Costume Design

Deconstructing Princess Leia

A Princess Among Rebels

Today I am going to talk about the costuming of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy. YEAAAH.

Star Wars: A New Hope is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve mentioned in previous posts how the costuming is so good they won an Oscar. Princess Leia is one of my favorite characters, so I’ve been looking forward to diving into this for awhile now. Let’s take a look at Leia and how her costuming helps tell her character’s story. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Princess Leia spends the entirety of Star Wars: A New Hope in two white costumes. Star Wars likes to use a lot of light colored, draped costumes for their morally good characters. In short, the more tailored you wear your clothing, the more of a baddie you are in Star Wars.

“My hems are very crisp…could I be a baddie?”

Often when we see white in movies and on stage, it’s not a true white, which can be hard to light and shoot. Often what we’re seeing is an off-white or cream.

Off-white and cream work well when you have other characters in dark tones to contrast. Thus, we don’t necessarily notice that Gandalf the White isn’t actually wearing white. Lighting and filters also contribute to a difficulty in being able to tell what color a character is really wearing.

But…back to Princess Leia’s whites in Star Wars: A New Hope, which appear to actually be white!

Her primary dress is crepe de chine, which is a lightweight silk and drapes beautifully.

Leia’s second white costume is used for the Royal Award Ceremony ending. I like this shot, because I’m always curious about shoes. This shot does not include the silver necklace used in the movie, probably because it was rented from a jeweler named Lapponia.

I like these two costumes because they elegantly solve the problem of representing Leia as a diplomat and as a princess. The first dress is also practical– she can run through a death star in it. Or at least, she looks like she should be able to. Hollywood is filled with costumes that look very practical but were hell for the actors to wear. More on that later.

But for now…The Empire Strikes Back!

When it came time to do The Empire Strikes Back, the costume team repeated Leia’s signature white look, with hair up. But it’s updated for a cold climate. Leia is very much in Rebellion mode with this costume. It’s the first time we see her in pants, because with Alderaan gone, she’s running the Rebellion 100% of her time now. Even with her planet blown up, this girl does not rest on hair duty. You’ll notice this vest isn’t white. That color, along with the texture of the snowsuit, helps give the costume more dimension.

Make a mental note of that snowsuit, we’ll see it later. For now, we’re on to Cloud City!

This is my favorite candid photo from Empire. They are adorable.

Cloud City gives the audience a brief moment to catch our breath, and two new things from Leia as a character. It gives us both Leia’s romantic side, and also we get to see a bit how Leia functions as a diplomat–she likes to blend in with the locals. When in Rome, wear what the Romans wear. And she does. Within about 10 minutes of arriving at Cloud City, Leia is already dressing like a local. This is the first time in the trilogy that we see her out of white. They keep her in a near white cape vest so she still references her palette. Notice: Han doesn’t change costumes.

“Y’all do cape-y things here, in deep colors with a subtle print? Done!”

You’ll notice the pattern on Leia’s vest cape above–it’s subtle and gives it garment texture, which is great for screen and stage. The pattern is actually embroidery and was done by hand (!).

Of course, it doesn’t take too much time for the Empire to find and capture them. And Leia finds herself back in the snowsuit.

So…why the change back? Did the Empire really have her change clothes? Most likely, they wanted Leia in her “home base” palette, but also because of this scene:

We’re going to have a lightsaber fight on this set later that’s going to be EPIC. But for now we’ve got the famous scene of Princess Leia saying “I love you” and Harrison Ford’s improvised “I know” reply. Leia and Han both wear white, which plays great with the lighting. I love this set so much. The combination of dim lighting, blues and oranges is simply stunning.

That fog machine was probably the best $30 the production ever spent…

A lost hand and a bad DNA test later, we find our heroes back on the medical ship, and we get Leia’s final Empire costume:

That’s a pretty strong visual reference to the first movie, for both Leia and Luke. There is so much to say about Luke, but that will be in a different post.

Moving on to Return of the Jedi!

Leia has the most variety, costume wise, in Return of the Jedi. She’s got 5 looks in this movie. It’s a lot, and most of it is combat ready stuff. She’s still in a lighter palette, but gone are the days of wearing all white. This movie is cements Leia as a ground troop rebel, so white isn’t going to cut it.

Costumes with a vest over the top are a true staple of Leia’s costuming through the original trilogy, and into the new movies. I think the costume above is pretty great in its design–it’s Leia’s first time dressed like a true rebel ground troupe, but it still feels authentic to her character, mostly because of the use of a lighter palette. Keep your eye on this particular costume, as it will get rebooted for the new movies. I’ll cover Leia’s more recent movie appearances in a later post!

And, of course, any discussion of Return of the Jedi has to include talking about THAT costume:

There’s so much I could say about this moment in film making, and what led up to this decision for a trilogy that only had two named female characters in three movies. It’s a pop-culture moment, a feminist moment, and an insane double standard all rolled into one. But we’re here to talk about the costume itself. As an adult, I have a lot of costume empathy for Carrie Fisher.

Remember when I mentioned above about actors having costumes that were hell for them to wear? Such is the Princess Leia Slave Bikini, which I will refer to as the PLSB from now on. I once saw an interview with Carrie Fisher where she described the PLSB as the 9th ring of hell. It seems that everyone from Carrie Fisher to the costume team admits the costume didn’t fit as planned. One factor is that once on set, the costume was not worn as designed. See the neck strings above that secure the bodice? Those are supposed to cross in the front before traveling to the neck. It sounds like a small thing, but those bodice cups were designed to take pressure in a certain direction. You can tell it’s off:

Pretty obvious in this shot the tie is going the wrong direction.

This is also why a lot of cosplay PLSB costumes don’t look quite right. It’s the direction of the bodice cups. For those non-bra wearing individuals reading this, you may be going…so what? So…THE SUPPORT SYSTEM HAS BEEN COMPROMISED. This resembles structures that had no earthquake preparedness measures taken. One good shake will bring the whole thing down. Good thing Carrie Fisher didn’t have a lot of physical things to do in the PLSB…


Strangling Jabba with the Chains of the Patriarchy!
Oh dear. I hope there’s some double-sided tape going on here…

Other factors to the issues include Carrie Fisher’s weight loss, the choice not to do a full body cast during construction…other factors as well. But Carrie Fisher was a pro and made it work despite flashing the cast and film crew every 5 minutes. She wore it with confidence and the audience didn’t know how much she hated it.

That’s all on Princess Leia for now! “Part 2: Here Comes The General” will cover the costume design of her recent movie appearances.

May the Force be with you!