Wookiee at Me! Clothes Make the Myth

Fan Dressed as Chewbacca,
A "Star Wars" fan dressed as Chewbacca takes a break from the line for "Episode III" to buy a snack at a convenience store in Boston. (Jessica Rinaldi - Reuters)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

The opening of "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" has brought out the expected array of incorrigible fans who do not seem the least bit queasy walking around dressed as stormtroopers, queen-turned-senator Padme Amidala, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader or any of the freakish characters who have populated the various installments of the "Star Wars" saga.

When observing the painstakingly accurate, expensive and emotionally invested costuming of the film's fans, one feels a brief flicker of admiration. Here are people with a remarkably high threshold for public embarrassment. No one may be kicking sand in their faces or plotting to give them wedgies, but rest assured there is laughter, eye-rolling and generous servings of get-a-life pity dished out by those who believe themselves too old and too smart to play dress-up.

The costumed groupies are the walking embodiment of full-blown pop fanaticism; but they are okay with that. They do not appear to fret about being hip or cool or possessing any of the valuable social currency that would gain them admission into the in-crowd. The only thing they're looking to gain entry to is the next screening of "Episode III."

To the casual observer -- which would be anyone who has never worn Princess Leia hair buns or a Luke Skywalker costume -- there is little difference between the fans of Tatooine and Death Stars and those who show up in a Capt. James T. Kirk jumpsuit for "Star Trek" conventions. "Live long and prosper." "May the Force be with you." Same sentiment. Same difference. (Still, the crew of the Starship Enterprise had far more chic uniforms -- very Andre Courreges, Rudi Gernreich -- than the rebels and Jedis in their sheepherding robes.)

Those who prefer looking back rather than into the future truss themselves into corsets for Renaissance festivals. It is only a small leap from here into the realm of Civil War reenactors, but they are reluctantly given a pass since they try to adhere to historical record in determining who lives or dies. The reenactment community could loosely be construed as educational.

Trekkers and jousting fanatics may be able to rattle off details about Klingon mating rituals and the real truth about the Black Death, but if that was all they did, they'd simply be science-fiction buffs or amateur historians. The clothes identify them as more than dabblers. They distinguish them as true believers in a folklore created in Hollywood studios and suburban fairgrounds. (The clothes are also what leave one wondering if perhaps Pfizer makes something that, taken twice daily with water, could snap them out of their delusions.) The opportunity to wear a replica of Lt. Uhura's mini-dress or to have one's bosom heaving from the decolletage of a fair maiden's frock transports groupies into a future of warp drive or a past of starvation and pestilence. They wear the clothes without shame or self-consciousness -- ignoring their weight and restrictiveness -- because the mythology of heroics is so convincing.

A "Star Wars" fan will empty his wallet of thousands of dollars for a couture stormtrooper costume complete with macho laser blaster, but would likely balk at the idea of spending that much for a classic one-button suit. The point is not that one is more practical than the other. (And one can only assume that a man has more call for a business suit than a white plastic militaristic ensemble with a matching helmet.) There's a whole bravura mystique of power and control and transformation associated with a stormtrooper get-up. A suit's charisma is far more subtle. It cannot compete.

"Star Trek" mythology is so persuasive that a fan will spend valuable time making himself up like a Klingon, but probably feels overburdened if his standard grooming ritual starts to take longer than 10 minutes. And for the damsels of the Renaissance festival, there are no worries about the discomfort of lacing oneself into a corset, but just let a fashion magazine suggest that they should do so and the publication will be greeted with anger and petulance.

These theatrical costumes are worn at singular events -- a far cry from a fashionable ensemble that one would be expected to wear on a regular basis. But just as the movie industry constructs a mythology to captivate filmgoers, the fashion industry bases its seasonal sales pitch on elaborate story lines streaming from a painstakingly created fantasy world. In the current Versace advertisements, for instance, Madonna wears brightly colored, hypersexy daywear while playing corporate executive. It is the umpteenth episode in the Versace saga of a superhero corporate titan closing deals with her mental acumen and intoxicating men with her overt eroticism. Throngs of Versace-clad women have not camped out at the design house's headquarters, but they do crowd the aisles when the new season's collection is unveiled.

And there are fashion gatherings -- runway shows, store openings, cocktail parties -- at which the guests' attire rivals a Wookiee costume in absurdity. A particular Comme des Garcons show comes to mind at which fans of the designer wore pieces from an earlier collection that intentionally gave the wearer the look of a hunchback. Enthusiasm, admiration and devotion trump any fear of embarrassment -- no matter the groupie's particular obsession.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company