Power and Romance Clash in 'Star Wars' Costumes, Analysis Shows

When Leia's political importance is being emphasized in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, she's shown in a loose, floor-length gown with her hair pinned up.
When Leia's political importance is being emphasized in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, she's shown in a loose, floor-length gown with her hair pinned up. (Image credit: Lucasfilm)

They say dress for the job you want, not the job you have, but it doesn't seem like the heroines of the first two "Star Wars" trilogies got that memo.

That's according to a recent study that analyzes Leia Organa's costumes in the original trilogy and Padmé Amidala's in the prequels. Both women begin their trilogies in positions of political power — a princess and a queen-turned-senator — and end up more characterized by their romantic relationships. Aided by a few analytically minded movie marathons, the researchers suggest that that same evolution is broadcast in the two women's wardrobes as well as the movie plots.

Mary King was studying textiles at Florida State University's retail entrepreneurship program when she decided she wanted to apply that perspective to the "Star Wars" franchise. "I really grew up on 'Star Wars,'" King told Space.com. "It was pretty much from birth for me."

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But when she went to an exhibition of costumes from the films, she was struck by how Padmé's costumes seemed to fall into one of two very distinct categories: those that emphasized her role as queen and those that were more romantically inspired. She decided to investigate whether there was a pattern that governed when those different costumes appeared on screen.

"We see a lot of conversation happening about gender equality and how women are being presented and whether or not it's okay for women to show off their skin or dress a certain way," King said.

"We can say they're strong, but are their clothes reflective of that?" she said. "Are we allowing women to be powerful, yet beautiful at the same time?"

For the study, King focused on Leia and Padmé as the only female characters with substantive screen time in the two completed trilogies. She watched all the movies with a careful eye to how each character was portrayed: whether she was being presented in the context of her political position or her romantic potential, how closely the costume fit her, how much skin was visible and how her hair was styled. Then King rated how much each costume — nine for Leia and 34 for Padmé — objectified the character.

She analyzed other aspects of their portrayal as well, like how often their titles were used — for Leia, for example, in parts of Episode VI, which also features the infamous gold bikini, her title was used only by C-3PO, not by human characters, King said.

In costume and context alike, King saw the presentation of Leia and Padmé change dramatically with the movies' plots. Leia begins the original trilogy as a diplomatic figure in a loose, floor-length white gown with her hair tightly arranged. As the films progress, she is increasingly presented with respect to Han Solo, rather than in relation to her political role. A similar progression plays out for Padmé, as she goes from being a conservatively dressed leader to being defined in the context of Anakin Skywalker.

For King, these clear signs of objectification of both these female characters are somewhat countered by the rarity of films showing women in positions of power at all. "In spite of the findings and everything, I really do think that Lucasfilm has done a great job just giving these women the roles they've had to begin with," King said. "They didn't have to do it, especially back in the '70s when that was not a very popular thing to do."

She didn't analyze the current trilogy, since it isn't yet complete, but so far, she sees real improvement. "I am absolutely delighted with how the women are portrayed, at least from a costume standpoint," King said.

Rey stays in more or less the same costume throughout "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi," give or take a vest. Gwendoline Christie inspires fear in a full-body Stormtrooper costume, with nary a hint of sexualization. And of course, Leia is back, now as Gen. Organa, and with a stunning wardrobe to boot. "I really do like that she's finally recognized as a general and she is still wearing these beautiful feminine costumes that exude power," King said.

If the menswear fans are feeling left out, never fear — King isn't opposed to the idea of doing the same sort of analysis for male characters in the "Star Wars" universe. There's just one problem: There isn't much to work with. "The males have a pretty standard costume, like the Jedi essentially never change except for maybe putting on a robe or taking off the robe," she said. Han and Luke spend most of the movies in the same basic outfits. "There's really not a lot that's being explored with the male costumes. I think they're great costumes, but it is a little bit more difficult to evaluate those."

The research was published Feb. 26 in the journal Fashion and Textiles.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.