Star Wars and the Power of Costume

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Discovery Times Square has become one of the hottest go-to venues for nerdy exhibits and traveling shows. The space recently hosted the incredibly high-tech Avengers STATION and has been home to a Hunger Games exhibition for more than a year now.

The newest exhibit to come through may have a clunky name, but – in short – it’s well worth your time and money if you’re in the city. Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume opened in November of 2015 and will remain on exhibit until September of 2016 (before moving on to the Denver Museum of Art).

The traveling exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service in partnership with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and Lucasfilm. Rather than focus on the narrative structure, special effects, or chronology of the Star Wars films, the exhibit instead turns its focus to the costumes created for the saga.

More than 60 different costumes, spanning all seven films, tell the story not of Star Wars but of the collective vision to develop that universe. The exhibit walks the visitor through the creative process of turning ideas into reality.

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Depending on which interview you watch or read with George Lucas, you’d be forgiven for thinking the most important part of Star Wars was the story, the actors, the hero’s journey, the special effects, the ships, the locations, the mythology, the music, the relationships, or the costumes. At one point or another, he’s said each is the cornerstone of the saga.

I’m not here to argue this point or to discuss the role of the costumes in the films. Clearly, they play a critical role, and many of the outfits have become iconic. (For an in-depth look at the costumes, check out this book.) I’m here to talk about The Power of Costume as an exhibit. What will you see, what might you learn, and what will you take away with you?

Yes, the text panels will tell you that many of the costumes were based on timeless archetypes. The Jedi robes call back to Japanese samurai dress. The Imperial uniforms of the original trilogy intentionally draw parallels to Nazi Germany. The luxuriant robes and dresses on display in the prequel trilogy are meant to distinguish royalty and politicians from the real heroes and villains dueling it out on screen. Some are influenced by real-life cultures here on Earth; some are drawn from pure collaborative imagination.

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Digital interactive screens are scattered throughout the exhibit, allowing the visitor to scroll through various pages of complementary background information. These screens include behind-the-scenes photographs, concept sketches, and a few brief videos. The information is great, but technical hiccups prevented the tablets from working well during our visit – they weren’t very responsive to our touch. Still, this is a relatively minor quibble.

This is an “open-air” exhibit, meaning that most of the costumes aren’t encased behind glass. You’re a mere few feet from most of them, with nothing at all between you and the fabric. This is fantastic since it really lets the details shine and be noticed. Nothing is hiding behind scratched or reflective plexiglass.

The costumes are presented somewhat thematically. You begin with the relatively simple robes of the Jedi and Sith and how they were presented across the first six films.

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The droids (C-3PO, R2-D2, and BB-8) are an early highlight. It’s easy to forget that in the original trilogy, C-3PO and R2-D2 were in fact costumes for Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker. BB-8? He’s there because he’s adorable.

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What feels like a majority of the exhibit is composed of Natalie Portman’s various wardrobe changes from the prequel trilogy. If you’re like me, you likely have strong feelings about those films as films. However, if you can set aside those feelings for a moment, it’s easy to recognize that they had a vastly superior costume budget than the original films. And that budget is evident in a big way whenever Natalie Portman is on screen.

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Scattered among the opulent prequel costumes are various exhibits that check the nostalgia box. Tusken Raiders, Boba Fett, bounty hunters, Stormtroopers, Ewoks, and Han and Chewie all make appearances.

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Generally speaking, the exhibit presents these costumes as works of art and strives to tell the story of how Star Wars developed creatively. It doesn’t make any larger cultural commentary or address criticisms that have often been lodged against some of the costumes. Leia’s metal bikini is presented alongside her Boushh bounty hunter disguise to highlight the contrast of her bravery and heroism vs her forced enslavement.

But the exhibit itself never directly says anything about that contrast or the controversy surrounding the outfit. Likewise, it doesn’t address some of the “cultural appropriation” critiques that have been made against the ornate and “exotic” prequel outfits that mimic certain Asian designs.

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There are a few display cases with weapons, such as blasters and lightsabers, that often complement the costumes, and they were a nice touch to add some variety. But ultimately, the exhibit saves the best for last and treats visitors to a grand finale of Yoda and Darth Vader before presenting a few costumes from The Force Awakens.

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My biggest complaint would be the relative lack of signage regarding the authenticity of each piece. I’m left to assume (given the Smithsonian pedigree) that all of these costumes and accessories are original, screen-used items. However, unless I missed it, this is never stated with any clarity. I noticed a small text panel beside Han in Carbonite that indicated it was a replica, but considering that it’s not a costume, per se, this is understandable. Still, the panel was small, and I just happened to notice it. I don’t know how many other objects on display are also replicas.

Despite this, the exhibit is incredible and well worth the time. It’ll be at Discovery Times Square until September before hitting the road. Tickets are available here, and I highly recommend a visit if you’re in New York during the coming months.

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