Stay gold, Princess Leia. On May 25, 1983, George Lucas brought his Star Wars saga to a (temporary) end with the trilogy-capping Return of the Jedi. It’s the film that introduced the Ewoks, blew up another Death Star, unfroze Han Solo from his carbonite grave, and gave us a father-son lightsaber battle for the ages. But Jedi’s most enduring contribution to the Star Wars series — not to mention pop culture at large — isn’t a single action sequence or line of dialogue. It’s a single costume: the golden bikini worn by the galaxy’s number one Rebel, Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher.
In case you’ve forgotten in the ensuing forty years since the film’s release, Leia is forced to wear that two-piece ensemble after she’s captured by Jabba the Hutt during a daring (if nonsensical) plan to rescue Han Solo from the Tatooine gangster’s clutches. Forced to join Jabba’s harem, the Rebel Alliance leader has to swap out her undercover Boushh bounty hunter duds for a more revealing bikini. While Fisher wears that outfit for only roughly five minutes of screen time, the “Slave Leia” ensemble remains a popular — and controversial — look three decades later, gracing magazine covers as well as TV shows like Friends and The Magicians.
But before Leia’s bikini became the stuff of legend, it started out as a simple design sketched by Return of the Jedi costume designer Aggie Rodgers in collaboration with Nilo Rodis-Jamero. When Yahoo Entertainment spoke with the California-based designer in 2018, she remembered that Lucas pointed her in the direction of a specific artist for inspiration, Frank Frazetta, whose illustrations of fantasy and sci-fi characters like Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars have made him a genre legend.
Watch our video interview with Return of the Jedi‘s costume designer below
“He’s a wonderful illustrator of the imagination,” Rodgers said. “I used to get books on him all the time, and [Leia’s bikini] is very much from that milieu. George specifically said he wanted a bikini, and so that popped up in my mind, and we had the illustrator draw it up. I just kept pointing to different illustrations that I liked, and we just kept doodling and doodling and doodling until we came up with that.”
Once they had a version of the costume everyone liked, Rodgers passed the design to the film’s model shop, where craftspeople built the bikini from a gelatinous material on top of overwire to keep it malleable. That was essential, as Fisher would be taking part in action sequences that might make an already-revealing outfit even more so. “You know, she had to fly,” Rodgers laughed. “She had to have a harness at different points. When you’re flying around with a bikini on, life is a little different.”
Life wasn’t easy for Fisher on the set as it was. Speaking with Yahoo Movies in 2015, the actress recalled the physical discomfort that accompanied putting on Leia’s bikini. “You don’t want to sit. There were creases, legs bent, sweat. I don’t like sweating, I don’t know about you.” (Fisher died in 2016, not long after wrapping production on Star Wars: The Last Jedi.)
Fisher also spoke honestly about the emotional discomfort that accompanied becoming an accidental sci-fi sex symbol thanks to Leia’s costume. In a 2015 interview with Force Awakens co-star Daisy Ridley, Fisher urged the younger performer to retain her agency over the way Rey looks and acts on-screen. “You should fight for your outfit,” Fisher said. “Don’t be a slave like I was. You keep fighting against that slave outfit.”
At least Leia got to use that slave outfit to turn the tables on her captor. “What redeems it is I get to kill him, which was so enjoyable,” Fisher remarked in a 2016 interview with NPR, recorded a month before her death. “I sawed his neck off with that chain that I killed him with. I really relished that because I hated wearing that outfit and sitting there rigid straight, and I couldn’t wait to kill him.”
For her part, Rodgers suggests that the intent was never to overtly exploit Leia’s sexuality in Return of the Jedi. “When you look at it, she’s completely covered up. She had a lovely figure then, as we all did then. There was never any discussion of lasciviousness at all. There was no deep cleavage showing. I’m kind of that way myself. I’m kind of square in that way. But it still was a bikini. It’s not Brigitte Bardot, let’s say that.”
And, as Rodgers pointed out, the bikini is just one of the many outfits Leia wears during the course of Return of the Jedi, the majority of which present her as the galactic hero she has become for women and men. The designer is particular fond of her Boushh look. “She has a great helmet on, she’s tough and we don’t know it’s her. It’s my favorite. You’d have to know a lot of ’80s fashion, but it’s very late ’80s in terms of the shapes and the accoutrements. So she had a variety of clothes; it wasn’t just [the bikini].”
