STAR WARS: Storytelling Through Costume

“I saw this Jedi costume… At last I had an idea of who I was, how to carry myself, and I had my way of being.”

—Samuel L. Jackson, Actor

Costume is a vital storytelling element, visually communicating information about a character and his or her role within a story. The importance of costume in film is the idea behind “Star WarsTM and the Power of Costume,” an exhibition running at the Denver Art Museum in Colorado through Apr. 2, 2017.

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Tableau of Jedi and Sith

The exhibition features a collection of original costume pieces from the first seven films in the Star WarsTM series (costumes from Rogue One: a Star Wars Story, released in December 2016, are not included in the collection). The costumes are displayed on mannequins that were specially made to fit under the garments, ensuring that the fit and lengths are perfect and allowing the forms to express more of the character associated with the costumes than is usually possible. Florence Müller, Denver Art Museum’s curator of fashion, explains that one of the great challenges of exhibiting garments is making sure they lay and drape in such a way as to showcase the garments to their best effect. The costumes in the Star WarsTM exhibition arrived at the museum already on their carefully packed mannequins.

While many of the costumes from “Star WarsTM and the Power of Costume” have been exhibited before, the Denver Art Museum has added a new and exciting element. In order to better display the creative process, they borrowed from Lucasfilm Ltd. a wide range of process memorabilia, including storyboards, costume renderings, fabric swatches and patterns. These items tell the deeper story of how the costumes were conceived, refined and constructed.


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Coruscant Apartment Robe, The Phantom Menace

The costume designers drew inspiration from all over the world and throughout history, most notably influences from Japan and Renaissance Europe. Many of the costumes have kimono-like elements; the traditional Jedi robes have a kimono base. The kimono style can also be seen in the dresses of Naboo royalty, though usually with a European Renaissance twist. Müller points out a garment with layered, crossover robes and an obi-like belt that is paired with a Renaissance silhouette, including shaping of the belt that wouldn’t be appropriate in a traditional obi. On another piece with similar styling, the wide belt ends in a knot at the small of the back, as an obi would, but it is much smaller than an obi knot would be in order to accommodate pleating in the skirt that fans out into a Western-style train that would never appear on a traditional kimono.

Trains are seen throughout the “royalty” section of the exhibition, as are large and dramatic headdresses. Müller explains that traditionally, Western royalty often wore large hats, headdresses and wigs. She points out that by wearing something that requires neck strength to hold up and careful movement to balance, the royalty were forced into a regal bearing — shoulders back and chins up. Queen Amidala’s Galactic Senate Dress from Episode I: The Phantom Menace included the most uncomfortable headdress that actress Natalie Portman wore during filming due to the weight and height.

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Galactic Senate Dress


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Padmé Amidala’s Wedding Gown

The Galactic Senate Dress is also an example of a notable feature of costume construction for Star WarsTM: vintage embellishment. Müller explains that embroidery motifs and details that were designed to be attached to garments were easy to come by until the middle of the last century. But as the way we wear clothes has changed, the manufacturers stopped making them. Now, when costume designers need intricate embroidery or detail pieces, they will often look to vintage pieces to acquire them. Motifs will be removed or embellished fabric will be repurposed into trim.

The most breathtaking example of this is the wedding gown  worn by the character Padmé Amidala in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The lace for the gown came from an antique Italian lace bedspread, enhanced with more than 300 yards of handmade French-knit braid. The lace was painstakingly deconstructed, then hand-stitched to a tulle backing. Pearl beading was added literally at wedding detail 300x225 STAR WARS: Storytelling Through Costumethe last minute — stitched by the costume designer herself the night before the scene was filmed.

Early in the exhibition, visitors who read small signs are treated to another tale involving vintage fabric. It tells the story of the vintage wool used to make Obi-Wan Kenobi’s cloak for The Phantom Menace. During a certain scene, the cloak needed to get wet. During filming, however, the crew discovered that the wool shrank noticeably once it came in contact with water. The shrinkage was so bad that in the end they had to make a brand-new cloak for each take.

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Ombre-dyed Handmaiden Robe

Fabric choice plays a fascinating role in costuming for film. Müller explains that because of the way scenes are lit, in many cases the costume designer must choose a completely unrelated fabric to achieve a specific effect. For example, Jedi robes have a rough, homespun appearance, which is achieved by making them from high-quality raw silk. The handmaidens’ ombre-dyed robes from The Phantom Menace, which flow and move like chiffon on film, were actually made from lightweight silk velvet. Müller mentions that although often precious fabrics are used to represent humble fabrics, sometimes a cheap, low-quality fabric is required to create the effect of a very rich, high-quality fabric. Nonetheless, many of the costumes on display at the exhibition fall into the precious-fabric category. Silks, velvets, metallic fabrics and brocades are everywhere.



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Villa Retreat Dress

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Padmé’s Nightgown

Müller points out that many of the costumes, especially those worn by royalty, are clearly constructed using couture techniques and inspiration. In addition to the Asian and Renaissance influence, many of the costumes show recognizable elements of fashion from the early 20th century. For example, a soft, flowy costume from Attack of the Clones, while completely lacking a 1920’s-style silhouette, nevertheless features an element from that decade in the fabric gathered into a embellished pin and allowed to drape below it. The element is repeated on the back of the costume. Padme’s nightgown from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, is so much like the bias-cut gowns of the 1930’s that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in that decade.

