Skip to main content

Movie Icons: Princess Leia

Princess Leia Organa, as played by Carrie Fisher in the original Star Wars trilogy, is one of the biggest female movie icons in movie history, and, without a doubt, the biggest female icon in science-fiction (granted that there aren't that many female characters in the genre, but it's still a major thing). It seemed only logical, under such outstanding qualifications, to have her kick start a new series of articles dedicated to Movie Icons and how their Costume Design helped them become Icons in the first place.

If you ask someone what they think of when they hear Star Wars, they'll probably say; "Yoda", or "the Death Star", or "the lightsabers"... And at one point or another, they'll say "Princess Leia's buns". Her look, particularly in A New Hope, is one of the most visually iconic elements in the movie. And though some people might prefer the "slave bikini" costume from The Return of the Jedi, it's the white gown from Episode IV that made the character iconic to begin with. But, how could such a simple design hit so hard the popular consciousness of moviegoers? What's the formula? Let's dive in!


A New Hope, originally released simply as Star Wars, was a movie no one thought would ever amount to anything. The movie was rejected by numerous studios and, in the end, was only picked up by 20th Century Fox because George Lucas agreed to renounce to his salary as director (instead he asked to be granted the full revenue of merchandising for the film, which has made him, to this day, a very rich man).

With a very low budget and a non-supportive Studio, Lucas faced the unimaginable during the production. Many of the technicians and even actors have acknowledged the fact that everyone on set thought the movie was going to flop.

And yet, when the movie hit theaters in May 1977, it became an overnight success; earning millions and securing the future of the franchise. It was the beginning of a new era. Was it because of John Williams' amazingly engaging score? Because it was a fun movie in the midst of the more depressing New Hollywood Products? In my opinion, it was its incredible balance between old and new where it managed to truly resonate. The final movie, whilst being a clear homage to the sword-buckling movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, still managed to feel new and fresh. Whilst honoring the classics, Star Wars heralded a new age of movie-making. An age of special effects and bombastic climaxes.

Of course, that wasn't the only reason. The film also managed to capture the viewer's imagination by presenting an amazingly fascinating world for them to navigate. It presented a visually iconic universe and characters. And top amongst those iconic characters is Leia.


John Mollo, a British specialist in military uniforms, is the name behind the Costume Designs for A New Hope, which happened to be his first job as a designer. Previously, he had worked as a consultant for the military uniforms for films such as Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975).

He would, later on, continue the path of Costume Design with movies such as Alien (1979), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Gandhi (1982), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) and Chaplin (1992). He even won two Academy Awards for Costume Design; the first for his work in A New Hope and the second for his work in Gandhi.


Princess Leia Organa, the strong-willed, determined, sassy and all-around amazing rebel, was first introduced to the world in what has become the most iconic white dress in movie history. This is a rather fascinating fact, taking into account that it's probably the simplest white dress in movie history as well. Then why does it work so well?

Well, it works because it relies on creatively combining visual ideas that have proven effective before. Thus creating this symbolic entity that works at a completely subliminal level; helping us know what this character is and stands for with only a glance.

As a historian specialized in military uniforms, designing the costumes for a rebel princess might not have been the easiest or most comfortable enterprise for John Mollo. Because of it, he fell back on an area that he was much more comfortable with when designing for her: historical iconography and symbolism. What's that? It's the visual leitmotifs that run across history and its arts. Leitmotifs that because of their longevity, are almost ingrained into our consciousness.

The most obvious one is the color choice itself. Apparently, Lucas came in the design work with an already set idea of color, but Mollo went along with it because it worked. The white of her costume is a very simple and direct way to tell the audience where she stands in this conflict and also sticks to the character a number of adjectives: good, pure, fair, whole. Mainly it tells us that she's on the RIGHT SIDE, the side of the HEROES.

This association is as old as time itself. In this case, it seems to draw, particularly, from the Christian symbolism of the color; for Christianity, white represents the color of light and is an emblem of the divine. And one specific Christian figure is repetitively represented in white: Angels.

Angels, in Christian Dogma, bring light and hope to the world. But angels are also messengers. And what's the first thing Leia ever did in the movies? Well, deliver a messenger. And not any message; she delivers THE message that starts the whole plot: "Help me, Obi-Wan. You're my only hope."

