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Star Wars and the Art of World-Building

Star Wars and the Art of World-Building

Mike Malpiedi • January 7, 2017 • Art • 

As if the Denver Art Museum wasn’t already one of the best places to visit in the Mile High City, the museum has gone ahead and curated a magical Star Wars costume exhibit that awakens The Force in all who take the tour. Stepping into the exhibit, visitors are greeted by some very worn and familiar robes: the Jedi robes of none other than Obi-Wan Kenobi. The old Jedi is the catalyst for Luke’s epic adventure, so it only makes sense that his robes introduce visitors to the experience. From there, the exhibit takes curious fans on an extensive journey through the development of the Star Wars universe, from the prequel trilogy to the newest film, The Force Awakens.

The exhibit, Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume, is a testament to the detail and complexity of the costume designs in Star Wars and how these designs shape the surrounding universal mythos. With how much action takes place in each Star Wars film, there often isn’t much time to appreciate the level of detail given to each character and how that develops the larger universe. I would go as far as renaming this exhibit, “Star Wars and the Art of World-Building,” because the exhibit speaks strongly as to how intricate and vast the universe of Star Wars is. Through the use of various cultural influences, iconography, and attention to detail, George Lucas and others continue to give life to an entirely separate reality that captures the imagination of fans across the world.

Chewbacca and Han Solo from Star Warsâ„¢ and the Power of Costume at the Denver Art Museum Photo by Mike Malpiedi

Chewbacca and Han Solo from Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume at the Denver Art Museum
Photo by Mike Malpiedi

Star Wars is a Universe for Everyone

What makes Star Wars so unanimously adored is that it is a universe that anyone can feel comfortable in and can be excited to explore. Star Wars inspires the type of imagination and creativity that fosters community amongst fans from all walks of life. But how can costumes guide the development of this cross-cultural appeal? The exhibit spends a good amount of time examining this question by presenting each costume’s cultural influence.

What is so impressive is just how many world cultures are stitched into the fabric of these costumes. The best example of this is Queen Amidala’s wardrobe. A significant portion of the costume exhibit is dedicated to Amidala, and over a dozen of her outfits are displayed. While viewing her different pieces of attire, an interview with actress Natalie Portman can be heard, and she discusses how fun, yet taxing, it can be to have such a wardrobe. One particular Amidala display described her as an intergalactic queen since each of her outfits embodies aspects of multiple cultures:

The fanciful Queen Amidala costumes, the monk-like Jedi robes, and elsewhere, the filmmakers appear to be creating allusions to particular, often Eastern, cultures. That look gets elaborated and is then combined into something new, with the results often being a more imaginative interpretation of a culture than anything authentic or directly related to it.

Amidala’s elaborate outfits often combine traditional Chinese headdresses with Japanese kimonos or nineteenth-century European dresses. These types of combinations create a fashion that is both all and none of these cultures at once. This duality allows for different people viewing the films, or in this case the costumes, to see themselves living in this universe. Sown into each character is an entry point for any person to get a taste of what life could be beyond this Earth of ours.    

The cultural influences even extend to smaller characters within the Star Wars universe such as the stormtroopers. The stormtroopers’ helmets, as well as Darth Vader’s, are crafted based on the Japanese oni masks. An oni, in Japanese folklore, is a demon that usually brings havoc and chaos wherever it goes. Some samurai would wear these masks to intimidate foes or as a means to ward off the evil they represent. By using the oni as a base for attire of the antagonists, the audience is able to easily identity Vader and the Imperial Stormtroopers as the evil entities in the world of Star Wars.

Creating the Iconic

The use of universally recognizable symbols, such as the oni, imbue the costumes with an iconography that does as much storytelling as a script. Iconography refers to the study of elements and symbols that either influence or create meaning within a particular piece of art. These elements can be anything from the use of particular colors to the use of symbols such as a cross. With this in mind, the exhibit takes a number of moments to evaluate how varying elements, such as color and aesthetic, define the two sides of the conflict fueling the Star Wars mythos…

Jedi vs. Sith, Rebel vs. Imperial, Good vs. Evil.

