A Look at 50 Years of Star Trek Costumes

The authors of a new book about the history of Star Trek costumes told us some Starfleet secrets.

For the last 50 years, Star Trek has invited us to explore the final frontier. Along the way we’ve met new life, new civilizations, and new Starfleet officers undertaking this mission.

While great stories and good acting have helped draw us into this sci-fi world, another important aspect that helps us embrace the idea of Star Trek is the costumes and makeup created for each character. They helped us believe in aliens and feel a part of this future for humanity.

As the decades have changed so has the look of Star Trek, with some costumes heavily evolving and others only receiving tweaks. With so much history it can seem like a daunting task to look back at how this fascinating part of the franchise has developed over the years, but luckily two veteran Star Trek authors have tackled the subject in a brand new book titled Star Trek Costumes: Five Decades of Fashion from the Final Frontier.

Authors Paula Block and Terry Erdmann have co-authored a number of Star Trek books including The Secrets of Star Trek Insurrection and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, and were asked if they would like to write this exploration of the franchise’s costumes. The husband and wife said they’d love to and the result is a colorful, more than 200 page journey through the series from the first TV show to the latest films.

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The story of Star Trek fashion all begins of course with the original series, which aired from 1966 to 1969. The costumes seen on this show would set the innovative tone for the rest of the franchise through the decades and fans have costume designer William Ware Theiss to thank for it. He worked on the iconic appearances for everyone from Starfleet’s officers to the wide range of aliens that showed up on the series. Developing these stand out looks were not easy at the time however.

“Theiss’ only challenges at that era was that TV was pretty restrictive about what you could and couldn’t show,” Block told Den of Geek. “You know, you couldn’t show belly buttons and you couldn’t show too much cleavage so he found clever ways to get around that. You couldn’t show too much of the top of the breast? Well he’d show the bottom of the breast. That type of thing.”

His type of designing left a lasting impact and resulted in what is now called the Theiss Titillation theory. The theory follows the idea that it would appear sexier and more exciting if it looked like there could be an accident where clothes might fall off at any time. One of the most common examples of this theory often shared is the outfit worn by the android character Andrea in the first season episode “What are Little Girls Made Of?”  

Beyond this unique take, Theiss also gave us the designs for the now classic Starfleet uniforms worn by the crew of the Enterprise. While the style of these uniforms has evolved over the years, many of the precedents set by Theiss remained the same such as each different division having their own color associated with them. The colors representing each area would change as the franchise grew but in this first series red was worn by engineering and security, blue was worn by science and medical, and green was worn by command. However choosing those colors were the result more of technology than anything else according to Erdmann.

“They used colors that would be distinctive from one another on black and white television and so those were the colors that they used. They said ‘well these will work real well and not look alike.’ It’s coincidental I think that we really like the fact that they’re red, blue, and green so it was a technical thing rather than an artistic thing when they originally picked those uniform colors,” he said.

If you’re wondering why gold isn’t mentioned, since in many of the episodes Captain Kirk appears to be wearing that color instead of a green top, that’s another result of technology.

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“That green that we think of as the command colors for the original series, it looked gold on television because of the lighting and everything. It was actually a very light lime green,” Block explained. “We did actually find, with CBS’ help, some original costumes and stuff and you can tell they have a real faint lime cast to them so he had picked something that was a pale green color but it photographed as gold and it’s been gold every since in everyone’s mind.”

The original series ended after just three seasons, but that didn’t mean the end of the franchise. The beloved characters would return in the movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture and with it introduce a new look. According to Block, Theiss was tied up on another project when work on the movie began and so costume designer Robert Fletcher was brought on board.


“He really expanded the Star Trek universe a lot. I would say if there’s three of the designers that did the most in terms of expanding Star Trek it would be Bill Theiss, Robert Fletcher, and then Robert Blackman later on,” she said. “Fletcher’s ideas were influenced by the producers of course, but he also went off on his own tangent. For the first movie Robert Wise was the director and he didn’t like the garish colors of the original series’ costumes so he wanted it to be more pastel and toned down so that the actors would be more prominent than the color of their costumes and that’s how we got those pale colors for the first movie.”

The pale costumes are definitely less exciting than what was seen in the original series. White, blue, and beige dominated the color scheme and each character’s division in Starfleet was less noticeable. The movie also introduced a one-piece jumpsuit uniform design that frankly was not very flattering to the characters wearing them.


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Thankfully these uniforms disappeared as the franchise moved on to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. A sense of color returned to Starfleet when Fletcher designed new uniforms once again. With their red jackets and new ways to distinguish between divisions, these costumes and variations of them would continue to appear in movies as well as The Next Generation.

The Motion Picture did leave a more significant—and more welcome—impact on the franchise beyond the officer’s costumes however thanks to the complete and spectacular redesign of the Klingons.

