The Force of Fans and Fabric

Review: 'Star Wars and the Power of the Costume' at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Nic Rowan
September 8, 2018

DETROIT—"Please refrain from trying to wear any of the artworks," the docent tells me as I enter "Star Wars™ and the Power of the Costume," on view at the Detroit Institute of Art until Sept. 30.

It's a reasonable request: Even though "Star Wars" resides in one of the most prestigious galleries in the United States, this isn't really an art exhibition. It's a nerd-out—$24 for an hour with the industrial lights and magic of Lucasfilm's costume designers. Who among the droves of children and twenty-somethings here today isn't tempted to try on a couple outfits?

This is the first time I've waited for entrance to an art exhibition in a vestibule as commercial as the ticket line at the Tysons Corner AMC. While John Williams's iconic soundtrack blasts above my head, DIA employees wearing Star Wars t-shirts outfit me with a lanyard and an audio tour device with two options: The kids version teaches young art-lovers the history and ways of the Jedi. The adult tour offers a more straightforward explanation of the artistry behind the different costumes—narrated by DIA president Salvador Salort-Pons, whose growly voice rivals Frank Zappa's Central Scrutinizer.

"This exhibition allows visitors to explore the creative processes behind the art of costume design, while discovering the unexpected ways in which these works relate to art from the DIA's collection," Salort-Pons begins, before pointing out how some of the flourishes in Nabooian Queen Amidala's dresses are drawn from details in portraits by the American avant-garde portraitist James McNeill Whistler and the Italian mannerist Agnolo Bronzino.

But when I bought the tickets online the night before, the museum website treated the idea of a Star Wars gallery wedged between Canaletto and Gentileschi with more spunk. Instead of claiming the mantle of high art, it encouraged the legions of fanboys and children to immerse themselves—with dignity, not full-on Comic-Con depravity—in the galaxy far far away:

Want to dress like your favorite character? We love it! However, please keep in mind that lightsabers and similar items are not allowed. Please leave all masks at home as they are not allowed on the museum grounds. A little bit of face paint is fine (e.g, a design around the eye or on a cheek), but full face paint is not allowed.

Keeping that proviso in mind, I left my Mace Windu lightsaber from second grade (and similar items) at home. But some of the other visitors are donning permitted nerdery: a Darth Vader cape, bomber jackets emblazoned with the Rebel Alliance Starbird, and at least one Target t-shirt depicting stormtroopers in a rock band. True devotees. If only The Met had been this encouraging to those visiting its exhibit on fashion inspired by Roman Catholic clerical vestments this summer. The Upper East Side could have seen the faithful dressed as some of the great martyrs—Bartholomew in his flayed glory or Sebastian still shot full of arrows.

But it takes something like Star Wars to inspire fans to such public devotion. As soon as I walk in, past Alec Guinness's original Obi-Wan Kenobi outfit, I see children running around the base of the fluorescent platform depicting a mannequin Darth Maul posed in a fight with three hooded Jedi. Footage from The Phantom Menace provides fight scene ambiance, and the excited kids press buttons that activate the different lightsabers. A mock-up Emperor Palpatine stands in the corner, wearing his black robe from Return of the Jedi, a full body waffle shirt, perfectly suited to a rainy day at home—or intergalactic nation building.

Nic Rowan

The original storyboarding from the opening credits of A New Hope rests in a glass case nearby. It reads "The Star Wars," a relic from the days before Sean Parker undoubtedly told George Lucas to drop the "the." Although it's only one frame, the artist indicated that the credits should roll the opening plot exposition up the screen. The ingenuity of this storytelling device doesn't get enough praise. It takes a lot of work to familiarize an audience with a foreign universe, and—as anyone who has seen David Lynch's Dune knows—spoken word intros are the most painful of all plot expositions.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the exhibition showcases the excesses of the prequel series—dresses from Naboo or official uniforms of senators on Coruscant—boasting a high artistic lineage descended from the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and a slew of Italian Baroque painters. Yet as gaudy as these prequels outfits are, they do well to show how, in the progression of Palpatine's costumes from senator to emperor, his taste became simpler, more monklike—giving up the pleasures of the world to serve its needs.

This part of the exhibition notably excludes Jar Jar Binks, the mentally deformed Gungan who bungled his way into political prominence in a bizarre manner recently matched perhaps only by Chris Christie.

Very much not excluded, however, is Carrie Fisher's "bikini from hell," the gold-colored rag George Lucas pushed on her in Return of the Jedi—even after he reportedly told her on the set of A New Hope that "there's no underwear in space." It is one of the few costumes from the original trilogy on display, and two men with German accents in front of me reach out to touch it.

"Hey, don't try to wear that," the security guard says, as the alarm sounds.

The Germans shrug and move on into a room soundtracked with Darth Vader's breathing, murmuring lightsabers, and Lucasfilm's stock favorite the Wilhelm scream. It also features costumes from officers on the Death Star, uniforms that I hope resemble what the Space Force will one day wear as they face down attack ships off the shoulder of Orion.

Nic Rowan

By the time I reach the Yoda room, my audio tour stops insisting that this is serious art and focuses instead on the glory of a Jedi so wise that he doesn't even speak proper English. It's the last section of the exhibition—and why put on airs at this point? Just for fun Star Wars is.

The docent smiles at me as I exit into the Italian Baroque.

"May the Force be with you," she says—and the blessing works. The Detroit Police Department doesn't boot my illegally parked car.

Published under: Art Reviews