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How "Phantom" Got The Look

Beth Hughes, of the Examiner Staff
May 20, 1999


The question until now unanswered was: "Where did Princess Leia get that hair?" Her twin chignons have been variously dubbed cinnamon rolls or attributed to influences diverse as medieval European noblewomen or Hopi Indians.

The answer, now made brilliantly clear with the opening of "StarWars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace," is simple: Princess Leia got her hair from her mom. Queen Amidala — the ruler of the small peaceful planet Naboo, threatened by the might of wealthy corporate powers — has hair that twists, turns, poofs, swoops and coils into veritable cinnamon pull-aparts before disappearing under headdresses for outfits so varied Vogue describes them as offering "an entirely new fashion vocabulary."

Look carefully, however, and you'll see the structure of this new language rests in tradition. Amidala's hair suggests the stiff elaborate knots of traditional geisha, for Amidala's creators have wrapped her richly in multicultural references, ensuring that "no matter which country you live in, you'll feel something from your own culture" when she appears on screen, according to Trisha Biggar. A Scottish designer known for her work at the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, Biggar created Amidala's eight outfits from the drawings of Ian McCaig, whose background includes designing the letters "A" and

"W"" for the animated alphabet on "Sesame Street."

Together, they borrowed from Japanese, Mongolian, Chinese, North African and European clothing including the Italian Renaissance, the Pre-Raphaelites and art nouveau to create an aesthetic McCaig dubbed "Space Nouveau." (Not that pan-cultural poaching is new for Star Wars: Darth Vader's helmet screams "samurai." )

Deconstructing Queen Amidala's look is possible in every one of her eight outfits, according to Biggar and McCaig. Any allusions to current streetwear trends, they attest, is merely coincidence, since design on the costumes commenced several years ago. But if the fashion detective in you spots the influence of African sculpture in the costumes of one group of characters, or spies a 17th century European pocket-flap worn by another, you're probably not seeing things. "We mixed it all up quite nicely," said Biggar. Which is just what people seem to do, as she discovered in her research.

Amidala's Travel Dress No. 1, a black gown with spiderweb-lace bodice, took more than a month to create. The many layers of tan gauze and black velvet create an effect suggestive of Pacific Island tattoos or the henna "skin painting" of the Sudan, when compared to photographs in books such as "The Art of African Fashion" (Africa WorldPress, Eritrea / USA: 1998). The hem and train of the Travel Dress are imprinted with Naboo motifs (derived from plant forms, according to McCaig, and echoed in the uniforms of the palace guards and handmaidens). These designs and their placement may be referring to a practice in sub-Saharan Africa, where leading dignitaries, warriors or hunters wear garments decorated with handpainted Arabic texts, often verses of the Koran. These decorated garments offered protection to the wearer when confronted by danger.

But that's not all. A tightly wrapped black scarf covers the queen's head, throat and neck, leaving only her face visible in a way that seems more Bedouin than medieval, even with its gold filigree earpieces. Topping this wrap is a fan-shaped creation of large black feathers that arches backwards away from the face. Biggar found references to this kind of feathered headdress in Africa and among the tribal people of northern India and Burma. Historically, the two areas lacked the link of a trade route. But here, and in other areas such as textile and jewelry design, she found distant, distinct cultures mirroring each other.

In her Throne Room costume, Amidala wears a richly royal red robe of corded-silk grosgrain, embroidered with gold metallic motifs, trimmed with dark brown faux-fur and a row of glowing light pods at the hem. The gown, which conceals the body under a foundation garment resembling an upside down ice-cream cone, refers to Imperial China. The embroidery suggests a lost kingdom along the Silk Route, one with Islamic influences, or as Biggar sees it, India, maybe Thailand. "They've parallel constructions," Biggar said, with a shrug in her voice, referring to the embroidered panels. "And, they're just pretty."

The Throne Room headdress, with a massive dark jewel upon her third eye, and long vertical earpieces under a pointed gold cap, evokes Thailand. The hair is traditional Japanese, reminiscent of the Heian-era style worn by Imperial women for the marriage ceremony.

In what is called Amidala's Palpatine Costume No. 1, she wears a sombre palette of subtle grays, as befits a queen undertaking a crucial negotiation. The dress incorporates a pearl embroidered panel from a dress made about 1910. The long sleeves suggest a formal kimono, embroidered with art nouveau swirls. The obi looks like, well, an obi - that wide Japanese belt that many Western eyes perceive as hiding or holding in a rampant sexuality. But again, it is the headdress that makes Amidala regal, distant and a source of power. Stiffly fan shaped, it bristles darkly above a band of inscribed silver. The shape echoes headgear of the Egyptian pharaohs, says McCaig. It may also remind you of a broom designed for a specialized task.

Covering the queen's forehead is a draped triangle of embroidered fabric rescued from a dress worn by an exotic dancer in the 1920s. From her golden earpieces hang almost waist-length beaded strands, a nod to the traditional ceremonial headdress of the Ivory Coast.

In Queen Amidala's Senate Costume No. 1, she wears a Mongolian style headdress consisting of a close-fitting gold metallic cap, studded with ruby- and emerald-colored jewels from which poke two ram's horns of hair, bound at intervals with gold jeweled bands. Each horn ends with a hanging, inscribed cylinder, each of which looks as if it holds rolled collections of prayers.

And in her last appearance in the Final Parade Costume, Queen Amidala presents a softer image, in a cape of large floating pink-to-yellow ombre chiffon and silk organza petals, each individually dyed and handpainted. Her gown features a collar shaped like a translucent Japanese paper parasol, which, as McCaig points out, also looks like the halo of an Orthodox icon and when seen in profile, like wings. Through it, Queen Amidala sports a Hopi Indian hairstyle, one that does not evoke any form of baked goods.

"When I saw the costumes, I was hit by how much they were an amalgam of cultures," said Dorothy Twining Globus, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. (If the Smithsonian is the nation's attic, this museum is the walk-in closet of the nation's clothes-crazy aunt.) "As the world gets smaller and smaller, the cross pollinations are more intense," Globus said, citing the Internet as only the latest in a series of Earth-shrinking technologies that transform once distant, mysterious cultures into next-door, everyday presences. The blending of influences in fashion "has always been there, but we're perceiving it more vividly now."

While neither Biggar nor McCaig anticipates the creation of a Naboo line of clothing, they won't be surprised to see some of their work filter into streetwear. McCaig hopes the highly detailed craftwork of the Queen's costumes will inspire people to enhance and personalize mass-produced items. Biggar sees certain pieces, such as some of the Queens' underdresses or elements of her massive headresses, influencing what we see in stores over the next few months. As for Queen Amidala's hair, Biggar doesn't see it as something to be copied "unless (people) are prepared to invest in wigs."