It seems only logical then, that they would choose to dress her in a very simple tunic-like white robe that heavily resembles the traditional tunic in which Angels are generally represented in Western Culture.

The loose flowing white robe is, at this point in pictorial history, such an ingrained idea that it flies over our heads, directly and exclusively working at a subliminal level. And that's how just with color and style, the resulting look of the character manages to fill in the audience about both her moral stand and her role in the movie.

But that alone wouldn't work. The design needed something extra. She is, after all, the only female character in the movie, so her costume also needed to transmit a certain femininity to create a contrast with the rest of the characters. So, what better place to turn to that the most romantic and sensual art movement?

To me, at least, the overall feel of Leia's costume always brought me back to the string of women depicted by the romantic painter William-Adolphe-Bouguereau (one of the iconic painters of 19th-century romanticism). Sure, she's not as delicate as they are. But the sensuality in the use of white robes seems very similar: the veiled head, the pleats and long sleeves...

These elements are at the core of her costume design, but much the same way that the movie hit hard because it managed to successfully marry old ideas (classic adventure) with new ones (groundbreaking cinematic visuals), the dress works because it combines old iconographies with new ones. It creates contrast and makes us feel that the result is a whole new thing.

And that contrast is achieved through the hairstyle; the ever-popular cinnamon buns that everyone has tried for Halloween at some point is what really rounds up the design. These are the total opposite of what her dress stood by. They bring little symbolic weight or character description to the look. What they bring is a much-needed alien-feel to her design. Without this, the design would feel too "normal" for the story and setting. What the buns manage is to break the familiarity of the design and introduce the "other-worldly" feel.

To do that, it takes its inspiration from the most unexpected places. Whilst the costume thrived on taking ideas from previously established visuals, the hairstyle does quite the opposite, going to find inspiration in the most unlikely places and the least well-know ideas: from the more tribal look of the ritualistic hairstyle of the Lady of Elche and the traditional buns of the Hopi women to the more common crispinette (a medieval hair dress consisting of two buns at each side of the head covered in an often jeweled net) to the vignettes of Flash Gordon serials.

The result is a weird yet charming hairstyle that would go to define the character almost as much as the rest of the costume. It's the cherry on top of an already very well thought out costume design. Its alienness poses a perfect balance with the classicism of the costume, making the design work through the same mechanisms that made the movie work.


Take a step back and look at everything we've put on the table. Why does this costume work? Well, mainly it works because it cleverly finds new ways of working with proven visual formulas and make them feel a 100% percent original, just the same as the movie itself. Both Costume and Movie are great exercises in creative unoriginality.

When put like that, it might seem derogatory; but it couldn't be farther away from the truth. Finding creative ways to repackage a popular idea, it's not an easy task. Look at all the reboots coming up these past years. They failed precisely at that. Getting the right balance between reusing ideas and creating new ones is truly the hardest task anyone can set himself to. It's an art in itself that requires a great deal of talent and creativity.

Leia herself, as a character, is a great exercise in creative unoriginality: cleverly balancing out the old princess stereotype with the wild, strong personality of a liberated woman. And that shines through to the costume as well: the classical robe mixed with the bizarrely defiant hairstyle. And, maybe, somewhere in there, there's another definition of why it works. Its pride in the alien, and its love in the classics. Its strong personality against the more classical stereotypes. In the end, Leia, and by extension, her costume, work because they relish in their rebellious classicism.


With this article, I begin a series dedicated to "Movie Icons". Whilst, at this point, I have already a few ideas about which characters I am going to cover, I'm always open to suggestions and requests. So don't hesitate to tell me which character you want me to analyze!


If you enjoyed this article and would like to support the blog, 
consider buying me a Coffee? 💛💛

If you want more content like this, subscribe! Or come say hi on FacebookTumblrTwitterInstagram and help us grow!

DISCLAIMER: I claim no credit for images featured on this site unless noted. Visual content is copyrighted to its respective owners, and inclusion here is under fair use for criticism, comment, and news reporting purposes. If you own the rights to content here and wish it removed, please contact me.


