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The Clothes Make the Trilogy: Inside the New Book ‘Star Wars Costumes’

by  in Movie News Comment
The Clothes Make the Trilogy: Inside the New Book ‘Star Wars Costumes’

It’s safe to say that few collections of movie costumes have inspired more cosplay over the past four decades than the singular wardrobe of Star Wars. And now, thanks to a new book, the origins of those iconic outfits are explored in detail.

In the painstakingly researched and handsomely photographed hardcover Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy, from Chronicle Books, author Brandon Alinger delves deep into the Lucasfilm Archives to document classics burned forever into our psyches – Darth Vader’s imposing armor, Princess Leia’s slave outfit, C-3P0’s gold-plated exterior and Chewbacca’s hairy hide, among them – to the minute details of varying Imperial uniforms, from the subtle character commentary evoked by Luke Skywalker’s black Jedi robes to the intriguing behind-the-scenes evolution of Boba Fett’s dangerous look.

In a candid conversation with Spinoff Online, Alinger addresses some of the most fascinating facets of the costumes that fueled countless fantasies.

Spinoff Online: It’s a fascinating and gorgeous book, and I’m sure It had to be a labor of love for you. I’m curious: Where was your starting point on, first of all, having an interest in the costumes of Star Wars, and then getting this project off the ground?

Brandon Alinger: Yeah, definitely a labor of love for me, I mean, I’m obviously a Star Wars fan. I’m someone who grew up on these films and has been interested in the making of these films for a long, long time. I guess the roots of it for me go back to about 14 years ago; I went out to Tunisia to find all the filming locations where they did the Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark as well, and I found a lot of those locations. I saw some of the sets from some of the newer Star Wars films, which was a great experience, and it really opened my eyes to the world of film production. It just got me very interested in this whole thing and in how they made these movies.

I also grew up watching some of the great documentaries that were done in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s on the making of the various Star Wars films, and so I was just always interested in the production and how these movies were made, and who made them and just everything that went along with that really. So I started doing a lot of research on my own, just getting in touch with people that worked on the film, and just interviewing them out of my own interests and collecting photographs that people had, things like that.

And eventually I met Jonathan Rinzler, who is an executive editor at Lucasfilm, and he did The Making of Star Wars, The Making of The Empire Strikes Back and The Making of Return of the Jedi books, the large hardcover books, coffee table books, which are fantastic. When that book came out, The Making of Star Wars, in 2007, I just loved it. I just thought it was the greatest thing. I was able to meet Jonathan during the time that he was working on the book for Empire, and I said, “Hey, just so you know, I’ve done some research of my own on Empire, and if I can help you out in any way, I’d love to.” And so I developed a relationship with him, and I wound up working with him on the Return of the Jedi book, sort of as a research assistant, tracking people down and helping to identify crew members in photographs and that sort of thing.

Also, for the past eight years, have my day job, if you like, is working at Prop Store. Prop Store is a company that sells props and costumes as collectible memorabilia from all different kinds of films. We work with all different studios and production companies, etc., etc. So I was very involved in the prop and costume world already and Jonathan knew that, so he said to me at some point, “Hey, Lucasfilm may do a book on the costumes of Star Wars. Would you be interested in writing it?” And of course I took it on. It was a dream project for me … It all worked out and here we are with book in hand, which is fantastic. It’s been quite a journey.

Tell me a little bit about the process. I was lucky enough to have visited the Lucasfilm Archives for a brief period. It’s the biggest playground a fan can imagine. So as you started assembling the elements of the book, tell me what that experience was like and what it entailed.

Well, I’m sure you can relate. Just going to the Archives for the first time is such an amazing experience. Being such a fan of this whole world and having researched and studied it all for so long, to go in there and actually see the real costumes was pretty special. And the first thing that we did was sort of a reconnaissance trip to just go in and take a look at “What is there? What could we include in the book? What does the collection consist of? What things are interesting? What has not been seen by the fans before?” Obviously, Lucasfilm is always doing touring exhibitions with their costumes, so a lot of things have been out on public display.

You know, the Archives are vast. There must be tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individual pieces, items in there, assets in there. So there was a lot to go through, and we were definitely able to find some things that I knew had not been on exhibit before and that I figured fans would be very excited to see. So the first thing we did is we spent three days in there just looking at things, just going through wardrobe rails and going through our cargo boxes and making notes and checklists and really just working out what the hit list was going to be of subjects to cover in the book.

