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Costuming 'Star Trek The Motion Picture'

Bob Fletcher revealed the trails, tribulations, and hard work that went into costuming 'Star Trek—The Motion Picture.'

Bob Fletcher created more than 700 costumes for the Star Trek movie in less than 10 months, directing in excess of 200 drapers, cutters, tailors, operators, finishers, plastic workers, molders, shoemakers and assistants who had been hired to make his design concepts a reality. Star Trek—The Motion Picture was the first of the Star Trek films and debuted in 1979. William Shatner, Leonard Nemoy and George Takei made up some of the cast for the feature film, following their roles on the television series that aired from 1966 to 1969. 

“We had two costume shops, one at Western Costume and the other at Paramount,” Fletcher began. “We made over 700 costumes, but we didn’t make them all at once; we finished them as we went along. I was just trying to keep ahead of the filming schedule like everyone else. Everybody was always racing to catch up and make sure they would be ready when we got to a certain scene.

“I’ve never studied design,” he confessed. “My university was Harvard, class of 45, and my major was archaeology—then it became history and literature. I’ve always been able to paint and draw, and gradually I got interested in showbiz. At one time I was an actor. My last appearance was with Orson Welles in King Lear, in New York. I played Edgar. I also designed all the costumes, and once had a theater of my own. I’ve been a producer, art director, scenic designer and a costume designer. I’ve done at least 20 Broadway plays and musicals, 17 operas and have been in television."

'Star Trek'—The Challenge

Star Trek[—The Motion Picture] is my second film. The only other film I've done was a Sam Peckinpaw thing called the Ballad of Cable Hogue, 10 years ago. I was thrilled when Robert Wise wanted me to do Star Trek. It was a challenge in terms of size and difficulty,” Fletcher admitted.

Fletcher reconstructed what happened: 

“They hand me only part of a script. I read it, I sit down in front of a drawing board and I think and go into a trance—one literally does—and begin sketching and drawing and doing a lot of roughs, and something emerges that I think expresses what is right. Then I do a lot of versions, and take these into the people involved who either say, ‘Yes, that’s wonderful,’ or ‘Good god, no.’ Then I go back and make a finished drawing once they’ve chosen what they like. Then I have to sit down with all the practical people and decide how to make it.

“The designer is responsible for costume design, selecting all of the fabric, making sure that it gets there, testing it, seeing that it is preshrunk, and then supervising the making of the muslin samples. We made numerous samples so that Mr. Wise and Mr. Roddenberry could see the real clothes before we started manufacturing hundreds of them.

“The muslins are the first pattern made, not in the final fabric. After the sample is approved, you allow them to cut into the final fabric. I stand there (while they build the costumes) saying, ‘No, no, no,’ and ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ but, as a matter of fact, I’m not allowed by the union to do any construction, which pleases me. That’s not my forte,” Fletcher said.

“The basic uniform was the most difficult to design because it had to bear some reference to the original clothes and yet be entirely different. It had to look like the future, but not be so extravagant that it drew attention to itself. That was one thing Robert Wise did not want to happen.

“He wanted the clothes simply to be there, to be accepted, to look logical—to seem real, very real, not phony in any way. I’ve found that the most difficult part. It’s much easier to do an extravagant and flamboyant costume for some alien prince, something you can really get your teeth into, but trying to tread very delicately on eggshells and not to offend the original Trekkers.

“I tried to make them becoming to everybody, something you could manipulate to overcome some of those bodily problems. Though I must say, the actors really came through in their department. They got themselves into shape.

“There were challenges every day. The most difficult costume to build was the spacesuit. They were done twice. The first time the [flying] system didn’t work, and they were technically very difficult to make because of all the cast rubber. The second time around, we used Trepunto spandex, which is very difficult to manipulate.

“Making the hardware that went onto the helmets, the backpacks and the front packs,” Fletcher added, “was similar to designing or building a car.”

Changes for the Film

“Another difficulty was the sheer numbers. In the old TV Star Trek, they talked about the fact that they had 400 people on board, but you never saw them. In this film you see all of the Enterprise, giving it a heavy sense of reality, which is what Mr. Wise was working for. He wanted a factual fantasy, one you could really feel and touch.

“Also, in the original there was just one uniform, and that was that. But this time in order to give visual variety, everyone had a dress uniform, a Class A and B uniform, fatigues, recreational—just as you do in a real military organization. That really ran up in numbers, along with those big scenes on the recreation deck with 450 costumed crewmen.

“We used thousands of yards of material, if you figure five or six yards in a person’s uniform. We had to make many duplicates and every principle player—say Shatner—would have three or four of any one costume, and the uniform system was worked out where everyone had five different uniforms. So, I'd say, about three or four thousand yards. And the cost? Somewhere between a half a million and a million dollars,” said Fletcher.

