Star Wars Costumes and Cultural Appropriation

Before you get defensive seeing your beloved Padmé front and center in a piece with cultural appropriation in the title, know this: I am nisei Japanese American and am descended from a samurai family, Kato. When I watched Star Wars as a three year old I had no inclination of what seeing Darth Vader and the Jedi on screen should’ve meant to me culturally. But many Americans of color do have that connection to seeing something of their culture in these films. And yet there are very few creatives and actors of color writing, designing, and acting out these elements. Using pieces of marginalized cultures without crediting or including them in the creative process, and THEN profiting off of them is a problem much of Hollywood has, but we are all about Star Wars here at #SWRepMatters. Also, if we were talking about more than one franchise you would be reading for hours, as this would include a large volume of examples (And honestly, it still could).

Of course, I started with Queen Amidala because this is where the chronological journey through the Skywalker saga begins. While her costumes are stunning, they are based largely from traditional dress of East and South Asian women.

Look familiar? It’s eerie, right? Plop Natalie Portman’s face on this woman it’s like it was taken straight out of The Phantom Menace. But alas, this is a photo of a Mongolian woman in traditional dress. After Padmé became a Senator her flair for dramatic fashion evolved with her role. She doesn’t give up on taking straight from Native influence though, namely, adopting Hopi hairstyles. Leia must have inherited her mother’s sense of style, because she also adopts this coiffure.

While three-year-old me doesn’t remember thinking anything of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s robes in A New Hope, an older KarateJess did notice Luke’s costume in the film.

I still have my gi in a closet somewhere, and I’m pretty sure George Lucas raided a karate dojo for this costume. While martial arts are pretty universal, there is definitely a Japanese/East Asian influence to the Jedi look in general (The Jedi’s philosophy on the Force is going to have to be whole other article).

I didn’t forget about Obi-Wan. In fact are we sure the men in traditional Samurai-ware on the right were not extras in Attack of the Clones? I’m pretty sure they weren’t, and not just because they are wearing actual swords. What makes this cultural appropriation problematic, is that all the actors in the photos above, except Jedi Master Sammy J. are noticeably Not Asian or Native. I’m also 99.999% sure there weren’t any Asian or Native people who helped create these looks either.

Here we are, the Sengoku Warrior himself, Mr. Vader. George really liked Japanese war looks, didn’t he?

This is an actual set of armor from 16th-century Japan. Again, familiar. At this point, we associate this look more with Darth Vader than we do with shogunate warriors. That’s the power a pop culture powerhouse like Star Wars has.

The final film of the Skywalker saga hasn’t even been released yet and it’s already making me uncomfortable. While I appreciate the possible poetic parallels to kintsugi, it also annoys me. Stealing from Japanese aesthetics seems so 1970s now.

The animated teams aren’t off the hook either. Mirialan designs from The Clone Wars comes straight from Amazigh women of North Africa. And yes, I realize Master Luminara was in Attack of the Clones  first, but I just really like this still of her and Barriss Offee. Don’t @ me.

Rogue One  deserves a piece of its own, written by a person of Middle Eastern descent. But just know, its coding of Middle Eastern people, Orientalism, and appropriation of the “bazaar aesthetic” is also problematic.

In all seriousness, one of the biggest problems with costume designers pulling mainly from Eastern and Native cultures is that it’s done in a way to suggest exoticism to the types of characters wearing them. The Jedi are supposed to be a powerful mysterious lot, leaning into tropes of Eastern spirituality and dress in the way the West has typically viewed the East, as “other”. Padmé’s costumes’ similarity to East/South Asian traditional dress feeds into the storytellers wanting us to believe unfounded stereotypes of Asian women as docile and obedient. Padme, a white woman, is supposed to be seen as acquiescent at first, but as we get to know her we realize she is quite complex. And of course she loses the theatrical face paint and dramatic hair when she reveals her true identity.  This use of harmful stereotypes is not only insensitive, but it gives permission to the consumer to continue to “other” actual people from these cultures. By conferring the stereotypes given to Asian women on Padmé, a white character, the filmmakers are tapping into the underpinning of racism in its audience to lead them into narrative assumptions about the character. Put simply, “this character has an Asian look so she must behave how the West thinks Asian women behave”.

This is just a moderate introduction into the many ways Star Wars, a $65-billion dollar franchise, has picked from marginalized cultures to meet its creative needs (as well as profiting monetarily). As a fan I adore all of these costumes. They are what has given a galaxy far, far away its feel in many ways. When you look at Jedi robes, space buns, and white face paint with red accents we connect it to every warm feeling we have about this franchise and how it has enriched our lives. But in a world where White Supremacy is still rampant and relevant, we need to be talking about where these influences came from, and uplift creatives that can give life to the actual connection of their own cultures through fantasy storytelling. Representation matters, yes. But so does inclusion, and that includes letting marginalized folks be the stewards of their own heritage.