May the Costume Be With You

By day, he's a mild-mannered engineering student. By night, he's Boba Fett. Or an Imperial Storm Trooper -- depending on whichever costume he finishes first.

My husband has gone over to the Dark Side.

"Loyal? Hard-working? Fully expendable?" beckons the recruitment posters for the 501st Legion. "The Empire Wants You!"

With more than 1,000 members in 21 countries worldwide, the 501st bills itself as the "premier Star Wars costuming group in the Universe." And they're looking for a few good Imperial troops, Sith Lords and Bounty Hunters. All you need is a costume and you're in, according to the Web site.

On the other side of the Star Wars battlefield, the Rebellion's looking for new recruits, too. Open to "all who choose to oppose the evil Empire," the Rebel Legion includes royalty, senators, smugglers, ground and fleet troopers -- even the noblest Jedi. A costume is the only enrollment requirement.

These days costuming fan clubs, online discussion groups and prop-building Web sites are more crowded than the Mos Eisley Cantina at happy hour.

Costume Conventions

Star Wars costume fan clubs aren't a new phenomenon. Costume parties and fan movies found their way to a galaxy near you shortly after George Lucas' original "Star Wars" trilogy hit the big screen in 1977. But they're growing in popularity as Episodes I, II and III attract a whole new generation of fans to the Star Wars Universe.

Last week's Star Wars Celebration II, the world's largest official fan convention preceding Episode II's opening this Thursday, drew an average of 24,000 people each day, May 10 to May 12, to the Indiana Convention Center. Imperial Stormtroopers -- all members of the 501st Legion -- checked badges at the doors. Inside, costumed likenesses of Princess Leia and Han Solo posed for pictures while Darth Vaders paired up with seductive Sith villainesses. About 30 real cast members signed autographs.

Online, tens of thousands of costumers mix and mingle, from the amateur -- who throws on a brown cloak and calls himself a Jedi knight -- to the Ultimate Boba Fett costume, described by Jeremy Bollach, the actor who originally played Boba Fett, as the "second best" replica he had ever seen. The best belongs to some guy in Australia.

Jonathan Skaines says he started building the ultimate Boba Fett costume in January 1997, while he was a student at the University of North Texas.

"I had a lot of free time in college," he laughs.

More than $600, and 16 tubes of epoxy later, he finished the bounty hunter helmet, armor, spiked boots and jet pack in time for Halloween. (His mom, Connie, sewed all clothing.) He also built the Ultimate Boba Fett Costume Web site, an instructional guide for other fans who want to build their own Boba Fett, and a Star Wars costuming discussion group. Running through Yahoo, it's since grown to more than 300 members.

Skaines, now a 26-year-old art director at a Dallas, Texas advertising agency, says he built Boba Fett because "he's mysterious and cool. He's the most visually dynamic. In the Star Wars Universe, he's the most intriguing."

Fellow costumers seem to think so too. A Google search pulls up nearly 600 costuming pages dedicated to the faceless bounty hunter, a cult favorite among Star Wars fans. But Skaines wouldn't call himself hard-core. His Boba Fett sits on a mannequin in his living room. He dusts it off for Halloween and the occasional comic convention. He's won back the money he spent on costuming materials by winning money prizes at conventions and Halloween costume parties.

"I feel I did help contribute my research -- what would be the best materials to use [sintra, he says]. There weren't many how-to-build-a-Boba-Fett Web sites at that time."

Now Skaines receives daily emails from fans, mostly males in their early 20s and 30s, "and the weird thing is, I've found people who are way more into it than I am. They travel long distances to go to conventions, to go to movie openings, those are the ones I'd classify as hard-core."

Raising the Stormtrooper Bar

Jeff Allen is one of those hard-core fans. Like Skaines, he built his first website in '97, a "How To Build A Stormtrooper Costume" page, to raise the quality bar for other Star Wars costuming sites. Allen was sick of searching the Web for costuming sites only to find a web page or two with five paragraphs of text and no images. 

