Era: Prequel Trilogy era: rise of the empire Essay

The problem with Padme’s wardrobe

Dr-fumbles-mcstupid sent me an ask on Tumblr:

Your costume post about Padmé and Leia was great but I especially loved your comment that Padmé’s costume was your least favourite because it’s mine too. I couldn’t say why, I just know it offends my eyeballs but I wondered if you had a more insightful reason?

I’m not sure how insightful I can be, but I have a lot – a lot of issues with costume direction taken for Padme in Episode III and fundamentally think that it was the wrong direction, her costumes being completely out of character. The Mustafar costume is, for me, emblematic of these issues. This is whilst acknowledging the skill and craft that went into every costume (nearly every costume – there are a couple where I flat out do not know what they were thinking), and they are beautiful objects in and of themselves isolated from the character of Padme. The cut peacock gown is particularly stunning, but possibly the most baffling.

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Various Episode II Padme concept art.

In Episode I we see Padme at 14, swathed in ceremonial gowns, handmaiden disguise or ‘rustic’ peasant/spacer garb. These are all assumed roles, donned masks, but she is still identifiably a girl, particularly at the close of the film in her softened look. In Episode II we see Padme as Padme, a senator and an individual rather than a role (or variety of roles.) She is a young woman, she is bright and idealistic and in love. There is an emphasis on elegance, long lines, femininity. A lot of organic shapes and drapery. Volume and silhouettes that shift to suit her situation and practical needs – public vs. private, leisure vs. going to start a goddamn war to save her friend.. Jerseys and chiffons and crepes appear again and again. When she’s in the height of her romance, she wears yellow hues, at her most conflicted she wears dark colours – the blues and purples on Coruscant, the black gown at dinner on Naboo. Blue is her own colour, her most Padme, pale colours for when she is going against everything and taking things into her own hands (a call forward/back to Leia, echoes and future echoes and a noted piece of meta-costuming.)

There is very little cohesion to her wardrobe, which is a common factor for Padme throughout the trilogy as there are just so many influences in her looks. This is a result of the design coming in main from the removed team of concept artists and then being passed onto Biggar and her team for interpretation rather than coming direct from Biggar (and/or illustrators working directly with her, which is the current Star Wars costume department set-up.) This means that costumes get chosen based on aesthetic, and while of course things were not developed in isolation, conversations were had back and forth and concepts and costumes developed and revised. Often there is very little common visual language, the influences disparate and obvious with attempt to filter these influences, to soften and mingle them. It effectively amounts to visual white noise. In AotC, Padme wears a pseudo-Edwardian gown, and the very next scene is in a dress taken from a Russian ball gown. But there is story and narrative and a line can be found as she progresses, and always a root of Padme.

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Explorative concepts of Padme in RotS, more delicate looks, more proactive looks, and the final look.

In RotS, however, this comes to a head, and what is left is a collection of beautiful but meaningless costumes. Beautiful white noise. There is some attempt at bringing narrative back into her costumes through the repeated use of blue – Padme herself has always been blue, water, the lakes of Naboo – as she is driven towards her end, but it is messy and inconsistently executed and honestly? The two blue nightgowns in RotS are not good. Otherwise, there is just fabric and heavy heavy drapery. Natalie Portman is very very petite, and they drowned her in fabric as it was apparently her character’s choice to hide her pregnancy in plain sight via mass.

Now Padme is a senator, is pregnant, is consumed by a secret marriage and a crumbling Republic. She is fighting the losing fight. She is still a young woman, in her late-twenties at this point. She is still bright and fierce, if sad and tired. She is still Padme. She has used and manipulated her appearance like a tool, like a weapon, since she was a girl, there is no way that she would be so clumsy in disguising her pregnancy. I don’t think that she would hide her pregnancy – that feels false and out of character to me for a woman like Padme – but if she did feel the need, this would not be how it was done. There were so many concept explorations (like the ones above) that explored empire lines, panelling, drapery, those same elegant organic shapes of the younger Padme just raised and matured – covered shoulders, raised necklines/stand collars. All within the realm of young, feminine, pragmatic. Padme is nothing if not pragmatic (the woman happily donned a Naboo pilot disguise and flew a fighter escort from Naboo), and every sartorial decision has some sort of purpose (arguably the sudden Russian influence in AotC places her further from her usual Asian influenced wardrobe, all the better for being disguised as the galaxy’s best dressed refugees.)  But no, they went the other way. And knowing that these directions were explored and rejected (or simply handed off to distant background characters like Bail Organa’s aide in the most Padme maternity wear) makes it all the more painful that they went in the direction that they did.

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Padme’s costumes on display at Star Wars Identities at the London O2. There is an identifiable development in the first two costumes, a tony down of silhouettes and shift from ceremonial to practical adventuring, but they are still identifiably for a young vivacious woman. The  costume on the right is one of my few favourites from RotS, but there is a nearly total disconnect between this and the previous two.

Throughout all of RotS there is this visual tug of war in Padme’s costumes as she is simultaneously infantalised and made matronly. Her necklines are painful awkward too often sitting somewhere in a crew neck. The colours are dour dour dour, there is suddenly a plethora of brocade and velvet. She can’t move, physically, and remember that this was moments after the end of the Clone Wars, in a time of political unrest. Sartorially, she was utterly vulnerable. Cosseted. Trapped in her gowns, in her apartments. Her beautiful hair is suddenly very flat. In a way, this works perfectly but the disservice that the narrative does to her as her political plotline was cut, but if she had been dressed as the senator we all know then some of that would have been softened as her appearance would have been visually communicating with the audience that Padme is being proactive even if we are not being shown this. The audience would have understood something was happening.

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And then Mustafar. Finally! Ok, you may say that this is finally Padme getting back on track. She’s being active! As I discussed last week, she’s wearing a practical go-getting costume to go rescue her husband from the brink. Leggings, boots, tunic, is it so different from her Geonosis costume in AotC? Yes and no. Like the Geonosis costume, it is a direct link to her daughter – a piece of meta-costuming, past and future echoes. However, there is a level of pragmatism missing in the skirted tunic (and I believe that in the actual costume, the collar was attached using magnets!), and the costume seems to be made of a number of disparate elements that don’t tell a solid story. In AotC, Padme has already been seen in a practical action costume (the opening pilot costume.) There is a progression there. This costume comes out of nowhere. There is no arc in colour, no narrative in silhouette. It doesn’t tie in with any single thing that she has worn so far.  The short skirted tunic and the twee rounded collar serves to infantalise her, particularly with the belt detailing which one would expect to led her a militarised fierceness (which I touched on last week) but instead… it doesn’t. I have seen it described as having something of the girl scout about it, which I have to agree with. Particularly as once she is in the costume, has been the decision to do something, anything, make things right, she then has her agency immediately ripped from her (arguably never had any given Obi-Wan’s manipulations and his hiding on her ship to confront Anakin. The costume says little beyond about Padme herself.

There is a story there in this costume and all of the rest – if you look hard! There are always influences and character points to be found, stories told, but they are seriously underserved by the decisions made for Padme (and a few others) in Rots and buried deep. Of course, this is all personal opinion but when there are so many examples of what was explored and could have been, it’s hard to not be disappointed by what could have been, what was deserved by the story and character. What we end up getting in RotS with Padme is fragments and half-tales; nothing is communicated proper, and when costumes don’t communicate anything they ultimately fail.

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