  1. What a beautifully written article; so insightful! I would personally add that Leia's iconic white robe is reminiscent of the long-sleeved 'bliaut' gowns of the Middle Ages, which of course would fit perfect with the whole Arthurian feel of the movie (and as you noted, Bollo was a military attire historian, and I believe he based his Stormtrouper costumes on Medieval plate armor.)
    Anyway, keep up this wonderful work! We are all big fans of The Costume Vault here at The Ultimate Fashion History. :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Burning Question: What's wrong with Belle's gown?

Since the first promotional pictures of Disney's new Live-Action remake of Beauty and the Beast hit the internet, there has been a lot of discussion around Belle's iconic ball gown. And, even months after its release in cinemas, there still continues to be a lot of buzz around it. Why? Mainly, because a lot of people feel that it is just doesn't look that good. The thing is, Belle's animated yellow ball gown is, at this point, an iconic staple of animated cinema. Everybody knows it and everybody loves it. And, as a result, everybody can see the new one and say "this is not the costume I know". Therefore, everyone can compare it down to the smallest detail and see that it just doesn't quite look right. Today, my goal will be to try and dissect the design in order to answer the burning question everyone has been asking themselves: what's so wrong with the "new" dress? Or, to put it bluntly, why is it so incredibly underwhelming?

Disney's Cinderella(s) and the evolution of the "princess" aesthetics

Every girl, at some point in life, has wanted to be a princess. It has become undeniable that the concept of the "princess" is, for better or worst, inseparable from girlhood. We live in a "princesses" obsessed era, and we have for a long time now. And a lot has been said about it, with loud people yelling over the internet about the positive and negative aspects of it. So it was about time for me to join the yelling contest, I guess. If I'm going to talk about princesses, the logical place to go is to the Global Mogul Conglomerate that has led the trend and, in many ways, defined it: Disney. They have, undeniably, redefined the fairytale and have turned the term "princess" into a best selling Licensed Entertainment Character Merchandise. The thing is, even though princesses have been part of the fairy tale canon for a very long time, they didn't become the central figure until Walt Disney placed them there. In the tales that the G

Historic Accuracy in Costume Design: The 16th century

I've never been a purist with historical accuracy as long as the changes made have real reasoning behind (generally a narrative or symbolic one). I will always think that La reine Margot (1994) costume design is one of the most gorgeous and smart designs ever, even if said designs' main premise is to purposely bend the period in regards to costume. But there are certain things that bother me in regards to historical accuracy in costume which I realized when I found myself constantly irritated while watching The other Boleyn Girl (2008). This led me to post a question: when is it right to bend history? why is it interesting sometimes? whilst other times it's simply horrendous? To me, when these changes are made for the narrative's sake, I'm usually on board (like the 2012's "Anna Karenina" designs, which mixed the 1870's fashion with 1950's fashion in order to enhance the sense of theatricality and falsehood in Imperial Russia). But wh

Crimson Peak: Dressing Edith Cushing. The Butterfly

"Beautiful things are fragile" - Lucille Sharpe - Opposite Lucille stands our main character in the movie: Edith Cushing, a young and naive American with ambitions to become a writer. She meets and falls in love with a handsome and charming, but impoverished, English baronet: Sir Thomas Sharpe. They eventually marry and return to England, to the Sharpe's dilapidated mansion: Allerdale Hall. There they live with Thomas's sister: Lucille. The deadly apparitions that haunt the house will force Edith to slowly uncover the buried secrets of Crimson Peak. And so, Edith is to become a fragile butterfly caught in a moth's trap. PART II: THE BUTTERFLY Edith has considerably more frocks and gowns than Lucille does. It's only logical. Edith is our protagonist and, as such, has a bigger emotional arc throughout the movie, and she undergoes bigger changes. These are, in part, expressed through the costumes she wears and how these change throughout the mo

A look into Star Wars: Padme's Dresses. Annex B

Love her or hate her, Padme and her costumes can never be far from our minds. They are too iconic, and probably one of the few memorable aspects of the prequels, so it's really fun to talk about them. And so, I've decided to continue what I started and focus on the costumes I left behind from Episode II . So let's dive back into it! A BRIEF REMINDER What are the Annexes? Well, the Annexes focus on all the costumes that were "left behind" in my selection of Padme Costumes for the A look into Star Wars: Padme's Dresses series. Here, I point out influences, likes, and dislikes, and anything that might feel relevant whilst digging into the gigantic wardrobe of this Galactic Queen. With this out of the way, let's go! ANNEX B: THE ATTACK OF THE CLONES Episode II: The Attack of the Clones brings the character and her designs to a completely different level; she is not a queen anymore, which unfortunately means that she no longer has amazingly weird an

