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Star Wars: The Power of Costume

Darth Vader, Star WarsTM: Return of the Jedi. © & TM 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.

Darth Vader, Star WarsTM: Return of the Jedi. © & TM 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. Used under authorization.

The Denver Art Museum presents Star Wars and the Power of Costume, from November 13, 2016 through April 2, 2017. 

The traveling exhibit brings characters in the Star Wars universe to life through a dramatic presentation of original costumes. It closely examines the process of costume conception and design for the iconic outfits featured in all seven films of the Star Wars series, from Princess Leia’s unforgettable bikini to Darth Vader’s sinister black uniform, to the newly-evolved outfits in the prequels and sequels.

The display was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in partnership with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and in consultation with Lucasfilm Ltd. Objects on display are on loan from the Archives of the Lucas Museum. Seventy costumes will be on view, as well as 100 additional pieces such as conceptual and working sketches, parts of costumes, videos, and more.

“The creative process behind crafting the world of Star Wars is part of a pop-culture phenomenon that we are thrilled to bring to the Rocky Mountain region,” says Christoph Heinrich, Director of the DAM. “A vivid display and behind-the-scenes look will delight creatives, designers and die-hard fans alike.”

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars was born. Well, 1977 to be exact. Along with The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Revenge of the Jedi (1983), the original trilogy spawned memorable characters that are defined by their unforgettable attire.

And for the prequels and sequels that followed, thousands of hours and countless decisions went into creating the fantastic costumes that form such an integral part of the Star Wars galaxy.  The concept designers, visual effects supervisors and the production art department had to make sure the costumes would exist harmoniously with digital sets—which didn’t exist at the time of the original films—cloth simulations, and computer-generated aliens.

There’s no minimizing the power and connection between character and costume in the Star Wars drama. They transform the actors into the characters they portray. These are the originals actually worn in the films, not re-creations.

How did the costumes come to be? That’s the fascinating, complex story the exhibit conveys, using fabric, form, color and style. Several videos allow visitors to see and hear the designers, actors, and George Lucas himself. Smithsonian scholars provide cultural and historic context.

But some of the creation stories about the space opera’s characters are fun to know. 

For example, Chewbacca. Who doesn’t love Chewie? And how did such a hairy character come to be? The idea for Han Solo’s Wookie sidekick came to George Lucas as he was driving to work one day with his huge Alaskan Malamute, Indiana, who sat in the front seat like a copilot at about the same height as Lucas. With the wind blowing the pup’s fur back against his face, Lucas saw his Wookie. His glimmer of an idea was transformed into a 7–foot hulk covered in yak hair and rabbit fur.

The swaggering Han Solo’s preference for solitude as the lone, rogue gunslinger archetype of Western movies inspired his name and his costume.

R2-D2’s name came wholly-formed from a technical term George Lucas overheard from a sound engineer, calling for “R2-D2” (Reel 2, Dialog 2). It was perfect, of course, for the lovable little droid whose bleeps and whistles have generated worldwide affection. And it is a costume with an actual actor hidden inside. 

How did the fussy and worry-prone humanoid C-3PO get his name? George Lucas took it from his hometown map that showed the local post office to be in grid C-3, thus C-3PO. 

Now a third droid debuted in The Force Awakens, the cute little BB-8, who looks like a designer bowling ball with a free-moving domed head. However, it’s not a costume. It’s an actual remote-controlled robot. Meaning there’s no one there.

The sepulchral Darth Vader was envisioned by Lucas as a dark lord with an evil essence. The costume designer immediately conceived him wearing a Nazi helmet from WWI, a motorcycle suit, gas mask, and flowing cape. Not to mention a breathing apparatus for his wheezing voice.

Demure but woman-warrior Princess Leia was always engulfed in flowing, white robes with cinnamon-bun hair. But when Carrie Fisher appeared as a slave in a barely-there metal bikini that required constant re-shoots because of frequent wardrobe malfunctions, it became a pop-culture mainstay and young men’s fantasy. Still, “It was the bikini from hell,” she has been quoted as saying.

If it’s true that “You are what you wear,” the Star Wars exhibit is dazzling proof. 

IF YOU GO

Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver, CO 80204, 720-865-5000 , www.denverartmuseum.org