Star Wars Power of Costume Exhibit: What We Learned

We paid a visit to the Star Wars Power of Costume Exhibit in New York City. Here's what we learned!

With the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the classic film franchise is once again taking the world by storm and even breaking records to become the highest grossing movie in the U.S. of all time. There are a lot of reasons why Star Wars captures the imaginations of so many, but an essential element that has built this world and made us fall in love with the characters and stories of the galaxy far, far away is undoubtedly the costumes.

From The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi, and now The Force Awakens, the costumes have been a huge part of Star Wars, but can also sometimes be easily overlooked in just how much they add to the saga and how much work went into their creation. That’s why it’s great to see them now at the center of the Star Wars: the Power of Costume exhibition at Discovery Times Square in New York City which takes visitors on a captivating journey behind-the-scenes of the films’ attire. 

The exhibit features 70 costumes from the six Star Wars films presented in galleries that show visitors the process behind these now iconic looks. Den of Geek was given a free tour of the exhibition. Click the gallery at the top to see more of the photos taken of the exhibits!

Before entering the exhibit, visitors are treated to a short video featuring interviews with those who worked on the films to set the mood. After the video, a door opens to admit everyone into the exhibit. The fact that the door is reminiscent of those seen on the spacecrafts of Star Wars adds to the feeling that you’re entering another world, and once you walk through, you’re immediately greeted by a familiar set of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Jedi robes next to the stunning gown worn by Queen Amidala at the beginning of The Phantom Menace.

Ad – content continues below

You can buy your tickets for the Star Wars Power of Costume Exhibit here.

This simple display sets the tone for the exhibit, which does a fantastic job of showing costumes side-by-side for comparison to explore not just the differences between costumes worn by characters within the same category, such as the military, but also the differences between the two trilogies.

The first large room spotlights the costumes of the Jedi and the costumes of the Sith. While they certainly share similarities, it’s also clear what sets them apart and helps mark their wearers as members of either the light side or dark side. The exhibit also has fun with this and the other themes, including cool additions, such as in this room with lightsaber lights on the ceiling! These small touches were a fun surprise throughout the exhibit.

While I am both a Star Wars fan and tend to enjoy museums as well as exhibits like this, there were a lot of parts of this exhibit that actually surprised me in how much they helped draw me into the world. The costumes on display are of course amazing to look at, but the small details around them and the information presented with them will be just as fascinating to visitors. Concept sketches and art are shown alongside text in order to illustrate the inspiration and evolution behind designs.

In addition to costumes, props are also on display, like lightsabers and blasters to give you a sense of the accessories that ultimately complete and add to an outfit.

Amid the information are interesting quotes from George Lucas and the movies’ costume designers that offer behind the scenes insight as well as quotes from actors with their thoughts on the costumes. For example, at one point the amount of blue screen the actors had to work with is addressed in a quote from Lucas, which states that this made the costumes “the only thing they [actors] have that is a clue to that environment that they are working with.” Clearly this made their design even more important, since it was often an essential element for actors to truly feel like they were where who they were supposed to be.

Other fascinating insights come from Prequel Trilogy costume designer Trisha Biggar, who shares how for The Phantom Menace they probably made well over a thousand costumes, and before the wedding scene for Attack of the Clones was filmed, she thought the wedding dress needed something else and pulled an all-nighter to personally pearl the dress! There’s also a great quote from actor Samuel L. Jackson about how seeing his Mace Windu Jedi costume finally gave him a sense of who his character was. 

Ad – content continues below

The interactive nature of the exhibit also helps make you feel more engaged with the presentations. Digital displays on iPads are scattered throughout, showing extra content that visitors can take their time to scroll through to learn more.

Audio buttons are also included occasionally for anyone who wants to press them for an additional audio element. One of the best of these audio options is found in the “Droid Design” section. This room features the fan favorite duo C-3PO and R2-D2, as well as the newest droid addition to the franchise, BB-8. The audio you’ll hear is the man behind C-3PO, actor Anthony Daniels, as he explains how he came to accept the role after he saw Ralph McQuarrie’s initial concept art. The audio adds an extra layer to the room, as you can look at McQuarrie’s art while Daniels talks, along with the other images on display, such as the robot that influenced the look of C-3PO: Maria from the 1927 film Metropolis.

The exhibit is a traveling one, so New Yorkers are not the first and will not be the last to see these costumes on display in this way. Before arriving in Times Square, the exhibit was on display at the EMP Museum in Seattle, WA from Jan. to Oct. 2015. Teresa Brady, senior press director for Discovery Times Square, told Den of Geek that they already had the galleries and themes set up when the exhibit arrived in New York, but they brought in C&G Partners to help design the exhibit.