“Another thing I changed was the basic color concept. The original Star Trek was brightly colored. But a lot of that came about because color TV had been recently invented and all the networks wanted as much color as they could get for their money, right away. I used to get directives from NBC to use more color. ‘We spent a hundred million dollars to invent this system and we don’t want any grays or browns.’ So I felt, and Robert Wise felt, that the brilliant color was not very realistic, that it seemed distracting. He wanted to concentrate on people's faces or the emotion involved, and bright turquoise and red things vibrating on a widescreen were not what he wanted to do. Also, military organizations have the tendency to keep things more utilitarian, and this will probably continue in the future.

“Most of the film takes place inside the Enterprise, and the one way to get visual variety is for people to change their clothes. That is another reason for giving everybody five different kinds of costumes."

Simplicity Counts

“I never thought about making futuristic costumes, I simply made clothes that seemed efficient, practical, real in the circumstance and that could have possibly evolved from the clothes we wear today.

“For example, the basic tunic of the Class A uniform comes from a man’s evening dress shirt. Class B comes from a T-shirt.

“Also,” Fletcher added, “I wanted to do something that wasn’t easily duplicated, which is the reason for the one-piece trousers and shoes which we went through hell to get. The pants continue into the foot, which was difficult and costly, and something you couldn’t go out and buy. The Trekkers may hate me because they won’t be able to make copies very easily. It is a technological thing of the future that is achieved through great difficulty in the present.

“I stayed away from glittering plastics and molded things, things that are deliberately futuristic like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon—which are a lot more fun to do, really.

“I have no personal conceptions of the future. I think most conceptions of the future I’ve ever read have been utterly wrong. Gene has the idea the people will be rearranging molecules to make clothing. We put a thing into a slot, stand in the shower and your clothing is assembled molecularly. I say, possibly. Except that’s going to take more and more energy. I suppose in the future we will have conquered the energy problem... but maybe not. I like to feel that perhaps we will be going back to older methods, and certainly giving up on anything made of petroleum. We will be going back to renewable sources like silk and wool and flax—which make better clothes anyhow. That’s why I used as much pure fiber as I could, a lot of linen and cotton. Simply, they look better.

“The aliens were really a rather minor part of the movie,” Fletcher continued, “and I got my fun from doing them. I evolved a cultural concept in my mind for each one of them. For example, one had a special breathing apparatus because he can’t breathe oxygen. His clothes were designed to accommodate that. The collar in Persis’ costume was specifically designed to draw attention to the button in her neck—which kept falling off—and also to frame her bald head.

“But I had a wonderful time with the Vulcans. The priests and priestesses are so elegant. And when Mr. Spock returns to the ship, he's dressed in Vulcan civilian attire. In my concept, he comes in rather like Hamlet— dark and tragic. The first sketch was sort of a lavender color. Then I read the scene, which hadn’t been written when I’d done the first sketch, so it occurred to me, “That’s wrong, it should be black.” So I changed the color and Bob Wise said, “Thank you very much, I think that helps a lot.”

“The runes were made of plastic which was carved and cast. Each one is not a letter, they symbolize a concept, like a mandala. They [Vulcans] communicate by concepts—rather than by specific syllables—to symbolize a state of mind."

Wholesale Problems

“And, as I said, there were challenges every day. When we tried to get together the gabardine for the basic uniforms, it came in three colors—pale blue-gray, beige and brown. We found fabric available in beige and brown from the mills and had it flown in from Pennsylvania, but there was no gray and we needed several hundred yards for the officers’ uniforms.

“At first they said, ‘Yes, we have the gray,’ and then they said, ‘Don’t worry, we'll make it for you.’ Well fine, the other two colors arrived; no gray. Weeks went by and we got desperate. We finally got the mill on the phone, and it was closed—they were closed for vacation, and they said, ‘Oh, we just didn’t get around to it. When the men come back from their vacation at the end of August (this was April), we'll get it out to you.’ "

“Well, it was time to shoot myself. We shopped everywhere, tried to find substitutes, and finally they did find some white gabardine, so we tried dyeing it. Now, the dyeing industry in this town has collapsed,” Fletcher explained. “There’s nobody who does it, or does it well...it came back with great watermarks down the middle. So 300 yards of expensive gabardine had to be thrown out and we were getting very nervous. We were calling everywhere, because the original sample had been approved. It was right.

“Finally, one shopper found just enough in downtown Los Angeles. It wasn’t the same fabric, but it was close enough, and we found it the day before we needed it. Things like that were going on all the time.

“On the cast list, Gene's wife Majel and Nichelle's names are very similar, and they were confused by an Italian boot maker who was doing the work after the trousers were fitted hereat Paramount. The bottoms were left open for the shoes to be attached all-in-one. Now, Majel has a large foot, and wanted a very low heel. Nichelle has a very small foot and wanted an extremely high heel because she is short. The poor shoemaker speaks English only in a sketchy kind of way—he never did get the names straight."

'Star Trek' Aliens Costumes

Rigellians

Descended from race of saber-tooth turtles, learned to walk upright. Range from 5' 9" to 7" and over. Unisex. Lay eggs. Lords are only symbols, have no power. Real power is with attendants who serve, feed and care for them. Costume of draped wool. Hands and feet of sculptured rubber. Wear ceremonial helmet and half-armor. Armor sculpted in studio craft shop, molded fiberglass and chromeplated.

