grouses that those films were simply examples of Lucas “ripping off himself.” Another bemoans the number of prequel trilogy outfits on display in the exhibit versus those from the original trilogy: “Too much Padmé,” she sighs. A popular view is that Lucas sacrificed substance for style in the prequels. (A.V. Club contributor Mike Vago called The Phantom Menace “a slick effects reel that pushed film into the digital age, while also putting acting, pacing, and basic storytelling a distant second.”)
Some of that is generational; those who saw the original trilogy on its first release are far more dubious about any merits the prequels have to offer. And preferences aside, there’s certainly a difference in style and tone between the original and prequel trilogies. The prequels are darker, somber, and everyone’s so serious and moody (except for the much maligned Jar Jar Binks; perhaps not coincidentally, none of his costumes are in the exhibit). The originals (especially A New Hope) have a fresh-faced, wholesome quality that bordered on parody. Even at the time of their release the films felt nostalgic, a look back at a kinder, gentler era, especially in contrast to the cold, clinical perfection of the prequels.
That difference is apparent in the costumes on display. The ones from the original trilogy are more basic, without much in the way of embellishment. Part of that was for budgetary reasons; A New Hope had little money to work with, so the characters wore the same outfit throughout the entire movie. But those outfits served them well; even before they speak, you know exactly who they are by what they’re wearing. Luke, in his white tunic, is clearly the aspiring young hero; Obi-Wan Kenobi wears the brown, hooded robe of the wise old man; Darth Vader, clothed head to toe in black, is the ultimate bad guy. Access to more money didn’t necessarily bring about a better result; the CGI-created drone armies of the prequels don’t have any of the impact of the sinister in-the-flesh Stormtroopers of the original trilogy.
And because the characters in the prequels wore more outfits, there are more than twice as many costumes from the prequels on display, compared to those from the original trilogy. But Daniels, for one, feels those prequel costumes deserve a little more respect. “People over the age of 10 have criticisms about storylines of the prequels, and the characters, and so on,” he says. “But the one thing that was never given its full desserts was [designer] Trisha Biggar’s costumes. They were breathtaking; you see Padmé Amidala in some fairly outrageous but quite extraordinary clothes. And you don’t have to be a girl to admire them. Some of her things were so simple, but so technically clever and detailed. That was one of the outstanding things of the prequels. And this exhibit does give you a chance to really study the kind of genuine craftsmanship that films allow you to have. You can look at these costumes in detail, and see just how amazing Palpatine’s outfits were; he used to laugh on the set that he had more dresses than Padmé. It makes you appreciate both the costumes, and what goes together to make a character—what went into making that iconic figure of Darth Vader for instance. There’s a great number of elements that go into creating a character, and of course Star Wars has truly iconic characters.”
It’s easy to see which of those characters are regarded as the most iconic by attendees. People crowd around the displays of C-3PO and R2-D2, Chewbacca, and Darth Vader, snapping selfies, as opposed to examining Padmé Amidala’s wedding gown (going on public display for the first time). With a few exceptions, most of the displays are behind a protective barrier, but not otherwise encased. “To have it all open air is really fun,” says Jacob McMurray, the Experience Music Project Museum’s senior curator. “You can get really close and see the quality of the fabrics and the little hidden details. I love that the mannequins are posed; it adds a lot of life to the costumes. Especially since the focus of this is costume design. We don’t have photos of the actors and actresses with the outfits, so I love how the costumes can really tell you the story and you don’t need the face of the famous actor to do that.”
And it’s “telling the story” that the exhibit’s creators want to emphasize. “We don’t want it to just be, ‘Here’s some Star Wars costumes,’” says Laela French, senior manager of archives and exhibits at the Lucas Museum Of Narrative Art (the exhibit is a joint production of the museum, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and LucasFilm). “You really want to have a great narrative thread for people to enjoy this exhibit and learn something on the way.”
Thus exhibit’s “narrative thread” breaks down the story into nine thematic chapters. “Introduction: Dressing A Galaxy” juxtaposes Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plain Jedi robes next to Queen Amidala’s Throne Room gown, illustrating a “simple versus complex” theme that resurfaces throughout the exhibit (in the “Concept And Design For Royalty And Beyond” display, Amidala’s handmaidens wear more lavish outfits in comparison to Princess Leia’s white gown from Empire Strikes Back). One of the most effective displays comes in “All Corners Of The Galaxy: The Galactic Senate” where Palpatine’s outfits show him devolving “from the seemingly benevolent senator from Naboo … to the evil, despotic Emperor.”
Interactive flip-books at each station provide further information for Star Wars fans to geek out on. Princess Leia’s “slave bikini” from Return Of The Jedi was influenced by earlier sirens like Myrna Loy in The Desert Song and Yvonne De Carlo in Slave Girl. Darth Vader’s helmet is meant to emulate that of a Japanese samurai. Lucas wanted the Imperial forces to look “fascist,” so the designers modeled their costumes on the uniforms of the 19th century German Uhlans (“but without the decorative braid or buttons”) while their caps are fashioned after the field cap worn by “the elite Alpine troops of Nazi Germany.”
“It’s a chance for us to kind of peel back the curtain and really show the thought process and the efforts that go into creating these costumes,” says French. “They didn’t just happen overnight. They really were carefully structured.”
But no one tonight seems too concerned about narrative threads, as they fit in a gallery visit in between Q&As with Daniels and Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi), watch lightsaber duels, and cheer for their favorites in the costume contest (Vonoy’s Queen Amidala wins). The fans revel in the Star Wars world, and there’s no downside; even the original trilogy versus prequel trilogy debates help keep the franchise going—and everyone’s planning on seeing the next film in the saga, The Force Awakens.
Daniels says he never really appreciated the extent of the fans’ devotion until touring with the production Star Wars: In Concert, for which he provided the narration, “telling the story literally from Episode I through to Episode VI. And it was really was the first time I understood the whole thing. Night after night, between 5,000 and 25,000 people in the audience, and you could feel the emotion, the affection, the connection. It took the concert and all its audiences for me to realize what an extraordinary phenomenon it had become.”
McMurray points to Lucas’ savvy marketing of the franchise as figuring heavily in its longevity. “But I also think, on the movie angle, a lot of the characters have really become like archetypes. I mean, Darth Vader: total archetype of the ultimate evil baddie. And I think Lucas was really fascinated with the power of myth, and the idea of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, and all these kind of strong human things that just keep resonating with people. It’s become it’s own little mythology. Especially that original trilogy. And with the new film coming out at the end of the year, and the films after that, it’s only going to continue to have a good amount of resonance in popular culture.”
In short, you can’t escape Star Wars. Even if you’ve never seen one of the films. “Star Wars is so permeated in our culture,” says Lisa Loop. “Lines from Star Wars—like ‘may the Force be with you’—it’s just such a part of Americana. And so to actually get to not quite touch, but to see and be close to some of it at this exhibit is such a thrill. And now we’re reliving excitement of it through Ava’s eyes.” And the Force shall continue.
“Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Stars Wars And The Power Of Costume” will be on display at the Experience Music Project through October 4, 2015. It will then go on a national tour.