Crimson Peak: Dressing Lady Lucille Sharpe. The Moth

"At home, we have only black moths. Formidable creatures, to be sure, but they lack beauty. They thrive on the dark and the cold." - Lucille Sharpe - CRIMSON PEAK is Guillermo del Toro's new film. Released this past October, the movie is written by del Toro himself and Mathew Robbins (who has also collaborated with the likes of Spielberg and Lucas throughout his career). The movie aims to be a gothic romance movie through and through, and it stars Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. The story goes as follows: Edith Cushing, a young budding American author, meets and falls in love with a handsome and charming but impoverished English baronet: Sir Thomas Sharpe. They eventually marry and return to England, to the Sharpe's dilapidated mansion: Allerdale Hall. There they live with Thomas's sister: Lucille. The deadly apparitions that haunt the house will force Edith to slowly uncover the buried secrets of Crimson Peak. In the movie

Moulin Rouge and the art of Kitsch

The spring of 2001 saw the release of Moulin Rouge! unexpectedly shake the movie industry and the box office simultaneously. Despite the many awards, including 8 nominations at the Academy Awards, and the impressive box office numbers, the movie quickly became very polarizing for audiences. Love and hate seemed to be the only two possible reactions to the movie itself. But that should not come as a surprise. The film was directed by Baz Luhrman, who has consistently been, throughout his career, one of the most polarizing filmmakers of his generation. I still have to meet anyone who simply doesn't mind his movies (which include Romeo+Juliet , Australia and The Great Gatsby ); it's either absolute love or absolute loathing. There is no middle ground with him. And that's mainly because he himself doesn't compromise when it comes to his style, which is so characteristic at this point (fast and frantic editing, vivid use of flashy colors and sparkle and stories a

Marie Antoinette: Working with an historical basis

A couple of months ago, I talked extensively about the narrative aspect of the designs for 2006's  Marie Antoinette (see here ). But that's only one half of the story. This movie is, after all, a period piece, so let's have a look at how they translated that period into the costumes. MARIE ANTOINETTE : WORKING WITH AN HISTORICAL BASIS Period accurate pieces are actually the hardest to get by; that is because clothing in past centuries was way more complex and expensive than our 21st century standards. Because of this, most costume designers end up being constricted by their allotted budgets and have to make compromises with accuracy. This was not the case with this movie. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette had a rather large budget, which allowed renowned designer Milena Canonero the freedom to create period-accurate pieces (the inaccuracies were only added for narrative purposes, not budget constrictions). Because of this, Canonero decided to work off

The Costume Vault Anniversary!

Good day, beautiful readers!! First of all, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! Today is a very special day for me, here at The Costume Vault . It's our anniversary!!! We're celebrating our third anniversary! Though to be honest, I didn't actually start this project seriously until last year... So, I'm a three-year-old, with the experience of a one-year-old...? Oh, who cares. Today, three years ago, I published our first article ever. So, today is a day of celebration. This project started out of a deep love for movies and costuming and a need to share that. And also boredom... I had quite the free time back then, to be honest. But the project took off, and now I continue even when I don't have as much free time. But it's worth it because I get to share my love for movies and costuming with you. To this day, I've written sixty articles, most of which I am quite proud of indeed. And what's even better, you seem to enjoy reading

The Dressmaker. Part I: A glamorous outsider

2015's The Dressmaker is the wet dream of any costume lover in all of its 120 minutes of runtime. The Aussie film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse is the adaptation of the Rosalie Ham's homonymous novel. After quite an impressive run in the Festival Circuit (it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival) and garnishing numerous nominations and wins worldwide, it finally got a theatrical release, becoming a box office success and the 11th highest-grossing film of all time in its home country. So there certainly was a lot of hype around it when I finally got to see it and had a lot of expectations to live up to. ABOUT THE MOVIE So, is the movie actually that good? ... Sort of? Well, it's complicated. That's my official review tagline: it's complicated . The thing is; the movie has a ton of problems of all sorts. A lot of it doesn't work, but what does work, works really well. Let's start with the negatives. First of all, the movie is a t