“What we’re hoping is when people go in they’re not only experiencing the Star Wars universe, but they’re seeing what the original thought process was going into the costumes,” she said. “[In] the room we’re in here, “Outlaws and Outsiders,” we talk about that famous Princess Leia gold bikini [from Return of the Jedi], and we have a picture featured with the inspiration and how the costume evolved. At the end, we have Han Solo’s costume, and what’s very interesting is his costume is very much inspired by the old gunslingers from the wild, wild west. So that’s kind of how we designed the rooms, is what the theme of the gallery is, [and] what the stories behind the costumes [are].”

Having a theme like “Outlaws and Outsiders” for every room does offer interesting groupings of costumes that present ideas and relationships between them that you might not have considered before. The “Symbolism and Military Power” section presents the looks of the various military elements in the saga next to each other for comparison. Seeing the Empire’s looks next to those of the Rebel Alliance are especially fascinating when reading the accompanying comments from John Mollo, the Episode IV and Episode V costume designer. Mollo explains how Lucas wanted the Empire to have the look of fascists while the rebels’ look would be something similar to U.S. Marines.

The two most interesting aspects of the groupings however are the contrast it shows between the Prequel and Original trilogy costumes when they are presented together, and the evolution of certain specific characters that are shown throughout. Looking at the costumes from the two trilogies, their designs manage to look vastly different while keeping that common thread that makes them all instantly recognizable as being from Star Wars.

Ad – content continues below

In the Prequel Trilogy, the costumes are often more colorful and grander in their appearance than those from the Original Trilogy. They are looks that would clearly be worn by those living in a time of a successful, vibrant Republic unaware of the darkness that is lurking in wait.

The costumes of the Original Trilogy, on the other hand, are more subdued and less colorful for the most part, showing how the Empire’s dark time was seen even in the clothing of the people, as they basically suppressed creativity and even a colorful sense of individuality. One piece of text reveals Lucas’ idea was “that when the evil Empire takes over the galaxy, fashion goes out the window” and there’s no clearer confirmation of this than seeing the costumes side by side as they are often presented here.

As for specific characters, part of the section dedicated to the Senate discusses Palpatine and how his attire mirrored the rise of his Empire. As the end of the Prequel Trilogy neared and the shadow of the dark side grew, his clothes reflected this by becoming darker and taking on a more sinister appearance as well. An entire room towards the end of the exhibit is dedicated to the looks of Padmé after she left Naboo’s throne, which are frankly breathtaking. Her character definitely deserved such a room considering the shear number of costumes she wore over the course of the Prequel films. According to the exhibit, a total of 18 costumes were created for her for Episode II alone.

Padmé’s room is where I also realized another element of the exhibit that had been present the entire time in helping me feel immersed in the world of Star Wars, but was especially clear here: the music. Playing throughout the exhibit are the familiar sounds of the Star Wars soundtrack, with each track appropriately matched to the theme of the room. “Across the Stars,” the love theme for Anakin and Padmé introduced in Attack of the Clones, played in her room. It helped add to the atmosphere, as I viewed the many costumes on display and how they mirrored her journey. It also helped add an emotional aspect to the exhibit. Even without the music, walking into the last part of the Padmé section would be emotional, but a shift in the music, as you see Amidala’s funeral gown displayed in her coffin, brings that extra emotional punch to bear.

Rather fittingly this emotional room is towards the end of the exhibit, which then moves to rooms dedicated to two iconic figures from the franchise—Darth Vader and Yoda, before suitably ending with a few costumes from The Force Awakens. Ending with the new film leaves you with a sense of anticipation, knowing that more amazing costumes are on the way that will mark a new era of costume design in the saga.

From the costumes to the music to the interactivity and information, all these elements make the exhibit worth a visit for fans. Even if you’re not a huge fan of the franchise, you’ll most likely be fascinated to see what’s on display and shared by those who worked on the films. To Brady, it’s really interesting what different groups can get out of the exhibit.

Ad – content continues below

“We have the diehard fans. It makes them appreciate the films a lot more because they see how much attention to detail went into the costumes. There are a lot of costumes here, a good amount, that you only see briefly in the films, but you see how much work and care went into the costumes,” she said. “What’s great about this exhibit, especially the fact that we’re in New York, is we’re in the fashion capital of the world, so we have a lot of designers, we have design students, we have costume and fashion enthusiasts, so even if you’re not a fan of the movies come in and just see how these costumes are constructed [and] what’s the inspiration. A lot of these costumes have historical context behind them and then [there’s] the detail, the beadwork, the fabrics that went into creating them. It’s amazing.”

The exhibit will be at Discovery Times Square until Sept. 5, 2016. It will then move to the Denver Museum of Art for a Nov. opening.