Review: Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume: The Exhibition
“Sometimes creating an entire galaxy begins with a single stitch.” So begins the narration at a spectacular new exhibit in New York City about Star Wars costumes and artifacts. Coinciding with the release of the new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the show Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume: The Exhibition, is on display now at Discovery Times Square through September 5, 2016.
The exhibition is the result of a partnership between Discovery Times Square, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Lucasfilm. It features 15 galleries with over 70 pieces taken from the collection of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The show includes costumes, props and other items from the three original movies, the prequels, and even several ensembles from The Force Awakens.
As a lifelong Star Wars fan (old enough to have seen A New Hope when it was first released in theaters) I warmly welcomed the opportunity to see this exhibition. It holds particular interest for me because I am a seamstress and cosplayer who has over the years enjoyed re-creating Star Wars costumes for such occasions as Halloween and convention masquerades.
This was actually my third Star Wars exhibit. I saw Star Wars and The Magic of Myth (which originated at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) when it came to the Brooklyn Museum in 2002. In 2005 I traveled to Los Angeles (from my home in New York) to see Dressing a Galaxy: The Costumes of Star Wars at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Even if you’ve seen one or both of the former, I highly recommend visiting the current show at Times Square, if you can. You’ll see many old favorites as well as new classics, and you will discover quite a bit about what went on behind the scenes to create them.
The exhibit begins in a small anteroom, where a short film introduces you to key players, including costume designers Ralph McQuarrie and Tricia Biggar; the film also has an amusing 3D shout-out that I won’t spoil – but it made me smile. Then a space-station style door slides open, revealing a glass case contrasting two generations of Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi’s costume from 1977’s A New Hope (a.k.a. the first Star Wars movie release, or Episode 4), and the well-known red light-up throne room costume worn by Queen Amidala in 1999’s The Phantom Menace (the prequel Episode 1). I soon found out that the lights around this gown’s hem were powered by a car battery.
From there, you can wander at your leisure through the worlds of The Galaxy Far, Far Away. There are rooms with Jedi Knights and Sith; Amidala and other queens of Naboo with their handmaids; the shiny exoskeletons of droids; and a sinister hall of mirrors that duplicates Stormtrooper helmets and armor into an infinite legion. You can compare the shiny, pristine armor of bounty hunter Jango Fett to the “second generation knockoff” of his “son,” Boba. (The quote comes from the exhibit captions, not me!)
There are also rooms comparing Rebel and Imperial soldiers; a display with the sumptuous robes of various background Imperial Senators and Chancellor Palpatine; the luxurious clothing worn by Padme Amidala in her days as a Senator (and as Mrs. Anakin Skywalker), and of course, the black leather suit of Darth Vader. You will also see some classics: Luke Skywalker’s Jedi garments, Han Solo’s outfit, Chewbacca’s furry exterior, and the infamous slave girl “bikini” worn by Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi (Displayed with choice remarks about the outfit from Carrie Fisher).
The exhibit has some very cool interactive features. In the Jedi room, you can push a button and light up the light sabers (with accompanying sound effects). You’ll learn a lot from numerous touch panels installed throughout the galleries that show you sketches, photographs, and audio and video clips with greater detail about the production process. I was particularly moved by an audio clip of Anthony Daniels, who was inspired in his performance of C-3P0 by a preliminary painting he saw of the robot that was done by Ralph McQuarrie. (“Clearly, the figure wasn’t human, but it was so humanoid…Our eyes met, and it seemed to speak to me.”) From other panels you will discover that it takes over 14 distinctive steps to get an actor into the Darth Vader costume.
What I found most interesting about this show was its emphasis on the symbolism and meaning of the costume designs, and how they were used to illustrate the characters who wore them. There are extensive explanatory texts that describe the thought processes behind the costumes, and what particular inspirations from Earth culture were used in the designs. You get not only quotes from Star Wars production teams but also wider cultural analysis from curators at the Smithsonian.
For example, we learn how the Jedi costumes were inspired by the Japanese Samurai (and how, since the Sith started with renegade Jedi, their costumes, particularly that of Darth Maul, are similar in design). The East Asian influence continues in many of the kimono-like outfits of the Queens of Naboo, and one of Amidala’s royal headdresses is based on a Mongolian design.
Similarly, there is much discussion about how the costumes portray the essential nature of the character. Colors, for example, denote whether a character is good or evil. (The good Jedi wear earth tones vs. the Sith, who dress in black.) The rebels wear uniforms inspired by American fighter pilots and war heroes; the Imperial officers’ costumes come from German uniforms in World War I and II. (Lucas said he wanted them to look “efficient, totalitarian, fascist.”) Han Solo’s costume is essentially that of an American cowboy. The masks of the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader dehumanize them and thus contribute to their aura of malevolence. Even the sumptuous robes of Chancellor (later Emperor) illustrate his decline into greater and greater evil.
The hard-core costuming geek can find out a lot about the nitty-gritty details regarding how the costumes were made: what materials they used (and why), and in some cases even how much they cost. For example, the original Stormtrooper costumes were made of a mixture of light polyester resin and a glass fiber that was cured in a mold under a vacuum. Of the entire 1977 costume budget of Star Wars: A New Hope, the Stormtrooper costumes alone consumed almost half the money.
My personal favorite costumes from the films are the amazing outfits worn by Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala/Senator Padme, whose elaborate design and craftsmanship have long impressed me. Of the 37 different outfits from all 3 prequels that she wore, there are at least a dozen of the in this exhibit. The costume designers demonstrated great ingenuity in creating these ensembles. In some cases they used vintage fabrics and repurposed found items (especially in the headdresses). In other cases they tracked down exotic fabrics from all over the world, and enhanced them with embroidery, hand-dyeing and other processes. In the introductory film, Biggar says, “Everything we can do to fabric, we have done it.” For a literally “hands-on experience,” many of the costumes in the exhibit feature sample fabric swatches mounted nearby that visitors can actually touch.
As a costumer who has a tendency to work until the last possible minute, I could relate to one of the anecdotes about the lace wedding dress (made partly from a vintage Italian tablecloth) that Padme wears for her marriage to Anakin at the end of Attack of the Clones. The night before the scene was to shoot, Tricia Biggar decided the dress needed further embellishment, so she stayed up all night sewing pearls onto it.
The entire presentation of the costumes was, for the most part, excellent. Most of them are not under glass, allowing you to get a really good look at the details. (The level of workmanship for characters that sometimes appear for only seconds on screen is amazing.) Visitors are allowed to take non-flash photos, and the lighting is generally quite good. However, I did have one disappointment. The Chewbacca and Han Solo costumes are displayed in front of a very brightly-lit panel that imitates the hyperspace effect. Though it looks very dramatic from a distance, the backlighting of the costumes leaves them in relative darkness and makes them relatively hard to see. However, this is one minor misstep in what is otherwise a first-rate show.
As you leave the show, you’ll see a figure of Yoda, and the costumes from The Force Awakens. For final interactive fun, you can pose in front of mirrors which capture your motions and render you as one of the SW characters in 3D.
When I first arrived at the show, by way of introduction one of the museum guides said “The exhibit takes about an hour to go through – four or five hours if you’re a Star Wars fan.” I laughed, thinking it was a joke. Well, I entered the exhibit at about 3 pm. After a thoroughly enjoyable time experiencing it in great detail, I checked the time when I reached the end. It was almost 7. Four hours just FLEW by. I felt as if I had been transported through time and space.