Redefining The Hero: The Referential Star Wars Costumes of Rey in “The Force Awakens” & “The Last Jedi”

Posted on July 05, 2018


“Rey from nowhere,” Luke Skywalker calls her. A hero no one seems to know and very few seem to understand with a name that sounds like a shaft of light but is only one letter away from “grey.” She is a character designed to be ambiguous while at the same time designed to convince the audience that she not only belongs in this world, but that she’s so entrenched in it that she deserves to be held up as its champion. Much of this is accomplished through the script and the acting, but as in all good costume design, a great deal of it is conveyed through the clothes on her back. Costume designer (for both TFA and TLJ) Michael Kaplan had the same tasks set before him as the writers, director and actress herself did: to make you believe she belonged here and that she was a worthy character to root for.

Granted, virtually all heroic stories have to do some sort of work to get you to support the hero, but with Rey, the task was complicated by the fact that she was an unknown stepping into a very well-known world; one that had a particularly bad record at centering female characters heroically. Since the cinematic Star Wars saga had been, at the time of her introduction, centered solely around the travails of the Skywalker family, and since she wasn’t (for these two films, at least) going to be named or identified as some sort of long-lost branch of the family tree, Kaplan and the filmmakers instead worked hard to subtly situate her in this universe; partially by the actual physical movement through spaces and scenes, partially by her interaction with some of the most iconic elements of the franchise, and partially by clothing her in subtle ways to remind you of other parts of the story.

When we talked about the Wonder Woman costumes and how they redefined heroism, we called the method behind them “extrapolatory.” An entire culture and history was created for the main character by extrapolating the details of her own iconic costume. With Rey, it’s the exact opposite approach. Rather than starting with her and building outward, Kaplan started with the universe she lives in and situated her in it by constantly making allusions or outright references to the larger story.

Since her “costume story” unfolds along with the plot and moves her through various settings, we’re going to take this chronologically, starting with her character introduction, which was among the better ones in the Star Wars franchise:

By keeping her entire face and body covered for the first few minutes, the audience is left to speculate as to who we’re looking at and what he or she is doing. It automatically sets her up as a character of intrigue and mystery. Everything about her opening scenes reflect the ongoing point of her story through both films: Who is this girl? Where did she come from? What is she doing? Why are we paying attention to her?

Since there’s no dialogue in these shots, we’re left to ponder the imagery. She’s a desert-dweller with a junky version of a landspeeder. She’s dressed in desert-appropriate clothing that’s rough, lightweight, and convertible, allowing her deal with whatever weather events or climate changes she might encounter in a hostile environment. The land speeder, color scheme and clothing style evoke Luke Skywalker the first time we encounter him on his home planet of Tatooine, while the goggles and head-covering evoke the Jawas who kidnapped the droids in that same setting and movie. References. They’re subtle, but they’re unmistakeable. Is this a Skywalker? Are we on Tatooine?

 

The answer to the second question is a firm “no,” as we find out she’s on the previously unheard-of Jakku, more or less living like an orphaned hermit, scratching out a subsistence-level existence through junk trading. She may look like Luke and her setting may remind you of his origins, but it has none of the whiny middle-class-comfortable angst and restlessness of that character. She’s alone, she’s hard as nails, and she can take care of herself.

All of this; the desert setting, the Luke-esque clothing, the life among the ruins of the previous trilogy of films, is deliberate in order to get the audience to see her as a vital and hooked-in part of the story without telling you anything real about her origins or who she really is. Who is Rey? Unknown, but she looks like she belongs here.

Okay, we lied when we said this was going to be strictly chronological. The following scene occurs much later in the film but refers to events much earlier than it:

It’s not at all uncommon to dress the child versions of adult characters in roughly the same costume so you can tell who you’re looking at without having it explained to you. Is it likely that Rey wore her hair the same way and is dressed in the same styles as she was when she was abandoned by her parents? Not in a real-world sense, but you could take some information from these shots; namely that her clothing and hairstyle may be culturally based rather than simply a reflection of her surroundings. We may never know who her parents were or where she came from, but the idea that she tightly held on to the look they gave her indicates a character firmly wedded to her past; someone who isn’t looking forward but always looking backwards. Someone who wants to stay and be found rather than leave and explore. The opposite of Luke.

