Ahead of a detailed interview with Star Wars: The Force Awakens costume designer Michael Kaplan (currently hard at work on Episode VIII), we take a brief look at his undeniable achievement in bringing the 1970s – early 80’s back to life right here in the present. How do you make the now look old when paradoxically it is supposed to be the new? Well, you go simple.
We say simple, but we mean ‘back to basics’. This is not the prequels; The Force Awakens takes place thirty years after the Rebellion defeated the Empire. Now both sides are in state of rebuilding so there is little call for Padmae’s luxurious robes or the ritualistic Red Guards of The Return of the Jedi (1983, costume designer Aggie Guerard Rogers). Captain Phasma’s (Gwendoline Christie) brushed armour provides probably the most regal costume in The Force Awakens and even that exists predominately within context – Phasma is a command leader after all, her ensemble would be in part a reflection of her status. The cloak she wears elegantly slung over one shoulder, this combination of cold mined steel and draped natural fibre, is a method of humanising her. Imagine Phasma without the cloak? We would likely question whether she is a real person at all. We say person and not ‘human’ because that is still to be revealed. Similarly with complex baddie Kylo Ren, having actor Adam Driver’s face unseen most of the time calls into question exactly how much of his character is man or machine. The Panama weave cloak over his head provides a subtextual hint that he is ‘alive’ and not some Dark Side forged robot.
Michael Kaplan has not re-invented Star Wars; he didn’t need to. Think of where we left the world in Return of the Jedi: yes, the rebels were triumphant in destroying the Empire, but at great cost. This is the first we as viewers have seen of The First Order, though we have to assume they have been gaining in strength within a story perspective for several years. The rebellion has taken hits. They are a ‘force’, not living in ceremonial comfort; their clothes reflect a permanent military faction, while those coming into the faction, i.e. Rey (Daisy Ridley), are scavengers etching out an existence on the back of a war. Rey’s ensemble, which only changes once throughout, cleverly avoids gender stereotyping while clinging to her body in such a way as to embrace her physicality as a woman. It is practical clothing that we could imagine a desert forager to wear. Those wrapped sleeves could be viewed as an aesthetic indulgence, but in essence this is a form of dancewear – legwarmers for her arms if you will. Moreover it is difficult to overlook the costume’s similarity to that worn by Mark Hamill as emergent savoir Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977, costume designer John Mollo). Infer from that what you will…
The First Order on the other hand are fanatics, apparently with money to burn (venture capitalists must favour the dark side – makes sense). They wear black because that is what villains do (again, not reinventing the wheel), while our heroes are dressed in earth tones; cold, dark and imposing against plucky, grubby, for want of a better phrase, freedom fighters. Kaplan’s success comes in how ‘little’ he’s done, at least from an audience point of view. Surely the job was one of the most punishing of his career so far, but up on screen we have an unadorned, practically barren costume portfolio encompassing mainly function and hierarchy, apart from perhaps General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleeson) rather jaunty cap and Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) conspicuous saw-tooth neckline glimpsed near the end of the film. Kaplan’s genius is his restraint. As one of the most versatile costume designers in the business (Flashdance, Fight Club, Burlesque), he never grandstands. Star Wars is the perfect vehicle for him; his reflection of a world we already know. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, which is especially true of the barely updated stormtooper outfits. This is the Star Wars costume design we have been waiting for, such that we cannot wait for Halloween to dress up and try for ourselves. It is innovative nostalgia.
Look out for our interview with Michael Kaplan at Clothes on Film very soon. In the meantime, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is on general release everywhere on this planet.
© 2015, Lord Christopher Laverty.