Costume designer John Mollo (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back) remembers George Lucas’ first instructions: “I don’t want to notice any of the costumes.” But with pieces like Princess Leia’s long, white dress, and Darth Vader’s flowing, black cloak with an intimidating mask to match, it’s difficult not to notice.
With the franchise back in theaters with The Force Awakens, EW caught up with the Oscar-winning costume designer to revisit the creation and legacy of his work on the earlier films. (Click here to learn about the work of designer Michael Kaplan in The Force Awakens.)
To bring the costumes to life, concept artist Ralph McQuarrie drew a number of characters, including Vader and Luke Skywalker, laying out the groundwork for Mollo. “Though I had the outline, I had to provide the detail,” Mollo wrote to EW in an email. “In this it was no different to doing, say, an 18th-century subject where the paintings of the time would naturally be one’s inspiration.”
He then worked closely with Lucas, who had a clear vision for his galaxy far, far away. “I never had any trouble with [Lucas] because although he had definite ideas of what he wanted, his ideas coincided more or less with what I produced,” said Mollo, whose other major credits include Alien and Gandhi. He added that it was Lucas who determined the color palette, which largely features light and dark to reflect good and bad.
Whether good or bad, Mollo made one thing certain for everyone: “The characters must always appear credible.”
“They must look as if they got up that morning and put on what they wore the day before,” he explained. “Theater is spectacle and you can put Lady Macbeth into almost anything you want. She can wear a dress covered with bits of mirror and rubber, lace painted gold and she’ll do splendidly on the stage. Film is different. It is much more realistic, even if the subject isn’t. Film always appears as if we are eavesdropping on the characters’ lives. A form of newsreel.”
In addition to being credible, he and Lucas also made sure that the pieces didn’t react to the fashion trends of the time, something that Mollo says has helped the costumes age gracefully.
“The characters look as fresh today as they did 40 years ago, which sounds incredibly conceited, but I rather think that that is true,” he detailed. “Nothing dates a film so much as one where the fashion of the time has taken precedence over the subject. Much of the credit must go to George Lucas, who somehow managed to keep all vestiges of the ’70s out of the the films.”