 

She wears this costume through the first film, moving from scene to scene, setting to setting, climate to climate and interaction to interaction, all in this same costume, much in the same way Luke sported his desert gear through most of A New Hope. The point to the visuals of these scenes is the same as the point to her costume and the point of showing her scavenging old imperial ships or trying on Rebellion helmets: to place her not only in this universe, but at the very center of it. It’s no coincidence that of all the new characters introduced in this trilogy, only Rey gets to interact with Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, just as it’s no coincidence that her journey through both films is largely about finding Luke, convincing Luke to fight, and leaving Luke in disappointment to go fight herself. Literally everything about her, from how she looks to how she dresses to how she wears her hair (more on that in a bit) and on to what she says, who she meets and where she goes – all of it is referential to the original trilogy.

So let’s talk about the particulars of this costume. As we noted, it calls back a bit to Luke’s original white desert outfit, but it’s notable just how dirty it is. First, because it establishes her existence as much more poverty-stricken than Luke’s, but also because, in a universe defined by light and dark (with the aesthetic to match) she is never one or the other. Note how the brown straps and belt evoke Han’s just as the color and style of garment evokes Luke. So where is Leia being evoked?

Where else?

Her hair, of course. Leia never wore a style remotely like this, but that’s not really the point. She was a character largely defined (in a visual sense) by her hair; specifically the slightly odd placement of a series of buns which gave her such an iconic look. Rey’s look isn’t particularly practical for desert-dwelling subsistence living. Who would have the time, energy or inclination to do it up every day in that setting? But it doesn’t have the slightly ostentatious feel of Leia’s buns. She may have been a freedom fighter and diplomat, but she was still a princess, with the kind of hair one expects from a storybook princess. Rey’s is more martial in tone, evoking mohawks or military helmets. And given that she’s been wearing it this way since she was a toddler, you can surmise that her need to hold onto her past is what forces her to keep it all so securely in place. As you can see, she wore it this way through both films and a set of costume changes, but something will happen that causes her to abandon this style completely. Put a pin in that.

 

All of this talk and we haven’t really gotten into the particulars of the design of her costume. While it makes character sense for her and also makes sense for the setting she came from, we’re more interested in how it looks on her and what decisions were made to render her heroically. One of the first things that stand out about the design once you strip all the references away is how the proportions work on Daisy Ridley’s body. While the V bodice lightly evokes Jedi robes, we’re more interested in how it makes her shoulders look so broad; just as the bandage-wrapping on her arms seem to make her hands appear larger and more prominent and accentuates the musculature of her arms, just as the cropped leggings in combination with the boots make her feet appear larger. Again, she’s being placed in an iconic story and asking the audience to not only consider her a hero who belongs here, but a hero who can jump into heroics feet first. Visually giving her broader shoulders and bigger hands and feet – without making her appear masculine or falling back on menswear fashion elements – gives her strength and power and allows you to buy the fact that she can hold her own in a fight, even if she’s never really fought before.

The panels that swirl and flap around her legs give the outfit a robe-like effect, halfway between Luke’s original outfit and Obi-Wan’s Jedi robes, making the sight of her wielding a light saber feel more natural, more right somehow.

The scene with Leia is the last time we see her in this, the outfit she’s been wearing since she was a child. After Han dies and Finn is almost mortally wounded, she realizes her destiny is not to wait for her parents on Jakku, but to go and find the man who’s been looming large over her life, Luke Skywalker.  To go on her quest, she chooses this:


Her gauzey, Jedi-like desert robes have been switched out for a quilted woolen vest. All the looseness and flow in her old outfit is gone; replaced with something far more structured and tailored to her. It’s not a strict reference, but it calls to mind the bomber-style jackets worn by Han and Fin (via Poe, who she hasn’t met yet) and definitely calls back to Han’s original vest.

 

Even as she faces forward and looks to the future, her costume still has referential aspects. Quilting is an under-used but still persistent costume motif in Star Wars; the most notable reference being Leia’s white quilted vest in The Empire Strikes Back or her gray vest in Return of the Jedi. She’s met Han and Leia at this point and been inspired by both of them. She knows she’s traveling to Ahch-To to find Luke and presumably understands what the climate is going to be like. Hence, the ditching of the desert gear and an embrace of the new life she’s leading, thanks to Han and Leia, whose styles she’s now sporting.

