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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!

THE MOVIE

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.

THE DESIGNER

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.

LEIA: CREATING AN ICON

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.

THE FORMULA

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.



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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!


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Comments

  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. :)

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