He growls: "This really peeved me. If I had known how easy vacuum forming [a way to mold plastic] was back in my youth, I would be five years ahead."

But unlike Skaines, who wears his one Boba Fett costume on Halloween and to movie premieres, Allen's a regular on the Star Wars costuming circuit. He's been attending sci-fi conventions for 16 years, where he sometimes changes costumes thrice daily.

"You'll be wearing the rebel fleet trooper with this big, white dome on your head, and you'll look like a geek," he explains. "So after three hours of people laughing at you, you want to go change."

At last year's Dragoncon, the largest sci-fi, fantasy and comic convention in the U.S., Allen was a Star Wars biker scout in the morning and Army of Darkness' Evil Ash at night.

Allen and his Studio Creations group of fellow Star Wars geeks have built a veritable arsenal of costumes and props -- 42 to date -- but he's not done building yet. During the summer (that's sci-fi convention season), Allen sees an average of 4,500 visitors a week hitting his Definitive How-To Costume and Prop Building Web site. It's one of the most linked-to Star Wars costuming sites on the Web.

Allen vacuum formed, sculpted, plastered and sewed a Tusken Raider costume, Stormtrooper armor, Speeder bikes as seen in the February 2002 Star Wars Insider magazine and a snowtrooper costume, among others. Right now, he's working on an Interrogator Droid, an "ominous black sphere of death" sent by the evil Empire to torture Princess Leia.

"At this moment the Interrogator Droid is the centerpiece for the kitchen table," says 30-year-old Allen, an online instructional designer at the University of Georgia. "My girlfriend says she would like to eat at that table one day, but I cannot find a suitable place to store the 18-inch spherical droid."

When Fantasy Worlds Collide

He says the typical Star Wars costumer is a male, between 13 and 35, with some extra time and money to spare. And they tend to be more detailed-oriented and fanatical than other costumers.

"It's an obsession for a good many of them," he says. "I, personally, am happy to just get the costume looking like I remembered it and [get] out the door to the convention, or opening night, but many costumers will dwell on a costume for years until they have it just right. You do not get this level of fanaticism with Lord of the Rings costumers. Those costumes tend to be more free-flowing than the Star Wars costumer."

They like role-playing and the creativity that costuming allows. Costumers want to be someone else, if only for a movie premiere or a sci-fi convention.

"Most of the costumers I meet just want to delve into the fantasy worlds and get lost in there," Allen says. "Escape reality for a bit and live in their own little worlds. Some of the shyest people I know are wild as animals the moment they put on that costume and become someone else."

Like the one fan who emailed Allen wanting to create a Tusken Raider costume. The two chatted online, and the fan emailed pictures to Allen as the costume progressed.

"He had some great personal thoughts about the Tusken Raider that I never thought about. "One day out of the blue this guy starts talking about wanting to go out into the desert and live like a Tusken Raider for a week. He wanted me and maybe six other guys to join him, too. Literally live like a Tusken Raider, head wraps and all. He wanted to get the breather mask working and go out and pretend to be a Tusken Raider in the middle of the desert. I personally have no qualms living like a Tusken Raider while staying at a Ramada on the beach, but camping in the desert?"

That was one fan he had to let go.

Allen's a smart, funny, sociable guy who talks easily and confidently on the phone. He admits he's a Star Wars freak, but he sounds normal enough to me. So what makes a seemingly normal adult man don a full body suit of white Stormtrooper armor or even consider living like a Tusken Raider in the desert for a week?

"Fame and glory," Allen says, mostly serious. "It's a big high to have all these people taking pictures of you."

Masks, says my husband, Tom. "Nobody knows who's behind them. You can be whoever you want to be."

Tom's costume won't be finished in time for "Episode II." But he still has three years till "Episode III" hits the theaters May 25, 2005. And presumably three years till the Force of Star Wars Celebration III draws thousands of costumed Star Wars fans to a single convention hall. He'll be one of the Boba Fetts. I'll be a gold-bikinied Princess Leia. Or sexy bounty hunterette, Aurra Sing.

Jessica Lyons is a Santa Cruz-based freelance writer.

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