“Robert Fletcher, even though he was costume designer, he was also instrumental in deciding on the look of the Klingons and doing facial makeup and giving them the distinctive forehead…he didn’t like the original television Klingons because they were too human looking,” Erdmann said.

Even though they didn’t have much of a budget to work with then according to Block, Fletcher worked with the makeup department to develop the Klingon look and is “really kind of credited with creating the modern Klingon.” That look would change in slight ways from then on, but the basics of the new design would remain and become instantly familiar to fans as belonging to the warrior race.

As a result of the redesign, Klingons earn the title of Star Trek alien that has changed the most from the original series. Others like the Vulcans have for the most part stayed the same in regards to makeup as the years have passed, though their clothes may have changed.

“The Vulcans were very straight forward and obviously logical in the original series. Robert Fletcher started putting a lot of jewels on their wardrobe so they had a lot of jewelry manufacturing going on during the whole movie period and that stayed all the way. They always had big rocks, the idea that maybe Vulcan had a lot of minerals on the planet and they used them as decorations on their wardrobe and symbolic decorations,” Erdmann said. “That kind of surprised me. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but you go back and look at the Vulcans over the development of the 50 years and they’ve got these big beautiful jewels on all the time.”

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As the franchise continued with more movies and new TV series the fashion of the final frontier continued to evolve, keeping classic elements and updating others. The colors of the divisions for example would often shift on the uniforms though which colors represented the basic divisions essentially stayed the same.

“They went farther in some things than they had been able to in the ‘60s…” Block said. “They kind of went a little farther in [the Theiss Titillation theory] when they got to Deep Space Nine because they had a lot of aliens on that show so like the bar girls when you looked at them on Deep Space Nine they had some pretty risqué costumes though they were in the background a lot so you didn’t notice that as much.”

The way costumes were handled also helped connect the expanding Star Trek universe. At one point multiple series were on television as movies were also being released. When costume designer Robert Blackman, who worked on the TV shows as well as Star Trek: Generations, designed new uniforms for Star Trek: First Contact, the officers of Deep Space Nine began wearing them too.

Costumes would change even more as the prequel Enterprise took fans into a time before the original series and the reboot films offered a reimagining of that first series in an alternate timeline. Throughout all of the 50 years though, there are still connections that let you know it is Trek and some of the connections Erdmann and Block discovered while working on this book might even be ones you never thought of before!


“We learned that all the way across the franchise, every costume designer found it was real useful to do as much shopping at hardware stores as it was at fashion stores. They would design a costume but they would go out not only looking for interesting fabric, you know we’ve seen this even in clothing that we probably wear ourselves where the wardrobe maker will show the wrong side of a piece of fabric. It’s prettier on the inside but the outside is more interesting so they will put that as the outside of the outfit,” Erdmann said. “But they also shopped in hardware stores so you see all kinds of things sewn on, especially with the Borg of course. The Borg is literally made up of stuff, tubes and bolts and things, that they bought at hardware stores, but you found out that that kind of material, that kind of stuff is thrown into other costumes as well.”

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Those aren’t the only two unique locations designers shopped either. Erdmann said they also went to used-clothing stores.

“They’d go to used clothing stores and buy like old fur coats and things and tear them up and use those pieces to make gloves and boots and it’s an amazing art that the costumers have,” he said. “They find the stuff to work with every place and they will look in places that you wouldn’t suspect in order to find the stuff that they want to work with. It’s fascinating to me.”

All of this begs the question of what we might see in the latest Star Trek releases. Star Trek Beyond will have a different costume designer than the previous two films with Sanja Milkovic Hays, who previously worked in the franchise as costume designer for Star Trek: Insurrection, taking on the role. Then there’s the upcoming series set to premiere in 2017. Block said she and Erdmann are looking forward to the new show and “hope to see a lot of innovation in that.”

“I’m very anxious to find out what the new series will be. There’s a lot of discussion. I see online that some of the fans are really skeptical. They think ‘oh well it’s going to be on some streaming channel so it can’t be any good. The wrong people are going to be making it.’ But nobody knows anything so I think we should just settle back, relax, and look forward to whatever it is because I doubt that they’re going to screw it up and I’m just very excited about it,” Erdmann said.

It’s certainly hard not to get excited with so much Star Trek on the horizon, but looking back at its rich history and the fascinating world of costumes just might make fans look forward to it even more. After all, considering the evolution of Star Trek costumes we have to wonder: Will the 2017 series offer a whole new take on the classic uniform style? Will any familiar aliens receive a makeover from how they looked in past decades?

We’ll just have to wait and see, but until then fans can at least prepare themselves for the answers and maybe even reach a deeper appreciation for what we might see through this history of Star Trek costumes!

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