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Gold Handmaiden Gown

Müller sees several fashion influences in the gold handmaidens’ gown from The Phantom Menace. While there are elements that clearly evoke Issey Miyake — notably the silhouette and the combination of pleats in opposing directions — Müller also notes that the dense vertical pleating is clearly a play on the Delphos dress created by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo around 1907. As the name suggests, the gown was designed to be reminiscent of an ancient Grecian chiton, and its influence can be clearly seen in the handmaiden dress in the vertical pleating, the hem that spreads out on the floor in a perfectly circular all-around “train” and the softly draping head-covering. This costume is also made of fine silk velvet, and the sleeves are embellished with a repeating design in red that Müller believes to have been stamped onto the velvet.


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Patterns in the Costume Shop

One of the most interesting (and wonderfully familiar to a sewist) sections of the exhibition is the “costume shop.” The section begins with a wall of costume renderings paired with swatches of the fabric they were made with. Above the wall hangs a quote from George Lucas, the creator Star Wars: “It’s very hard to make them look like they’re lived in… to pick the right fabric, to modify the design in such a way that it looks like it fits into a real world.” As visitors pass into the costume shop, they see more swatches and lengths of fabric hanging on a nearby rack. In the corner, a muslin of a costume — the gold handmaiden robe, in fact — sits on a dress form, a costume sketched pinned to its chest. Where the cutting table might stand is a display case, in which pattern pieces and more swatches are laid out. A pattern piece on display is from the sleeves of the gold handmaiden robe, with motifs taped to the pattern to indicate proper placement. A line designating the correct direction for the nap is also visible.

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Muslin of the Gold Handmaiden Gown

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Gold Handmaiden Gown Sleeve Detail

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Sleeve Pattern, Gold Handmaiden Gown


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Head Cast of Natalie Portman, Headdress and Mold

Elsewhere in the costume shop are drawers filled with notions used to embellish the wedding gown from Attack of the Clones and two head casts of Natalie Portman — one clearly used to design the actress’s makeup and the other for working with headdresses. In the display case with the head casts is a mold used to create a filigreed headpiece and the headpiece itself.

The costume shop is also the location of a unique piece that has never been exhibited before. This dress, known as the Peacock and Brown Dress, was created for Revenge of the Sith, but the scene in which it appeared was cut. Because it was only ever shown in publicity images, it wasn’t exhibited until the curators at the Denver Art Museum decided it should be included in this exhibition.


While many of the most attention-grabbing pieces in the collection are the royal gowns and costumes worn by Natalie Portman in her role as Padmé Amidala, it is also fascinating to see other, often less spectacular, costumes up close. Visitors can compare the differences between Stormtrooper armor from 1983 and 2015, watch how the journey of Emperor Palpatine is reflected in his costumes and examine a detailed description of how Darth Vader’s costume was dressed onto actor Hayden Christensen, layer by layer.

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Tusken Raider, Female Costume. Star Wars™: Attack of the Clones. © & ™ 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.

A few pieces stand out from the rest because of their dusty beige color. These costumes are for characters who live on the desert planets of Tatooine and Jakku. Müller points out that deserts are always represented by beige in costume and fashion — not because the color evokes the shade of sand, but because it hides it. Sand tends to get everywhere in the desert, and when wearing beige garments, it doesn’t show as easily, leaving the garments looking cleaner and crisper. Müller mentions in passing that the flight attendants for the first north-Africa based airline wore beige uniforms for that very reason, as do the Tusken Raiders from Episode IV: A New Hope and Rey from Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

The Tusken Raiders are also notable for the north African influence in their costuming. Their skin is fully covered with relatively lightweight fabric to protect from the sun; their faces are covered and eyes protected. The treatment of the leather accents is consistent with the area as well. The north African inspiration is especially appropriate because several of the scenes on Tatooine were filmed in Tunisia.

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Rey from The Force Awakens has a notable theme to her costume. The character is a scavenger, making her living by finding and selling elements from spaceships that crashed on her planet. This is reflected in the way she dresses; part of her costume is made from salvaged gauze, and she wears goggles made from pieces torn from a Stormtrooper helmet to protect her eyes from the sand.

Little details like this are what make the Star WarsTM universe so intriguing. As Müller explains, details are what make a fictional world seem real, and they can be found everywhere in the series.

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Imperial Insignia Sketches

Take, for example, a series of sketches outlining the insignia used for Imperial officers in the original trilogy. While most moviegoers probably never noticed, each officer had his or her rank, identifiable by these insignia. The same insignia can be seen in theaters today on the Imperial officers of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Details like this can be found everywhere — things that will probably never be noticed but lend the weight of reality to the films.

Costume is used to communicate something to the audience, and the costumes of the Star WarsTM films, with their unique styling, worldwide inspiration, and attention to detail have a lot to say about the time, effort and care that went into every aspect of their creation.

“Star WarsTM and the Power of Costume” is on exhibit at the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colo., until Apr. 2, 2017. Call 720-913-0130 or visit for more information.





 STAR WARS: Storytelling Through Costume
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