After being introduced to the exhibit by Obi-Wan, time is taken to focus on the differences between the Sith and the Jedi: the ultimate representations of good and evil, light and dark. Both the Jedi and Sith dress in similar robes, but what defines them, and makes their alignment easily identifiable, are the colors attributed to them. A person knows that a Sith is evil purely based on the dark black of their robes and the haunting red of their lightsaber. In contrast, a Jedi is just as recognizable as good because of the light brown and white robes, and the blue and green hued lightsabers, both colors attributed to prosperity and peace. A large display at the beginning of the exhibit with Darth Maul standing deadly and dangerous, while surrounded by contesting Jedi, embodies this dichotomy. 

Darth Vader from Star Warsâ„¢ and the Power of Costume at the Denver Art Museum Photo by Mike Malpiedi

Darth Vader from Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume at the Denver Art Museum
Photo by Mike Malpiedi

Besides the oni-influenced helmets of the stormtroopers, the Imperial forces read as evil through the use of clothing aesthetics similar to Nazi military garb. The neutral gray and strict lining of each Imperial officers’ military uniform present a regime that is inherently fascist. Without a word of dialogue, anyone would know the Imperials to be the villains just by studying their wardrobe. Same can be said for the Rebels who are decked out in military gear similar to the U.S. Marines and Air Force. The dusty brown uniforms give the Rebels an “everyman” look that make them recognizable as the underdogs. This binary of good and evil is imbued into multiple elements of the costuming in the Star Wars universe.

Droids, Ewoks, and Wookies… Oh, My!

The use of these different elements and influences create a reality that is as exciting as it is accessible, but it wouldn’t enthrall imaginations without being a bit more fantastical. In this vast Star Wars mythos Lucas inevitably gave birth to a wealth of creatures, alien races, and robotic companions that help to solidify what makes the Star Wars universe the entity that it is. In order to create such an epic reality an excellent eye for detail is needed.

Nowadays, many films use a combination of motion capture and computer animation to compose the more sci-fi or supernatural-based characters, but this Star Wars exhibit shows the benefits of using real and raw materials to develop characters. A display dedicated to the one and only Chewbacca shows how Lucas found influence for the character in his own dog. The large costume is made out of pounds and pounds of yak hair in order to give Chewbacca his wooly and beastly appearance.

The droids display a whole other level of detail entirely. Each droid from C-3PO to BB-8 are intricately composed from hundreds of little components including wiring, clay and plaster castings of actors’ bodies, wheels, gears, and remote controls. Each component helps to make the droids appear that much more robotic and futuristic. This attention to detail makes each fantastical character more real, and thus adding to the impression that Star Wars leaves behind.

This eye for detail also lends itself to guiding the story and connecting parts of history embedded in the mythos. For example, Jango and Boba Fett essentially utilize the same bounty hunter outfit, but looking closer at each suit shows the generational differences. At the time of Attack of the Clones, Jango’s suit is new and clean. Jango is in his prime when he is wearing this suit; he has status and his spotless suit shows it. In contrast, Bobas’ suit is worn and scarred from battle. Boba’s damaged and burned suit shows that the days of his father are long gone and that Boba had a lot of experience to earn. Details like this are what help the Star Wars mythos stand the test of time and allow for new stories to find life within it. 

We are Luminous Beings… Not this Dark Matter

Yoda from Star Warsâ„¢ and the Power of Costume at the Denver Art Museum Photo by Mike Malpiedi

Yoda from Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume at the Denver Art Museum
Photo by Mike Malpiedi

Just as the exhibit began, it ends with a familiar face. And that face is none other than Master Yoda himself. The little green dwarf is displayed in a case across from one of his quotes: “We are luminous beings… not this dark matter.” This quote speaks perfectly to what it feels like leaving that exhibit: to feel larger than what our bodies can contain. What Star Wars does so successful by combining a number of cultures, icons, and intricate detail is create a universe where everyone viewing can feel larger than life. It reminds us that we carry hope, love, and imagination with us always even when the hour is against us. Through the power of costume and the art of world-building, Star Wars builds a universe where we all can belong and make a difference.


Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume is on display at the Denver Art Museum until April 2, 2017. 

Denver Art Museum


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