One Iconic Look: Princess Leia’s White Gown in “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977)

Posted on June 01, 2020

Sometimes, a costume design becomes iconic not because of impressive technical details or eye-catching and original design work. Sometimes a costume becomes iconic despite itself. Which isn’t to say that the white hooded gown Carrie Fisher wore for nearly the entire length of the inaugural Star Wars film (1977’s eventually titled A New Hope) is a bad design. Quite the opposite; costume designer John Mollo created something so simple, so basic, so unencumbered by motifs or techniques that it may just be the most iconic film costume of all time for a female character.

 

That very simplicity of design had the dual effect of making it an iconic world-recognized symbol recreated literally hundreds of thousands of times by cosplayers and costume party attendees while also being so singular that it had very little effect on film costumes that came after it.

 

 

No one ever really tried to rip off this costume in another film unless it was specifically a parody of the original. There are so few design elements to it that any attempt to re-interpret them does very little to change the overall look into something different enough that it doesn’t look like a ripoff,  or changes it so drastically (picture this in all black) that it doesn’t feel like a reference at all. You can trace how the designs of Han Solo and Darth Vader had an effect on countless rogue characters or darkly villainous ones in the decades to follow, but Princess Leia’s original look is sui generis. It can’t be re-interpreted.

 

 

Similarly, any sort of analysis or examination of the costume is either going to be limited or it’s going to require making a whole bunch of connections and comparisons that might not be warranted. Let’s start with the color, or lack of it: a woman in white is a figure that can have several different connotations.

 

The first would be bridal or virginal. Neither of these describe Leia upon her introduction. While the two male leads in the film jostle for her affections and she uses her wiles on them as needed, she really isn’t presented as a romantic or sexual figure. She’s a political/military figure from the second she opens her mouth and remains one through the length of the film. Any flirting she does is rare and mostly begrudging.

 

 

The second connotation of a woman dressed all in white is that of an angel. This is also a fairly ridiculous meaning to apply to Leia in the context of the film. Luke is momentarily breathtaken the first time he sees her, but she punctures his illusions so quickly that it makes them instantly seem ridiculous. Seconds after he sighs over her, she’s shooting a blaster and jumping into a garbage pit.

 

 

You can’t even really apply the general westernized notion of white as a code for goodness, even though the film (and almost all of its various sequels and prequels) are fairly obsessed with the idea of all-good vs. all-evil in a strictly white and black color scheme. You can look at the B&W aesthetic of the Star Wars films as a representation of its central conflict, but the films were never strict about white equaling goodness (e.g., the Imperial stormtroopers) or black equaling badness (Luke’s all-black costume in The Return of the Jedi).

 

Nevertheless, Leia is introduced at the same time as Darth Vader and when they face off in the first few seconds of the film, it’s ridiculously easy to see who is on the side of the angels and who isn’t.

 

But you when you look at her costume in the context of the entire film, it’s clear that it’s part of an overall aesthetic that eschews almost all color in its costume designs, sets and art direction. This was a very ’70s-trendy way of art directing a science fiction film, with its roots in the similarly colorless and minimalist designs of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars director George Lucas’ own THX 1138.

 

So, having laid out and mostly dispensed with any attempt to impose too-obvious or totally off-base meanings or associations with this costume, let’s really look at it and describe what we’re seeing. Sometimes you have to do that with costumes this iconic because it becomes so seared into the collective cultural unconscious that you wind up not seeing the details anymore.

 

 

It’s flimsy. The material is thin and except for the way the hood falls down the back, there is little in the way of drape or sweep to the design.

 

 

The collar is very high and the overall effect is one of modesty. There is no embroidery or pleating or embellishment of any kind. The fabric doesn’t even look particularly rich onscreen.

 

 

The belt is decorative, but not delicate; almost military in tone. The boots are flat and quilted; what would have been called “moon boots” in the seventies – an appropriately science-fictiony touch that also speaks of Leia’s practical nature. Having said that, there are contradictions here. While it’s a simple and unadorned garment that allows for ease-of-movement and practicality, it’s not without its pretensions.

 

An all-white gown is, after all, not particularly practical for military engagements, nor are massive bell sleeves all that much help if you find yourself in a firefight.

 

But this costume is also something of a disguise for Leia, who’s acting as a member of the rebellion while serving as a diplomatic envoy. In other words, this could be seen as appropriate travel wear for a high-ranking political appointee. A simple white gown with a hood and bell sleeves is a garment worn by someone with no cares or worries; someone who won’t be getting her hands dirty or messing her perfectly coiffed hair. Someone unassuming and possibly even a little frivolous who won’t be causing trouble. A figurehead doing the job of looking appropriately respectable and non-threatening. The equivalent of Jackie Kennedy traveling to Dallas in a respectable pink Chanel suit.

 

 

Much has been made of Leia’s distinctive cinnamon bun hairstyle over the years, from parody to reverence. While there is evidence that the style was inspired partly by Mexican revolutionary women of the 19th Century and unmarried women of the Native American Hopi tribe, there’s also reason to see the style as reminiscent of headdresses or cornettes worn by queens, nuns and other aristocratic figures in Medieval European history, as well as the 4th Century B.C. Iberian artifact known as The Lady of Elche.

 

Bottom line: there are various strands of reference woven together to produce this highly distinct look and virtually all of them deal with women of purpose, of action, and of high principles or religious fervor. Queens, Abbesses, revolutionaries, maidens and even goddess figures are all in the cultural mix of Leia’s buns. These references underline her status as royalty, as a woman of political import and strong beliefs, and as an undercover figure on a mission. After all, that hairstyle takes time and attendants to produce properly. Like her simple white robe, her dramatic hair speaks of someone who’s more interested in symbolism and status than action or rebellion.

But we haven’t yet spoken of the most important part of her introduction and the original presentation of her character: the mystery damsel:

 

We’re so used to knowing everything there is to know about Leia that it’s easy to forget that she was introduced as a mysterious princess in need of the help of a mighty wizard who was her only hope. In her first scene and then in the recording of it that played later in the film, she is polite, pleading, and nearly obsequious in her tone. Luke was enraptured by her and that was entirely the point of her performance. And it was very much a performance – trading on the audience’s ideas of the classic damsel in distress character and attempting to manipulate the great and mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi to aid her cause. It’s not a coincidence that this scene is the only time we see her hood up. It instantly lends her an air of medieval romanticism – a princess or heroic nun, her hood combining with her distinctive buns to form a type of wimple around her face. It is the only time she truly looks like the idealized image of a fairy tale princess in this costume.

 

 

Taking all of this in consideration, it’s clear that Leia is a highly adept diplomat and political operative who knows how to use the expectations of her youth and her looks to manipulate the reactions of those around her. This is an undercover costume designed to hide her true nature and actions as well as a performative costume designed to soften the heart of a long-lost hermit-wizard who stands as her only hope for triumph.

 

Like literally everything else about the character, this costume shows Leia to be far more clever and savvy than anyone realizes when they first encounter her. Deceptively pure, deceptively simple, deceptively romantic – and still practical enough to sling a blaster when a princess needs to.

 

[Stills: Lucasfilm Ltd. via Tom and Lorenzo]

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