How do costumes define the characters in Star Wars? This idea has been mulling around in my head for a while, since I had a brief discussion with Mei Mei in the comments of my blog on planets. This is more of an essay than a blog post, but well worth the read if you’re interested. I promise my posts on Luke and Han will be much shorter as there is not as much to discuss.
I think Lucas made very deliberate choices with his costumes on each of the three main characters in the original trilogy and made sure that what they were clothed in also reflected either a) their personality, b) their development as a character, or c) their environment. The latter is the most obvious and almost always true, but I think it’s interesting how color and shape can also dictate a deeper look into who they are.
So I decided to split this up into a three part series and examine the most obvious choices of characters: Luke, Leia, and Han. I know nothing about costume fabrics so that area will remain untouched.
On the surface, Princess Leia’s costumes remain almost always the same in terms of color. In the entirety of A New Hope, she is wearing white. There is only one costume change and that comes in during the last two minutes of the movie.
During the Empire Strikes Back, she steps it up a notch and has four costume changes. She starts off with this one piece, white snowsuit with an off-white vest. This is a slight change from ANH, as this is a pant snowsuit and not a dress, paired with almost knee-high boots (grey/white color). She stays in that for the majority of the movie, until she gets to Bespin, where she changes into a deep red long sleeve short dress, with matching pants underneath and a tan vest/long sleeveless cloak. She’s only in this briefly; as soon as Solo is captured, she is once again in her pant snowsuit, without the matching vest. This time she is in white heels as opposed to boots. At the end of the movie, she is surprisingly back in the same dress we see her in for the majority of ANH.
The Return of the Jedi sees five costume changes, but I am going to ignore her disguise as Boushh as that was her imposing as someone else. If we ignore Boushh, she starts off in the famous metal bikini made of gold and maroon colors with grey shoes. She transitions to her Endor outfit with light blue pants, black boots, tan shirt and grey vest, but while on Endor she dons a camouflage cape to blend in with the forest. When with the Ewoks, she has a tan, rustic, homespun brown dress before she changes back into Endor gear, before finally ending the movie with the Ewok dress once again.
Now we have a good foundation at looking at Leia as a character and understanding how her costumes reflect her.
The first thing that always comes to mind with Leia and her costumes are:
- She has many white costumes, and
- Her costumes do not reveal a lot of skin, barring the slave costume which I will get into later.
Throughout mythology, white symbolizes goodness, purity, and light. It is associated with perfection and safety. Most of the time, it has a positive connotation. This makes sense for Leia’s character, as Lucas wants us to see her as the Princess in need of rescuing in the first film. This could also be why he puts her in a dress; as the Trilogy continues, Leia is more often found in pants. He follows the standard fairytale format in ANH with a princess trapped away and a boy who rescue her (though, once she’s out of her cell, it seems like she does more the rescuing). It’s way more nuanced than that but you understand the gist of it. It wouldn’t make sense to dress Leia in any color other than white for the first film.
As we progress to the second and third film, there is more of a shift in her colors, though I would say that in ESB, she still is firmly in the white category. The red dress-like costume when she is in Bespin is an abnormality, but it’s easy to see why.
When thinking of red in your daily life, what do you think? Stop. Danger. Warning. Love. Seduction, at times. Courage, at times. We can tie her Cloud City costume back to her feelings of Lando. Leia even clearly says, “I don’t trust Lando.” Her costume is wrapped up in her feelings of Lando and his carnal feelings for her. The red from her point of view symbolizes mistrust, her sense of danger over the whole situation. For Lando, he sees the red dress and it plays to seduction and that she wants to be wooed by him. It generates a lustful feeling for him. Notice how quickly Leia pulls in the lighter, long cloak as soon as Lando enters and looks her up and down? I believe Lucas paired the red dress with the white cloak to remind us that she is still a pure, good, and safe character. It allows Leia to pull herself into safety despite her mistrust of Lando.
As soon as Lando’s betrayal is revealed and Han is captured by Boba and the Empire, Leia is once again put into the white costume. There’s no more questioning of her character; she is back in control and a strong beacon of light.
Why does she end in the same dress she was in during most of ANH then? I’ve tried analyzing this but have come up short on a satisfactory explanation. We can’t really say she’s come full circle, as this is clearly the middle chapter of the story. I like to think that she’s dressed in that outfit that was pre-Han because Han has been taken away and we don’t know if he’ll be brought back safe. It’s still white, but it’s a symbol of Leia alone. Again, not happy with this, so if anyone has better ideas, please share.
As we head into Return of the Jedi, I want to talk about how conservative Leia’s clothes have been thus far. None of them have been revealing and I think that reflects on her as a very guarded, in control person. She has a high position in helping run the Rebellion against the Empire and does not have time for a personal life. Princess Leia is not the let-her-hair-down (figuratively and literally) kind of girl. She’s definitely a little uptight, or as Han would like to say, “could use a good kiss.” Her clothing reflects that strong and guarded woman.
The one time we see her in a pretty revealing outfit is…you guessed it…the slave costume in Return of the Jedi. I wrote about this outfit in a previous post, arguing that this outfit is not quite a sexist as some would like to believe. In a nutshell, the reasoning is that Leia was put into this costume against her will. This forced bikini outfit represents Leia’s vulnerability at this moment in the Original Trilogy. Up until she is at Jabba’s Palace, we have always seen Leia in control of situations. In ANH she ran the entire show, got everyone out of the Death Star alive, and got Artoo back to the Rebellion in one piece with the stolen plans. In ESB, she was one of the last to leave the base and the only time she sat back was when Han took them to Cloud City – and we saw how that turned out. But never in the entire OT do we see her stripped of her ability to have an opinion, voice, or control. The bikini shows this like no other costume can.
The muted colors of Leia’s slave outfit are a representation of Jabba’s hold on her. There is no white in this costume, the lightest color are the shoes, which are a dark grey. Gold is most commonly paired with wealth, riches, and affluence. Of course that’s what Jabba is trying to portray. He has a rich new toy (who better than a Princess of Alderaan and leader of the Rebellion?) and he wants to show it off. Why not deck her out in the finest?
As soon as Leia is back with the Rebellion and Jabba is dead, she once more puts on conservative clothes. The clothes are definitely on the lighter side of the spectrum, but they are not white. I believe the camouflage cloak is clearly designed for practical, environmental purposes and will not go into that. As the movie continues, she never wears white again, except once as a shirt underneath the Ewok dress. We have left the monochromatic Leia behind and have begun to see a Leia with changes in her life.
The Ewok dress is a brown color. Yes, it was probably made from earthy materials and environmentally influenced, but it could also reflect the way her life as she knew it is changing.
She’s falling for Han. Hard. She learns that Luke is her brother and her father is *gasp* Darth Vader. Knowing that she has Sith in her now, perhaps Lucas wanted to reflect that with these colors that almost seem like water and earth running together. Pure water (the light, white, pure Leia) and muddy dirt (knowing she has Sith/evil in her blood) mirrors her transition as a character. She ends the Trilogy in the brown dress which makes sense with the white peeking out. She’s no longer the character that she was in ANH.
We see through Leia’s costumes a passage of a character that speaks volumes. I don’t think she ever loses her goodness, strength and purity. But she does change, especially in Return of the Jedi where we see her attachment to Han and learns about her true family history. Lucas was smart to have her costumes mirror the change internally in an external fashion (pun!).
If you made it through this whole essay, let me know what you think about Leia and her costumes. Did you notice something that maybe I did not bring up? What was I right about? What was I wrong on?