 

In a way, it’s like she’s speaking on their behalf to Luke; imploring him to leave this place and go do what he can to heal the damaged Solo-Skywalker bloodline while wearing a costume that refers to the ones worn by the people she’s speaking for.

 

 

Note how much heavier these textiles seem to be. Note how she kept her arm wraps, but added what can only be called “arm-warmers,” presumably because of the colder climate. Most important of all, note how she went from a (very dirty) white color scheme to an overwhelmingly gray one. Compare this to Luke in the original trilogy, who went from pristine white to pure black costumes during his story.

And because she packed for this trip (as opposed to the way she left Jakku), she had time to put together an outfit that could be worn through the kinds of weather changes Ahch-To apparently sees with some frequency:

Note how overwhelmingly gray she is in this setting. Not how un-Jedi-like that cloak is. In a world where morality has been strictly divided along dark and light lines, she persistently walks the middle; the gray areas. It’s why Kylo Ren is so fascinated by her and why Luke is so scared of her.

 

 

And yet, suddenly she’s back referencing Luke in a major way by ditching the outer layers to reveal the clean white tunic underneath, perfect for a little light saber practice. But this scene is, of course, working on more than one level. She looks totally Skywalker, totally Jedi-training-ready. But Luke is actually terrified of her in this scene and she comes off like someone dangerously close to losing control of herself. When she acts like a hero, she’s dressed in dirty rags or swaddled in gray. When she looks like a traditional heroic figure, she comes off like anything but a hero.

Before she leaves Ahch-To to join the fight again, she must first deal with two major disappointments. The first being that Luke is not the hero she thought he was and that answers are not going to be forthcoming from him. The second is the revelation of her parenthood: that it honestly doesn’t matter. Her reaction to both of these disappointments?

 

She undoes her hair for the first time in the films. And she never goes back to wearing it that way again. Whoever did her hair up that way the first time, they’re gone and they’re never coming back for her. Time to shed the parts of the past that hold no more meaning for her.

Interestingly, that sentiment doesn’t extend entirely to her new costume:

 

If you want to talk about references, her simple pulled-back hair is very similar to Qui Gon Jinn’s from The Phantom Menace. But we think what’s more important here is both a rejection of her own past and any delusions she had about it, along with an affirmation that she is all that she needs to do what she has to. In other words, she ditched the hair she’s been wearing since childhood, but she re-appropriated her original desert-wear into something that speaks of her journey and her, for lack of a better term, embrace of the gray. She won’t join the dark side with Kylo and she found the light side, in the person of Luke, to be an ineffectual disappointment. She is content with who she is and where she sits on the scale, without worrying about whether she belongs or what she needs to change in order to justify herself.

 

Pause here for a second and consider Finn’s storylines and Poe’s storylines. Think about where they go and who they meet. Consider the settings of their storylines and what they looked like. Now think about Rey, moving from a desert planet to the Millenium Falcon to a forest planet to a Jedi master’s hermit dwelling to a planet covered in white. She is deliberately and consistently moved through the same scenes, settings, climates and scenarios that Luke went through in the first trilogy.  But the desert she lived in was not Tatooine, the forest she fought in literally came apart at the seams underneath her, and the snow planet she found herself on is not only not Hoth, it’s not even snow. Her story, her costumes, and her background are all devised to remind you of a specific character while at the same time constantly underlining the fact that she’s not like him at all, except in the generally heroic sense. She is herself and that’s enough.

 

It’s not a coincidence that from the second she appears in this costume, she starts performing some fairly amazing feats. Skipping past the Mary Sue argument, we think this makes perfect sense. The Force has always been shown to be susceptible to emotion and more powerful when it’s wielded by someone who knows herself and isn’t holding onto any illusions. She may not have had traditional Jedi training, but she put herself through several wringers and this is the person who came out of it: slicked back, gray, and true to herself. It’s enough. As Leia notes to her in this scene, “We have everything we need.”

 

 

 

Up next: Our final entry in this series with a look at the warrior women of Wakanda.

 

[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios via Tom and Lorenzo]

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