In the nearly four decades since George Lucas unleashed the universe of Star Wars on the world, Darth Vader masks and Princess Leia donut buns have been Halloween-costume fixtures, and Star Wars logo T-shirts have become ubiquitous. Nerd-punk sister duo Rodarte even emblazoned much of their Fall 2014 collection with screen prints of Yoda, Han Solo, and the film’s chilling space-scapes, and the latest film was celebrated with a special collaboration of designs, called Force 4 Fashion, ranging from the literal (Ovadia & Son’s stormtrooper robe) to the more nuanced (Diane Von Furstenberg’s Rey-inspired guipure lace gown).
But fashion has always had an even deeper relationship with the costumes of Star Wars, which both revolutionized the concept of sci-fi costume and anticipated a radical moment in the fashion industry in the late 1970s.
As the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s director and chief curator Valerie Steele explains, prior to Star Wars, sci-fi costumes fell into “a couple of cliché futuristic costumes”: think silver jumpsuits with diagonal stripes; skimpy, leg-bearing Greco-Roman warrior togas; or a spacey take on contemporary clothing. “If you think of Star Trek and things like that, it’s all very 1960s, but [it feels as if] ‘the future is micro-miniskirts,’ you know?”
But Star Wars—memorably taking place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”—took a different tack: its stormtroopers, Darth Vader, and constellation of enemies and warriors were dressed by John Mollo in cool, purified suits of armor, streamlined, unadorned uniforms, and imposing robes that seemed unfamiliar, unearthly, and downright peculiar. Just as Lucas borrowed plot points and characters from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies, the costumes were clearly taking cues from Japanese traditional dress.
“It is distinctively different from the whole Western fashion tradition, and that’s an important thing to try and get a sort of ‘alien’ look,” Steele explains of the Japanese influence. “So the fact that it’s flowing, it’s sort of long, T-shaped garments, and sort of stylized armor, as opposed to clothing that is sort of tailored and fitted to the body.”
Not coincidentally, it was at that very moment that an emerging class of Japanese avant-garde designers were beginning to toy with their country’s folk costume in a movement that would soon reverberate in the Western world’s fashion capitals. Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Kansai Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake were experimenting with surreal and cerebral shapes and bulbous gatherings of fabric that resemble the fresh, outer-world look of Star Wars, with perhaps less threatening results. (Yohji Yamamoto debuted his first collection in Tokyo the year of Star Wars’ premiere, and the others began showing in Paris in the early 80s. The group would be immortalized in a 1983 New Yorker article by Kennedy Fraser prophetically titled “The Great Moment.”)
“It’s hard for me to believe it was entirely accidental because if you think about that particular period right when Star Wars came out, that was right when Japan ruled the world,” Steele says. “The Japanese economy was on top of the world, they were taking over all kinds of companies, and I think there is definitely a hint of an idea that Japan was kind of like this evil empire. So whether consciously or unconsciously, [Mollo] is picking up on Japanese themes in dress for the costuming.”
On that point, the trio of heroes set up an intriguing dialogue in international relations: Han Solo in his dystopian spaghetti-western getup, his blaster pistol slung in a holster; Princess Leia in her toga-esque robe, recalling a silver-screen ingénue dressed by Adrian; and Luke Skywalker in his monastic Jedi robes. While all evoke a feel of otherworldliness, they trade on Hollywood tropes to elicit our empathy.
Star Wars has since then worked as a recurring source inspiration for the industry, developing into a tête-à-tête in borrowing and influence. As Steele puts it, the films had an impact “in renovating the idea of science-fiction costume as an influence on fashion.” She cites Nicolas Ghesquière’s work for Balenciaga, where he designed from 1997 to 2012—“those metallic leggings, and things like that”—as well as Gareth Pugh and Rick Owens. “I think that Star Wars played a big role in reminding people that that indeed could be a really cool source of inspiration.”
Surely, the latest film landed with such a resounding bang that it’s difficult to imagine the latest film won’t entangle itself with high fashion in the same way. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma costume has been widely praised for steering clear of the ultra-femme, sculpted bodice that sci-fi women are often strapped into, reflecting the gender-ambiguous designs that have made near-instant stars of houses like Hood by Air and Vetements. But it’s also easy to see the influence of today’s most zeitgeisty designers, particularly the carefully draped, gender-ambiguous tunics of Rick Owens and even Kanye West’s ambisexual army of dweeby, beige lingerie and oversized outerwear.
But whether Chewbacca will appear in a future film wearing the bestial Gucci loafers that are on the feet of seemingly every fashion editor remains to be seen. “Oh my God, I don’t know,” says Steele. “I can’t go there.”
Perhaps even Wookies have their fashion limits.
First published in Vanity Fair by Rachel Tashjian