Leia Organa is Star Wars’ greatest character. She is, also, like her mother before her, the proprietor of many excellent fashions. But as The Empire Strikes Back turns 40 today, we’re reminded of the absolute best of them all: Leia’s jumpsuit and braids for commanding the Rebellion on the ice planet Hoth.
Yes, yes, the cinnamon buns of A New Hope are iconic. The dancer bikini of Return of the Jedi has been reclaimed from pervy nerds to the empowered armor of a huttslayer. With Leia’s return in the sequel saga, we have been blessed with beautiful gowns and more space jewelery than we could have possibly imagined. But Leia’s initial Empire costume—before she mixes it up with a free gown from Lando and some longer braids on Bespin, before going for the best of both looks to re-don the jumpsuit in her escape from Cloud City—is just the epitome of why Leia rules in the first place.
From a design perspective, it’s brilliant. Everyone in the main cast has to suddenly adapt from now-iconic costumes in A New Hope considering they’ve gone from running around on desert worlds, moon-sized space battlestations, and jungle planets to a place where you’ll never make it past the first marker without freezing to death. Han and Luke get big, puffy jackets and scarf-enrobed hats, great gear but it can’t really replicate what we knew, up until that point, to represent them as characters from a visual language. Leia gets to keep the stark white of her Alderaanian dress from A New Hope (albeit broken up with a subtle cream vest) but it’s now an infinitely more suitable for the environment jumpsuit.
It works so well because it retains the nugget of what Leia was, visually, in the mind’s eye at that point—you glimpse the figure in white in that lineup, even in the frosty climes of Echo Base, and that’s Leia—but it also gives her something that is so much more practical. She’s no longer simply the Princess, a symbol of leadership, but a General, a commander on the ground, but still keeping elements of that symbolic aesthetic. Not to say that Leia didn’t kick ass in senatorial gowns, she absolutely did. But this is a look that is ready for battle, one befitting of a woman who no longer needs to hide that she’s a dissident in the Senate but a hero of the Rebel Alliance.
And then there’s crown braid. Oh, the crown braid, my friends. This is Leia. Like I said, the buns are iconic in popular culture, but it’s these that really help sell that transition for her from Princess Leia to General Organa. There’s still that element of royalty—it’s literally in the name—but it’s a more practical style than the ear-muff regality of A New Hope’s buns. It’s up and out the way, practical and yet still elegant, designed, something Leia has prepared with care. It is the reminder that yes she has changed, princess to people without a home, but ready to fight in their name.
There’s a reason that when Leia is ready to kick ass and take the lead in future movies she returns to this hairstyle. On Endor in Return of the Jedi, leading the strike team from the front, when she commands the Resistance as its General in The Force Awakens, when she returns one last time to raise it up from near-defeat in The Rise of Skywalker. She goes fancy for the escape to Crait in The Last Jedi, but hey, we will not judge Leia Organa for dressing up for a space-cruise, albeit one where the spark of resistance itself is at stake. But it’s even still there, even if in a much more fanciful manner. Time and time again, back to that crown braid.
So yes, as so many important aspects of Empire are remembered on its 40th birthday—what it brought to Star Wars as a universe, and what it did to question that universe to better embolden its ideals—let us remember that one of its greatest contributions will be how it defined Leia’s most iconic aesthetic. Happy 40th, Hoth Leia. Long may you reign.
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