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Detail-rich 'Star Wars' costumes in a galaxy not that far away


    C-3PO, BB-8 and R2-D2 in the 'Star Wars and the Power of Costume' exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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    Visitors can press a button to hear Chewbacca speak at a display of Chewbacca and Han Solo costumes from 'Episode IV: A New Hope.'

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    Wicket the Ewok in the 'Star Wars and the Power of Costume' exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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    Darth Vader costume and cape from 'Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.'

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    Slave costume for Princess Leia in 'Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.'

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    Princess Leia costume from 'Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.'

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    Yoda puppet from 'Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back' in the 'Star Wars and the Power of Costume' exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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    Storm troopers on display at the 'Star Wars and the Power of Costume' touring exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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    Leg holes for actor Kenny Baker can be seen in the R2-D2 costume.

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    A Tusken Raider costume.

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    Conceptual art of R2-D2.

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DETROIT —With its larger-than-life heroes and villains and massive starships, Star Wars is an experience made for the big screen.

Star Wars and the Power of Costume, however, is meant to appreciate the space saga on a personal and even intimate level: tiny features such as the ridges and decay in Emperor Palpatine’s withering fingernails as the Dark Side ravages his body or the nobs on Princess Leia’s wristwatch communicator, which seemed like a high-tech future gadget in the original Star Wars in 1977 but now looks like a cheap Apple Watch knock-off.

Developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in partnership with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and in consultation with Lucasfilm Ltd., the exhibition concludes its U.S. tour now through the end of September at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave. in Midtown Detroit.

VIDEO: Star Wars exhibit at Detroit Institute of Arts

RELATED CONTENT: Highlights from 'Star Wars and the Power of Costume'

As a showcase of the movies’ small-but-rich details, Star Wars and the Power of Costume is a fan’s wishlist of costumes, drawings, and more from the first seven films in the series and also a reminder — if not a celebration — of the deep thinking and care that went into transforming George Lucas’ galaxy of imagination into a tangible space.

If You Go

What: Star Wars and the Power of Costume

Where: Sunday through Sept. 30 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave.

Details: Museum/exhibit hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed Mondays. 

Admission: Tickets, which include general admission, are $7 to $24 and available at the museum box office or

Information: 313-833-7900 or

“It really is so well thought out and so well designed, that it is an entire universe that was created,” said Elliot Wilhelm, curator of film at the Detroit Institute of Arts and director of the Detroit Film Theater Film Series. He curated the exhibit.

For example, the inhuman “wide-angle lenses” on the Tusken Raiders’ mask that artist Ralph McQuarrie, who along with Lucas is most responsible for the look of Star Wars, decided the dangerous desert dwellers would wear as protection for their eyes during the ferocious sandstorms on Tatooine.

Likewise, the elaborate royal clothing worn by Queen Amidala from 1999’s The Phantom Menace, which appears fleetingly on screen and might seem like a digital creation, is a real costume that can be can be jaw-dropping when analyzed from mere feet away.

“Some people say, ‘I don’t even remember seeing that outfit in the film or I sort of remember it, but I kind of thought it was done on a computer. I didn’t realize that this much work into it and this much craftsmanship,’ ” Wilhelm observed.

Amidala’s wardrobe, which becomes less regal and more practical as the character evolves from a naive and trusting leader to a defiant voice of opposition, also helps tell her story. That’s the power of the costume, an important part of filmmaking that the exhibit celebrates.

“It addresses how costumes, how the characters that we see in films — in this particular case Star Wars — contribute to our emotional connections with the characters and the stories on screen: how those plug into films from the past, perhaps that we know, and how they plug into classic myths and quests and stories that have been told for generations all over the world,” he said.

“All of these things together give you a certain impression. Costumes and costumed characters help, like a kind of shorthand, to bring the audience up to speed and remind them that this is a classic piece of storytelling; this feels like a Western and, look, there’s Han Solo wearing a vest that John Wayne or Gary Cooper might have worn walking down the street.”

Lucas, though, also used those preconceived notions about this world against us. A towering and menacing figure in black armor whose face is hidden in a mask inspired by a samurai helmet, Darth Vader is a villain in the most traditional and obvious sense when he first appears on screen in a smoky haze from a barrage of blaster fire. And yet his army of anonymous stormtroopers are uniformly dressed in white armor.

“There’s a reason that Lucas does all of these things,” Wilhelm said. “He stands these things on their heads. There were creatures that looked like they could be pretty fearless, Chewbacca for one, who turns out to be a kindly sidekick who could be Gabby Hayes, who complains a lot, as one would say ‘kvetches,’ and roars and gets cranky about stuff and says this is probably not going to work, but he is a total professional. And he is unquestionably loyal to the hero of the film. So you can’t always tell that someone covered in yak hair is necessarily going to do you harm, and that keeps people a little off-balance.”

Sometimes, though, those same stereotypes “can go a little over the line” in epics, he said, including Star Wars, a series that until recently featured a far more diverse galaxy of humanoids than humans and included alien characters that spoke in ethnic accents from Earth.

But that’s changing in the world of Star Wars just as it is our own world.

“The films have become more racially inclusive than they used to be,” Wilhelm said. “There are cultural stereotypes that are beginning to disappear from the Star Wars films and be replaced by higher values. The films are learning along with our heroes, along with their characters, and along the way they stumble, just like their heroes and their characters. And yet there is always that chance for redemption, which is ultimately what they’re all about.”

“Perfection is overrated, and good impulses and doing the right thing and trusting your gut, which is known as The Force in this film, is I think underrated. And so it’s not just about winning and losing. If it were that simple I think [Lucas] would have stopped after the first film and [Francis Ford] Coppola would have stopped after the first Godfather film. It’s much more complicated than that, and that’s why we love them.”

Contact Kirk Baird at: or 419-724-6734.

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