Aaamazzarites

Therbians from planet Aaamazzara. They generate their own clothing from their own mouths, like bees making hives. They manufacture everything they use from their own chemistry, from inside their own body... from clothing to furniture.

Costumes for film modeled in clay, cast in sheets of foam rubber. Made in model shop. Nothing like it on market.

Kazarites

Like shepherds, from planet still raising herds, great herds of strange beasts—a combination of camels and goats. But their society is one of sophisticated technology.

They have certain powers of telekinesis. Can transport selves mentally. Form of society is primitive, but content is sophisticated. Move by seemingly crude ships but run by mental powers. Have mental communication with all animals, on all planets. Have been imported into Earth system to take care of animal, fish and bird life. Really 23rd century ecologists. Little bags hung around them are for food—pellets which they mix with water to produce a yeast-like food.

Zaranites

Can't breathe oxygen, so must wear breathing mask on Earth. Breathe fluorine gas. Pack on back has mechanism to generate fluorine.

Costume: Of old suedes found in Paramount storage, left over from DeMille's The Ten Commandments.
Jewelry: Horn-like in appearance, Supposedly made of horns of one of most widely cultivated Zaranite animals, the Berbbotjahaa. Actually made from fabric and liquid plastic. Represents family totem, and each person's is different. Top part (necklace) designates family, lower is personal designation.

Shamin Priest

From O'Ryan's planet, discovered by Paddy O'Ryan in 22nd century.

Costume: Made of fabric and liquid plastic, solidifies, turns into another kind of material. Fletcher developed this process more fully on the film. All gold objects of this process. Rag parts specially woven on hand loom.

K’normians

From planet K'norm. Similar to Earthlings but have additional brain structure, grows in kind of structural shell formation on top of forehead. Additional part of brain performs functions we aren't capable of, mainly for long-distance communication. They have an eighth sense—can deal with time and space dimension—we can’t.

Arcturians

A militaristic race of great armies. All are identical—they clone each other, can only be distinguished from one another by color of uniforms. Provide infantry for Federation. Planet is enormous, population is enormous; subject to any amount of expansion. One hundred billion population, army of 20 billion can be ready overnight.

Costume: Contain leather and linen. Boots are separate. Fletcher wanted woven metal tubes for metal rope decorations; found in obsolete plumbing equipment in old hardware store, silver-plated it for bandolier (jewelry) and for decoration on shoulders and elbows, denoting rank and regiment. Briefcase made of plastic; belt buckle of cast metal and resin.

Betelgeusians

Name from the real star. All tall, 7' and over. Humanoid with characteristics combining eagle and leopard. Derived in evolution from giant leopard-like birds, have claw and bone structure like condor but walk upright like leopards.

Costumes: Materials found stored in Paramount for as long as 40 years, red and gold material dated 1939. Originally bought for DeMille epics, often personally bought by DeMille when he thought interesting. Now rare and unusual fabrics–Paramount still has one of rarest storehouses of materials in existence, including silk gauzes, crepes and souffle for nude fill-ins as in Marlene Dietrick's nude dress (stopped weaving in France 10-12 years ago, Paramount now has possibly the largest stock anywhere).

The Betelgeusian Ambassadors in film:

1. Costumed in pale green-gold lame–Assistant Ambassador
2. Dark gold lame—Assistant Ambassador
3. Chief Ambassador—red, black, silver and gold brocade woven with leopards and falcons, with real gold and silver wrapped around silk thread.

Deltans

Hairless people from planet Delta-114. Graceful carriage, poised, proud somewhat aloof but with a keen sense of humor. A highly evolved race that became an advanced civilization long before humanity discovered fire and the wheel. Achieved Earth's technology 100 centuries ago, but then turned away from the materialism of technology toward the richer rewards of self-realization. Have learned to live each moment of life to its fullest. Unlike the Vulcans, they value and delight in emotion. A sensual race, their senses are far more sensitive than humans. Thus Ilia (and any other Deltans serving with Starfleet) must take an oath of celibacy prior to serving. Ilia makes an excellent navigator on Enterprise—highly evolved Deltan intelligence can handle the most complex spherical trigonometric complexities of space navigation as easily as a human learns simple multiplication tables.

Rhaandarites

From star system Rhanndaran. Simple, gregarious people. On home planet all dress alike, sort of bumpkins of outer space. Feel lost when away from it. Immensely strong but not very bright. Women are as big and strong as the men.

Long-lived. Look like normal human beings. Are like children, don't mature until 150 years old. Can grow to 8' or 9' with full height attained at about 200 years of age. Crew member on Bridge, played by Billy Van Zandt, is young, about 85. Little visual sexual difference. Women have spot on forehead, of aluminum and black resin.

Costume: Silver and black lame.
Necklace: Used for communication. All purpose jewelry with machinery built in, of resin, dark gray plastic.

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