The Cincinnati Museum Center has always exhibited artifacts from a long time ago, but starting this week they’ll also have items from a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars and the Power of Costume opens Thursday.
The exhibit features original props, costumes and concept art from the celebrated film saga, including fan favorites such as the golden bikini worn by Princess Leia on Jabba the Hutt’s barge in Return of the Jedi and an original Chewbacca costume made with yak hair. The original C-3PO costume worn by Anthony Daniels in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, along with the R2-D2 controlled by Kenny Baker in the first Star Wars movie, 1977’s A New Hope, will also be on display.
The traveling exhibit comes to Cincinnati after an incredibly successful run at the Denver Art Museum, which added an extra week to the show and extended its operating hours to accommodate demand.
“Families in America today are looking for ways to entertain and educate kids, so it’s great to go to an exhibit at the museum with Star Wars; it’s a win-win,” says Laela French, director of archives for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.
The Lucas museum, founded by George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, has developed the exhibit in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The costumes are on loan from the museum.
Items included in the exhibit showcase the exceptional artistry needed to create beloved characters such as Princess Leia, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker — characters that have remained pop culture icons for 40 years.
“This tour is about the creative process,” French says. “Costume doesn’t just come out of thin air. How does George create a character and how do you dress that character to reflect who it is? Back in the day, Darth Vader was menacing. Some kids think he’s cute now, but when he first walked onto the screen, people were scared. Why were they scared? Two reasons: the music and his outfit. That’s costume design. How do you get there? How did they know how to do that? That’s the creative process.”
Darth Vader’s costume is highly influenced by samurai armor from Japan’s feudal era — an era that was the setting for Akira Kurosawa’s classic films Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress. “George was directly inspired by Kurosawa’s films, by samurai,” French says. “What is a samurai? In many cases they’re going out to defend people. But then there’s Darth Vader, the samurai who’s gone bad.”
Lucas was such a fan of Kurosawa that he tried to cast Toshiro Mifune, the samurai protagonist in many of Kurosawa’s films. Lucas offered Mifune the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi and also Darth Vader before the first Star Wars was filmed, but the Japanese actor declined both.
Padmé Amidala, played by Natalie Portman in the 1999-2005 Star Wars prequel trilogy —The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — wore a different costume for every scene. All of those designs were derived from a wide range of cultures and, as a result, her wardrobe was one of the most visually striking aspects of the series. The attention to detail on her costumes is a major draw to fans of this exhibit.
“Each outfit is telling a miniature story within itself,” French says. “I think, especially with a costume exhibit, you might get a slightly older demographic, maybe folks who aren’t as versed in the science-fiction world, coming through. They see the artistry of the costumes — the level of detail put in is astounding — and we’ll get some converts in that way.”
French says one of the delightful results of the incredible work put into the costumes is that some attendees — like costume players, aka “cosplayers” — linger for hours in the same room as they attempt to document every unique detail of a costume. As cosplay gains more recognition, it’s not uncommon to see designers spend a lot of time in the exhibit, looking for inspiration in the garments to take home and recreate.
Han Solo’s iconic outfit was directly borrowed from Western gunslingers. By dressing him as such, his gruffness and cocksure personality were immediately established before he even said a word.
“Han’s pants are right off of the (19th-century American) Union soldiers,” French says. “They’re identical. His shirt is an old Western-style shirt called ‘The Custer’ after General Custer. Han really is straight from the Old West.”
The exhibit contains items from the first seven Star Wars films and fans of the series should be satisfied with the variety. The humble robes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, worn by Sir Alec Guinness in A New Hope, make a dramatic contrast to the elaborate senate gowns worn by Amidala and Palpatine in the prequel trilogy.
“In the exhibition, there’s a section on Palpatine — we call it the ‘Devolution of Palpatine,’ ” French says. “He starts off like a normal senator; then he morphs into the Emperor. You see from the timeline of his costumes how the mannequins get more and more hunched over, they’re more creepy as his inner-self comes out.”
There’s no denying the ubiquitous influence Star Wars has over us. With the franchise back in cinemas after the Walt Disney Company’s relaunch of the brand (The Force Awakens, Rogue One, et al), fans have much to absorb. Star Wars and the Power of Costume gives audiences a chance to appreciate the finer aspects of the craftwork — details that might be missed in the frenzy of a battle scene.
“What makes this exhibit fun is that it’s like pressing pause on the movie and being able to just walk up and look all over these outfits, to see the detail put into them,” French says. “It’s like a fashion exhibit. It’s exquisite.”
STAR WARS AND THE POWER OF COSTUME is on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center through Oct. 1. Adult tickets are $24; $16 for children ages 3-12. Member and senior discounts available. For tickets and more info, visit cincymuseum.org/star-wars.