“Of course, some people choose to remember this because, like George says, i’’s the most iconic costume in the last 30 years,” Rodgers said. “I think that’s very sweet, but it really was carried off by Carrie and George. Carrie and George were really good friends, and I certainly don’t think he was making fun of her or her character in any way. That was just what was Jabba’s fantasy, right? That big slob.”
Rodgers is absolutely correct that there’s a lot more to Return of the Jedi than a golden bikini. In our conversation with the designer — whose post-Jedi credits ran the gamut from cult classics like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Beetlejuice to such acclaimed dramas as Mr. Holland’s Opus and Fruitvale Station — about some of the movie’s other memorable costumes, and what it was like to collaborate with Lucas in the golden age of Star Wars.
Rodgers said yes to Jedi without seeing the script
A decade before joining Lucas on the galaxy’s outer edges, Rodgers designed closer-to-home costumes for the director’s 1973 classic, American Graffiti. Having a previous working relationship with Lucas came in handy, because Rodgers didn’t see a script for Return of the Jedi until 10 days prior to filming began. Instead, Lucas would drop by her office on a daily basis and talk to her through specific scenes.
“We were so careful about not putting [illustrations] on paper, because people were going through the garbage at Lucasfilm at that point looking for any scrap of paper with a drawing on it,” she said. “We had to be very careful of what we threw out.”
Although Lucas had handed off directorial duties on Jedi to Richard Marquand, Rodgers remembered that Star Wars‘s creator was actively involved in every part of the trilogy’s final chapter. “I’m a little by dingy — I freely admit that — so sometimes I wasn’t quite sure that moon we were on. George would walk me through everything. He’s an unbelievably kind, great guy and this was his creation! He had the big picture.”
No robes, no capes — all Jedi
Whether he’s willfully abandoning his training or Force-ghosting himself across the galaxy, Luke Skywalker has never been a traditional Jedi. And the slender, all-black outfit that Mark Hamill wears throughout Return of the Jedi announces his character’s fashion break from Jedi tradition, which tended to emphasize bulky robes and cloaks that were in more neutral colors. According to Rodgers, Luke’s choice of outfit reflects the larger choice he faces throughout the movie about whether he’s going to follow his father to the Dark Side and into Darth Vader-like clothes.
“He’s in black, so is he going to be like his father? Is he bad or is he good?” she speculated. “I think that’s what that was about, and that’s completely George. He said, ‘[Put] him in black.'” It’s worth noting that Luke does eschew one staple of his old man’s costume; the cape that flows behind Vader as he stalks around the rebuilt Death Star. “Luke’s a man of action. It’s hard to be a man of action with a lot of capes,” Rodgers joked.
It may have taken 40 years, but the Ewoks are no longer the most detested citizens of the far, far away galaxy. And, for the record, Rodgers adored those Endor-dwelling critters all along. “A lot of people thought they were corny, but I think they’re just the sweetest things,” she said. “Those costumes were actually made in England, and when I would go over there, I’d talk to the people who made the molds for the actors that were going to wear them.”
To emphasize the Ewoks’s deep connection to their planet’s environment, Rodgers directed wardrobe supervisor Ron Beck to outfit them with items taken from our own terrestrial woodlands. “I told Ron to gather a bunch of stuff from the forest floor and make it into jewelry. That’s what he did: He sent somebody out to a forest in England and picked up all that he could find off the ground underneath trees. And then he made it into all these things that were hanging around the Ewoks’s necks.”
Hangin’ with Harrison
Rodgers wasn’t the only American Graffiti veteran who joined Lucas in the Star Wars universe. Harrison Ford has a small but memorable role in that ’50s nostalgia piece and made enough of an impression that the director later handed him the keys to the Millennium Falcon as Han Solo. “He’s a very naughty man,” Rodgers recalled about her fitting sessions with Han Solo. “He doesn’t say anything lascivious to you; it’s just his person. He’s so funny.”
Ford and Rodgers had a mini-Star Wars reunion in 2015 when the actor presented Han Solo’s costumer with the career achievement statue at that year’s Costume Designers Guild Awards. And she didn’t tell him that she also crushed hard on Solo’s rival, Lando Calrissian — played by Billy Dee Williams. “I used to have such a crush on Billy Dee Williams, but I’m telling you — Donald Glover’s pretty cute,” she said in 2015, referring to Glover’s appearance as a younger Lando in Solo: A Star Wars Story. “He might not be Mr. Suave like Billy Dee, but he’s so honest and forthright. We need more of him!”
— This post was originally published on May 25, 2018
Return of the Jedi is currently streaming on Disney+