What were you most excited about really delving into? Was there a particular costume, or two that you had a really vested interest in?

I loved researching the variations of things that repeat in all the films. So for example, with the Darth Vader costume, obviously Darth Vader’s a recurring character and on the surface the costume doesn’t really change, but in reality, it is actually a different costume in each film. There are subtle differences, subtle changes in the design – I think both for practical and aesthetic reasons – that occurred from film to film. And when you really get into it and you start looking carefully at the film, the reference images and things, you can pick up on the fact that, “Hey, there are changes in the helmet from film to film.” There are changes in the belt, things like that.

And then I loved seeing, on a more practical side of it, things like in the book there’s the Darth Vader stunt fighting helmet, where they’ve actually built the neck and the cheeks out of a smoked acrylic, so that the stunt performer who’s wearing that helmet can look down and he can see his feet through the mask, whereas if it was just a standard Darth Vader mask, which is made out of fiberglass, you wouldn’t have that degree of visibility. And of course on screen you don’t notice unless you’re really looking for it, but I just loved seeing the artistry and the thought that went into coming up with something like that. You could really see the creative thinking and the problem solving that went into it, where I’m sure the stunt performer was having a difficult time seeing anything in that helmet, and he’s trying to have a sword fight, and you know, how do you do it? So the costume team goes away and work up a solution, and the solution is, “We’ll make more areas of the mask transparent, so that the guy can see.” It’s just kind of brilliant.

There are the iconic costumes and then there are those that are generally familiar to the fans who have been watching these over the decades. But what was a costume that really stood out to you that you hadn’t put a lot of thought into, but once you got into the research of you it, you just thought, “Oh, this one’s really got a surprisingly interesting story behind it”?

Yeah there was some stuff like that. There were some costumes that were labeled from production Lando Variant X, Y and Z. And when we first came across those, I didn’t really understand what they were. I thought maybe they were prototypes for Lando – this is for Return of the Jedi, so we’re basically talking about skiff guard costumes. And I thought maybe these were prototypes – early, potential designs for Lando’s skiff guard outfit, and I thought, “That’s really interesting.”

And as I started to research and chat with the costume designers I found that they weren’t prototypes to Lando’s outfit. They were variations of Lando’s outfit that were intended to be worn by some of the other characters, and the reason behind that was they wanted it to be believable that Lando could be in disguise in Jabba’s palace, without Jabba noticing him. So there was a real story motivation there, where it was, “OK, Jabba the Hutt is probably someone who would know what Lando Calrissian looks like, so how do we make Lando blend in? Well, we’ll make some of the other skiff guards have costumes that are almost identical to his.” And they do, they share common elements. I think one of the costumes has the same breast plate, but it’s in a different color. Another one of the costumes has a helmet that’s exactly the same shape. So there was stuff like that that I had never really thought about or had never heard anything about in any other documentary or book or anything that was just fascinating.

Some of the other things that were considered, like the section in the book where we show the Rebel costumes from Hoth, from The Empire Strikes Back, and we show how a number of those were dyed brown camouflage for consideration for Return of the Jedi. But of course, we never see those costumes in the films. It’s obviously something they played with, experimented with, and then decided that this isn’t quite working and went another direction.

One of the most iconic of the costumes would be Leia’s slave outfit from Return of the Jedi, and you also had it photographed for the book in a very lovely fashion. Tell me, how you had to approach that one, knowing how iconic that particular outfit has become over the years.

Yeah, I guess that Princess Leia being one of the few females in the Star Wars universe certainly that was one of the star characters of the book. We know that there’s a lot of Star Wars fans out there that love Leia, so we really wanted to make sure that she got good coverage, and obviously that costume is so memorable that it was always going to get a lot of attention. As far as the way it’s set up on the mannequin, the photography, that wasn’t really my arena. The dressing of the mannequins is all done by the Archives team, the very talented, capable Archives team. They’re the ones who find the mannequins that the costumes will fit on. They take care of all the dressing. They make sure that things are going to look good for the book and then there was a photographer named Joe McDonald, an art photographer, who came and did all the gorgeous shots for us. That Leia costume, because of the position, the pose of the mannequin, worked really, really well for a gatefold. There’s not too many costumes that you could shoot horizontally like that and work into your gate fold, so I thought that was probably one of the strongest gatefolds of the book.

It was interesting to read about the process between those initial designs – those famous Ralph McQuarrie designs – and where the costume designers on each film took them, but also George Lucas’ involvement, every step of the way. Can you talk about that in the big-picture sense, as far as how George was always kind of the guiding light throughout the entire process, for everybody?

