'Star Wars' costumes dazzle in DIA show

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

See if you can walk through "Star Wars and the Power of Costume," opening Sunday at the Detroit Institute of Arts, without feeling the Force. Chances are you can't.

This is a gorgeously staged, dramatically lit exhibition that will draw gasps. So if a costume show sounds boring -- banish the thought.

Various Jedi robed mannequins surround the costume of Darth Maul, a Sith character from the 1999 movie 'The Phantom Menace.'

Organized by the Smithsonian Institution in partnership with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the show pulls back the curtain to show how costumes were developed from inspiration to final stitch, and how that evolution often helped inform the character in the film. 

"What's particularly exciting is all the conceptual artwork," said Melanie Parker, DIA interpretive specialist who worked on the show, referring to 150 drawings and other artifacts.

"You get to see how an idea is born, how it comes to paper, and how it gets turned into this reality."

Costumes range from Obi-Wan Kenobi's rough and ready garments in earth tones, to the eye-popping parade of gowns worn by Her Royal Highness, Queen Amidala of Naboo.

Fair warning: Little girls who love dressing up will go nuts in her gallery, titled "Padmé's Journey."

Some might complain that movie costumes hardly belong in a temple of art, but DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons disagrees.

"In my country, Spain," he said, "they say that film is the seventh art."

Some 60 outfits from the first seven movies in the "Star Wars" saga are on display, including versions of R2-D2 that a small actor could get into.

From left are the costumes for C-3PO in the 1980 film 'The Empire Strikes Back,' BB-8 from the 2015 film 'The Force Awakens,' and R2-D2 from the 1977 film 'A New Hope.'

"When R2-D2 rolls," Parker said, "it was remote controlled. But when he scuffles or is more animated, there’s an actor who wears the costume, which is sort of half robot, half costume."

Originally, as a drawing illustrates, R2-D2 was supposed to roll around on a giant ball bearing, but engineers couldn't wangle it. 

"They didn’t have the technology to do that in 1977," said Elliot Wilhelm, DIA curator of film and director of the Detroit Film Theatre, "and didn’t want strings or wires to show."

But in developing the droid BB-8 for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," designers returned to that concept and molded inspiration into locomotion. BB-8 rolls easily on a giant ball bearing. 

One of the scariest background illustrations is a Medea-like concept painting for Darth Maul, who first appears in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace." 

Artist Iain McCaig explained that "Star Wars" creator George Lucas said Darth Maul should look like "a figure from your worst nightmare."

So that's what McCaig delivered.

"(Lucas) then asked me to back off a bit," the artist added, "and draw my second-worst nightmare." 


'Star Wars: The Power of Costume' 

Sunday-Sept. 30 (Member Preview on Friday)

Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward, Detroit 

Tickets: Free to DIA members. Wayne, Oakland, Macomb residents get $5 off each adult ticket

All others: Adults: $19 Tuesdays-Thursdays; $24 Fridays-Sundays; $7: children 6-17 

Extended exhibition hours: 

4-8 p.m. Thursdays

9-10 a.m. and 5-8 p.m. Saturdays

9-10 a.m. Sundays 

(313) 833-4005




(313) 222-6021