(Wired) As movie costumes go, it was both small and fleeting, occupying only two minutes of screen time in Return of the Jedi, which many call the weakest of the original Star Wars films. But nearly a quarter-century later, Princess Leia’s slave-girl costume occupies a unique position in pop culture and shows no signs of slipping.
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Knockoffs of the golden bikini are a staple of science fiction and comic book conventions. Instructions for home-brew Leia outfits propagate online like Ewoks in heat, and ready-made copies can be purchased from several websites. An episode of Friends titled “The One with the Princess Leia Fantasy” showcased the phenomenon, climaxing with a bun-haired Jennifer Aniston donning the skimpy outfit.
There’s no doubt that the sight of Carrie Fisher in the gold sci-fi swimsuit was burned into the sweaty subconscious of a generation of fanboys hitting puberty in the spring of 1983. But, remarkably, it’s women for whom the costume holds the most enduring meaning today.
“I saw the movie when I was seven and I was absolutely thrilled by Leia — what a wonderful character,” says Amira Sa’id, a dancer who has used a Leia bikini in her performances. “Jabba put her into the outfit to humiliate her, but Leia was such a strong character, her will made the costume empowering.”
The website, Leia’s Metal Bikini, features over a hundred female fans who model the costume, ranging from some who could almost pass for Fisher, to others who look nothing like the actress. Many weren’t even born when the movie came out. Another site offers instructions on making your own costume, which involves finding a “Leia-shaped person” and plastering her torso with modeling clay.
Sa’id created a special belly dance as a tribute to Leia, which she recently performed in a costume contest where she won first place.
The Leia bikini was created by costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers, whose Hollywood career — three decades and running — began with Star Wars producer George Lucas’ American Graffiti in 1975. She recalls that Lucas gave her only general instructions about the scene in Jabba’s palace, but clearly wanted something special for the costume.
“His eyes started sparkling when we talked about it,” says Rodgers.
The costume department made a mold of Fisher’s torso for a custom fit, and Rodgers says there were multiple versions of the outfit to accommodate different scenes. “One was a hard metal piece that (Fisher) wore when she was not doing any stunts, and one was a rubber piece that we formed so that she would be comfortable when doing stunts,” she says. “It was lined with leather so it wouldn’t chafe her body.”
Within weeks of the movie’s premiere, fan-made versions of the costume began appearing at science fiction conventions.
It could have been a completely different costume. “I wanted 25 yards of fabric to be flowing through the scene,” Rodgers says of her original conception. “But we couldn’t make that work.”
“Most of the crew are men, and they really enjoyed being on the set,” Rodgers adds.
She says the costume was inspired by the work of artist Frank Frazetta. “He really loved (the female) form,” she says. “The fact that (Leia’s costume is) such a female sensual costume, I think is terrific.”
Her advice for fans who want to make their own? “There’s a lot of stretchy fabric out there. I would use rubberized material from anywhere. And hand stitch it so there are no big explosions when you’re walking about.”