Yeah, yeah, that’s right. I mean, certainly there are two major highlights on this project for me. One is going to the Archives and getting to work with and research on the real costumes from the film. And the other half of it is getting to talk to all the people who are directly involved. So, the three costume designers – John Mollo, Aggie Rodgers, Nilo Rodis-Jamero – I got to spend a decent amount of time chatting with each of them, and they were all fantastic. They all had wonderful insight. They taught me so much. And then going down the line from there, I spoke to many other people who worked in the costume department on the three films. I guess the overall feedback that was common amongst everyone that I talked to was just that George was there, he was hands-on, he was guiding light throughout the process. John Mollo speaks very, very highly of George and the direct one-on-one relationship that they had when they were doing the first film.

And George clearly set the ideas, not just for John Mollo, but for Ralph McQuarrie before him. George had concepts. He was the one who said, “OK, we can’t have any fasteners. I don’t want to see any buttons or zippers on these costumes because it’s too close to Earth. If it’s going to be space fantasy, if it’s going to be another world, then there shouldn’t be things like zippers and buttons.” Which I thought was just a great directive. And of course the big statement that he didn’t want people to notice the costumes and that he wanted them to be very subtle. And I think that’s common. If you read about the making of these films, it’s clear that so much of it was directly influenced by George. It really is all his vision. It springs from his mind, and then there are teams of talented creative people who helped him bring it to life.

I feel that the most interesting costume back story in the book had to be the story behind Boba Fett’s evolution.

I spent a lot of time researching Boba Fett. That story has been written in the past, about how the character started as a Supertrooper and then became Boba Fett, but I was really hoping to clarify it as much as possible how that went down, that transition. I don’t know if I ever got 100 percent of the facts. It is a little tricky when you’re doing a book like this, because you’re asking people to remember details from three decades ago. That’s a difficult thing to do.

But an overview of the story would be that the look of that character came from a design that Ralph McQuarrie did for what was going to be a snow trooper commander. When they started very early on Empire they knew they were going to have a snow world, they knew they were going to have Hoth, and they started doing designs for the new characters on Hoth. I think George liked one of the helmets that Ralph had done for this snow trooper commander and he said, “OK, let’s develop that into the Supertrooper.” And the Supertrooper was envisioned as like an upgraded stormtrooper, a super-stormtrooper.

And then at some point, I think just because he liked the look of the costume so much, Joe Johnston came in and really fleshed out the rest of the costume – all the body armor, all of the accessories that wrist rockets, the backpacks, things like that largely came from Joe Johnston. George stepped in and basically said, “OK, I think this guy looks great. Let’s make him a more prominent character. He’ll be a bounty hunter.”

At the same time all of this is happening, in about 1978, Lucasfilm had a number of performance actors who were touring in Darth Vader costumes, who were appearing at malls and meeting kids at things like that as Darth Vaders. From what I was told, George was feeling that Vader was getting too much exposure, so they needed to introduce another character to the public who could represent Star Wars, who could appear in parades and at malls and things, but who wasn’t necessarily Darth Vader.

And so that became Boba Fett, and obviously he premiered in the Holiday Special, in the cartoon, and then after that he was in a number of Star Wars events, that parade that they had in San Anselmo [California] in 1978, before the film ever came out. And I guess the most fascinating thing about it is how that character became such a fan favorite, despite having a relatively minor role in the film – such a beloved character. And I think you really have to attribute that just to the look of the costume. So it really shows you the power of the costume there.

Tell me about the fine line between costumes and props when it comes to Star Wars. I imagine that’s a very fuzzy area.

Yeah, yeah, definitely. Obviously all of it is falling under the same design aesthetic, the same production design, but if you take a look at something like the Biker Scout. The Biker Scout has got a holster on his boot, and the holster has to hold the Biker Scout’s blaster. And so the blaster therefore has to, for practical reasons, have a certain design aesthetic. It has to be small, because it has to fit on the side of a boot. So it can’t be a great big rifle or something, it has to be a small – a bit more like a spy weapon, really, something that they can conceal in their boot. And I think that Costumes and Props were always working very close, hand in hand.

