When Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, it was unlike any film that audiences had seen, presenting a worn, lived-in feel world for its story. That visual aesthetic was due in part to John Mollo, the film’s costume designer who went on to earn an Academy Award for his work on the film. According to The Times of London, Mollo passed away earlier this week at the age of 86.
Born in 1931, Mollo was a military historian who authored several books on military uniforms, and eventually found work as a consultant on films such as The Charge of the Light Brigade and Barry Lyndon. When George Lucas began work on Star Wars in 1976, he approached Milena Canonero, who designed the costumes for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. However, she was already working on another project, but recommended her assistant on Barry Lyndon, John Mollo. “I met with him and he seemed very good,” Lucas recalled in The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, “I wanted somebody that really knew armor, somebody who was more into military hardware rather than somebody who knew how to design for the stage. I wanted designs that wouldn’t stand out, which would blend in and look like they belonged there.”
Mollo joined the project as the film’s costume designer and set about adapting Ralph McQuarrie’s iconic concept images into wearable costumes for the film’s characters, stormtroopers, and aliens. “For Darth Vader, we put on a black motorcycle suit, a Nazi helmet, a gas mask, and a monk’s cloak we found in the Middle Ages department,” he recalled in The Making of Star Wars. “We did very little drawing; it was more of a practical make-do amend, because there was already an established style.” Mollo worked closely with set designer John Barry, and together, they helped form the run-down look for the world that Lucas envisioned.
Mollo had a budget of $90,000 for the costumes for Star Wars
He did so with very little. According to Chris Taylor in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, he had a meager budget of just $90,000 — less than the cost of any of the individual sets. He and his crew worked at a quick pace. “I think we had something like four days before shooting,” he said, about assembling the film’s stormtroopers. “We just played around until we managed to string it all together in such a way that you could get the armor on and off in an actor in about five minutes.”
Later, when Lucas decided to use a handful of troopers on location in Tunisia, Mollo improvised new equipment for the soldiers. “I went into this Boy Scout shop in London and bought one of these metal backpack racks. they we took plastic seed boxes, stuck two of those together, and put four of those on the rack. Then we put plastic drainpipe on the top, with a laboratory pipe on the side, and everything was sprayed black.”
He was also responsible for the plethora of aliens present in the film’s iconic Mos Eisley Cantina, and when Lucas began shooting the film’s final scene with hundreds of extras, Mollo found that the scene wasn’t in their budget. “We really had to make do. Nothing was made at all; it was all stock items.” Mollo and his team scrounged for military uniforms and hats to outfit them all before the cameras began rolling.
Their efforts paid off: Mollo earned an Academy Award for his work on the film. “As you see,” he said in his acceptance speech, surrounded by Darth Vader and a group of Stormtroopers, “the costumes of Star Wars are not so much costumes, as bits of plumbing and automobile engineering.”
After Star Wars, Mollo went on to work on other science fiction films, including Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, and Outland, where he once again created their distinctive, lived-in worlds. He continued to work in the film and television industry throughout the 1980s and 1990s, earning another Oscar (shared with Bhanu Athaiya) for his costumes for 1983’s Ghandi.
Mollo will be best remembered for his work on Star Wars, which had a huge impact on the film industry. His designs and concepts helped pave the way for thousands of other science fiction films as they imagined their own gritty, lived-in worlds that still entertain audiences in theaters decades later.