Costume Design

Deconstructing Princess Leia Part 2: Here Comes the General!

Rise Up!

Come for the costume analysis, stay for the Hamilton references…

It’s time for Part 2 of our deconstruction of Princess Leia. This post is going to look at Leia’s appearances in the new Star Wars movies. If you missed last week’s Deconstructing Princess Leia: Part 1, you’ll want to read that before you read this post.

Let’s get started shall we?

Throwing serious shade…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens finds Leia once again leading a band of rebels to resist The First Order. Her first costume is a reboot of her rebel Return of the Jedi costume.

We’re all about the vest and pointed lapel now. Leia is still in her “home base” palette of soft blues and tans, but for these later movies they are going to transition her to darker jewel tones, starting with this plum vest. Notice that the tan of the Jedi shirt has been put into her Force Awakens pants. The powder blue vest from Jedi has been swapped to a shirt–we’ve seen this inverting of costume colors before, in Lando’s costuming.

We’ve seen Leia in the garnet Cloud City dress, and the purple PLSB, so these aren’t entirely new colors for her palette. But this costume is the last time we will see Leia in her home base palette from the original trilogy.

Leia’s second, final costume is a blue dress that she wears after Han is killed. This dress is supposed to be in the same visual family as Leia’s Cloud City dress from The Empire Strikes Back. Notice that the overlay is creating a similar silhouette.

Here’s the thing: this costume isn’t working for me. It’s intended to be regal, but it doesn’t quite feel like Leia. It’s also pretty cheerful for Han having just died, and it’s driven more in that direction by the choice of hair. I think this movie has a real problem with hair design–they aren’t taking the age of the character into consideration, or the gravitas of the situation.

Trivia: Notice the neckline on this dress. It’s similar to the starburst symbol we see on the Jedi texts in The Last Jedi

Leia’s costuming in these movies drives home the fact for me that a lot of this is new territory–women in their late 50s have rarely had major roles in sci-fi and fantasy movies. We’ve certainly seen an increase in the last three years, but there isn’t a lot of historical precedent for costuming these characters– particularly powerful, high status characters. But hey, we’ll get there.

I don’t often like to backseat drive on costuming, but I will for this because I feel like an opportunity was missed to make a stronger design choice with the final The Force Awakens costume. I think they could have either brought Leia back to her “home” costume to tell us she’s still that character we fell in love with, or push her way outside of her normal costuming to tell us that she’s changed.

Option 1: Throw her back into white. I like this solution because of what it would communicate to the audience. The legacy of that white costume is long, and referencing it would be very powerful.

For shape of the garment, it might have been fun to pull in some visual influence from Mon Mothma.

Option 2: Take a cue from Luke in Return of the Jedi and throw her into black or near black. It would communicate to the audience that Leia means business and the First Order will have hell to pay.

But we don’t get either of these things. Instead we get a very middle of the road choice that doesn’t really tell us much about Leia’s journey as a character. It feels a bit ornamental to me.

I hope Carrie Fisher’s people talked to the powers that be after this one. I suspect they did, because her costuming for The Last Jedi is much more age-appropriate and thoughtful. And let’s be clear by what I mean by age appropriate: certain garments should NOT be off-limits to people when they reach a certain age. But most people wouldn’t be wearing the exact thing they wore in their 20s when in their 60s. People change, and so do bodies. So I’m an advocate for celebrating women at their age, instead of trying to make them look younger.

Leia is the matriarch of the rebellion; the term and idea of “matronly” has traditionally had negative connotations in our culture, but it’s not inherently bad to be a mature woman. But we certainly don’t have as many examples of mature, powerful women in film as we do men. Leia is a powerful character and some of the costuming and hair choices in The Force Awakens undermine that power and status.

Thankfully, we’re starting to see more representation and diversity in female characters.

So let’s talk about The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi has a huge deviation in costuming for Leia, both in terms of garment and palette. In The Last Jedi, Leia is looking more like Vader’s daughter design-wise. But I think it’s a fitting and smart design. She’s lost Han, her son has turned to the dark side, and Luke is missing. The costuming reflects her state of mourning and her authority. I like that the team made some bold choices.

Leia’s base dresses for this movie are desaturated versions of earlier colors we’ve seen on her. With very modern, empire-tailored capes and cloaks over them. Her new hair design fits nicely into Leia’s style and doesn’t undermine her authority. The other important change to her hair–they’ve let Leia have more gray in her hair. Which, besides being very flattering, also lets her be her age.

Her first costume is a darker, grayer version than the powder blue we have often seen her in. And then that coat…

Leia’s second costume is built for colder climate. We’ve seen Leia in a purple eggplant color often in the movies. This dress is a cousin of that color–at first glance you might think of it as black. It’s dramatic and beautiful. She’s got the title of General, but she’s 100% Queen.

I love this coat so much. SOOOOOO MUCH. Also, there’s that two stone ring, which looks like it might be a Kyber Crystal…

The thing that is doing a lot of heavy lifting on these two costumes is TEXTURE. Texture is a costume designer’s friend, and is what will keep your costumes from looking, well, like costumes. The Last Jedi uses a lot of texture–such as heavy knits and a lot of leather. This is a trend right now in fantasy and sci-fi. It’s especially useful when you want a desaturated palette, but don’t want your characters to look flat.

For another example of what I’m talking about: check out the Star Trek: Picard trailer.

Captain Picard discovers the giant studio storage unit of distressed leather jackets…

Overall, I feel like the new trilogy started a bit rough with Leia’s design, but nailed the landing. Because the Rise of Skywalker is using unused footage of Carrie Fisher shot during The Force Awakens, there may not be much in the way of new costumes to see. I’m pleased The Last Jedi was able to give Leia an iconic, powerful send-off.

May The Force Be With You!

When you ask about the costuming budget on a fringe theatre show and the director is all
“We Have Everything We Need”.