And also, especially on Return of the Jedi, Costumes and Creatures, they had to work out how all these costumes are going to interface with the latex creature heads and the latex creature hands, and I think you had something similar going on with props. When they’re making a leather gun belt for Han Solo or for Luke or anyone like that, they’ve got to figure out, “OK, how’s it going to hold the blaster? How is it going to hold the light saber?” So I think a lot of that just developed in tandem, side by side with the prop department and the costume department working together. And in some cases there was probably some overlap.

There’s a story in the book about C-3PO where C-3PO, being such a mechanical thing, was passed to the prop department and the art department rather than the costume department, because that wasn’t something that a costume shop like Berman’s and Nathan’s could manufacture. That had to involve sculptors and plasterers and mold makers and engineers and people like that to create it, because it’s such an involved costume, so different from what a costume would typically be.

My impression from reading Jonathan’s books and following things over the years is that it has helped immensely that Lucas seems to have very wisely invested in archiving everything, and on a level that people weren’t doing at the time.

Yeah, absolutely. I think especially for that time, really, if you go back and you look at the common practice, in film production at that time, things like costumes were just disposable assets. The product in this industry is the films. The costumes aren’t really the product, they’re a byproduct. And once you get the image down on film the costumes at that point are generally considered expendable. So there were very few studios, production companies, anyone who was actively archiving costumes in the late ‘70s or the early ‘80s. I mean, most of the big studio archives did not start until much later, until the ‘90s, for studios like Warner Bros. and Fox and Universal.

The common practice really was for costumes to go back into the costume department of the studio and then to be rented out, recycled, modified and used again in other productions. And some of that was done on the first Star Wars. If you read the section on [London-based costume house] Bermans & Nathans in the book, you’ll see that the costumes that were made for the first film were made on what they call a make-for-hire basis, meaning they were owned by Bermans & Nathans, and the majority of those did go back to Bermans & Nathans to be potentially rented on other films, and that would’ve been a cost issue. They would’ve saved money doing it that way.

By the time they got to Empire, I think they knew the significance of all of it, and so they manufactured the costumes and they bought them and they owned them, and then George Lucas kept them. As far as the collections at the Archives today, they have a lot of material from the first film, because they did go back and, I think, buy a lot of it out from Bermans & Nathans at a later date. They have most everything from The Empire Strikes Back, and then they have absolutely everything from Return of the Jedi, for it was all made in-house in California. But it’s a unique costume collection in the world. There’s very few studios anywhere who have costume collections that are that complete from their films.

And I think just from a cultural significance standpoint, it’s got to be one of the most significant costume collections in the world, because these movies are just so beloved. And it’s interesting, because obviously George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm and that is now owned by Disney, but the costume collection and the Archives were retained by George Lucas. They will now be part of his new museum in Chicago, which I believe is now called the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. So I expect more of these things will be on display at some point in the future. Which is great, because I know that outside of the book, everyone loves seeing them in exhibitions and on display. There’s actually a new Star Wars costume exhibition that is going to start, I think, at the beginning of 2015 at the Smithsonian.

That’s very cool to hear. Tell me, was there a Holy Grail that was maybe hard to find and you were able to track down? Or one that’s still kind of out there somewhere that you hope will turn up?

Well, there were certainly some great moments as far as just going through materials in the archive. One of the things that I loved was, there was a box in there of stormtrooper belts, and in the stormtrooper belt box was the belt for the Supertrooper Boba Fett, the original white belt. It’s somewhat similar to a stormtrooper belt, but it’s leather, it’s different. So I spotted that, and I said, “Hey, I know what this is!”

And it’s not really that things are lost in there. You just have to understand that they have ten thousand or hundreds of thousands of artifacts, so it can take a little time to get to the one you’re looking for. There were things like that where I didn’t know that they had that piece. I’d never seen it on exhibition in the past, and I knew that all of the Boba Fett fans – because there are so many guys who worship that costume, and who study it and revere it and make their own replicas of it, I knew that those guys would love seeing that, so that was one thing that we pulled out very quickly and highlighted and said, “OK, we’ve got to put this in the book.”

As far as things that we didn’t get in, I don’t think there were too many really, as far as things that we were still looking for. There were a few costumes from the first movie that we covered with archival photographs, rather than new photographs, because they aren’t in the Archives today, like the Darth Vader costume from the first film. That one is not present in the Archives, so the image that you’re seeing there in the book is a vintage image taken in the late ‘70s. I guess you can say that maybe that one was a bit of a Holy Grail. The common consensus on that was that it was most likely reworked and reused for The Empire Strikes Back, so it probably doesn’t exist in its original form anymore.

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